The Palmer Course at Saddlebrook Resort & Spa

By Jay Mankus, Contributor

TAMPA BAY, FL - After playing the tight Saddlebrook Course, one of two 18 hole championship courses at Saddlebrook Resort & Spa, my eyes were delighted to see Palmer's wide open layout. Fairways are guarded by several yards of rough, unlike the tall cyprus decorated with spanish moss that hug the fairways of the Saddlebrook Course. I got the sense that Arnold wanted hookers like me to feel at home on his course!

While trees are not a problem for the most part on the Palmer Course, finding shade and selecting the right club in steady wind conditions will be a chore all day long. This Arnold Palmer Signature Course features scenic waterways, generous fairways, elevated greens with severe slopes and wind on demand!

While not a true links course, Arnold has created a shot makers armoire. With ample room from these tees to play the shot of your liking: fades, draws or straight drives, guests will also face a variety of shots into each green. Greens guarded by mounds, sand, wetlands, railroad ties, ponds and various elevation changes will force golfers to hit different pitches, punch, or flop shots into these targets. The wind direction, like a links course, will ultimately decide what kind of shot you play.

As you make your way to the first tee by cart, the visual aesthetics of the Palmer Course begin with an exotic tropical garden that encloses the putting green area. Above this garden is the elevated first tee which overlooks the fountains of Saddlebrook's front lobby as you look back toward the resort.

To the right of the first tee, scenic grasslands stretch for miles, swaying back and forth in the blustery Florida winds. While you can not see Tampa from this tee looking due south, Saddlebrook Resort is located 30 miles north of Tampa International Airport, 1 mile east of I-275 on SR 54.

One of the top reasons golfers travel to Saddlebrook Resort & Spa is to attend the Arnold Palmer Golf Academy, home to the world headquarters of Arnold's golf school. Students of the game of golf seeking council, instruction or advice come to this academy each year to become better players or simply learn how to get started.

The golf academy features 2, 3, and 5 day sessions. These sessions include instruction on the short game, full swing, course management and a video session to help improve your golf swing.

Students interact with professionals hand picked by Arnold in a four student to one teacher ratio. Beside personal attention, players can implement what they learn each morning in an afternoon round. Sessions run from 8 am - 12 noon followed by lunch. Lunch along with this 18 hole round is included in your total cost of these golf academy sessions.

The success of Arnold's Golf Academy has resulted in the development of a high school prep academy at Saddlebrook Resort. This high school is fully accredited and attempts to provide an atmosphere where young gifted golfers can become solid amateurs with aspirations of becoming tour professionals. The idea behind this prep school is similar to golf schools in Australia which have produced recent phenoms like Adam Scott and Aaron Baddaley.

After talking to my playing companions before our round, I found out they were fresh out of the golf academy's short game session. As I learned about the basics of distance control and consistency which they were taught, I began to see how well the Palmer Course compliments what this father and son were trying to apply.

Large undulating greens with various elevations, diverse sizes and depths of sand and generous landing areas off the tee, enable these students to focus on their short game. Although there are a few intimidating tee shots on the Palmer Course, it is nothing like the tee shots players face on the tight Saddlebrook Course. As my round progressed, I began to see the variety of options Arnold gives each player around the greens.

Whether you are working on pitching shots into the wind, hitting bump and runs across a long green, lob shots to an elevated pin, or playing sand shots from several different distances, the Palmer Course is the perfect place to get your short game into shape. The only draw back to this course is that some of the shots you will face such as hitting from steep bunkers, chipping from downhill side hill lies or putting from 50 feet uphill into the grain, can demoralize a player's confidence.

However, mother nature has given players on the Palmer course a break with low water levels. As the drought in Florida continues for another season, the water hazards that line 17 of 18 holes on the Palmer Course have lost some of its bite! Golfers will breath a sigh of relief as golf balls that would usually be in the water are findable and often hitable. The water levels are fairly normal throughout the front nine, but that changes on the back.

These conditions are most obvious on a seven hole stretch starting on the 8th hole. Between the Florida trade winds, a lack of rainfall and the combination of sun without much shade, several ponds on the back nine have lost thousands of gallons of water. While the course looks great considering the drought, rain showers over the past few weeks will replenish water tables back to where they need to be.

One of my favorite traits on this Arnold Palmer signature design is the amount of room you have off the tee. Players can miss the center of the fairway by 20 yards, left or right and still be in play. For example, I hit several hooks that would have been in the trees, water or backyards of most Florida courses, but at the Palmer course, most of my bad shots were playable.

Holes 4-7, which run adjacent to the front nine of the Saddlebrook Course, were not as forgiving. These four tight holes contain two of the easier and harder holes on the Palmer course, according to the handicap on the scorecard. However, if you include the 445 yard, par 4 third hole, rated the #1 handicap hole, this is the toughest stretch of holes on the Palmer course.

Sheer length, water and a green that features a mountainous slope make the 3rd hole the first of three signature holes on the front nine.

The 560 yard, par 5 4th hole is the only badly designed hole at Saddlebrook Resort. Players have to lay-up with an iron off the tee or else you will drive through the fairway into a hazard. This par 5 doglegs 75 degrees to the left, where a creek which runs through the fairway forcing players to hit an iron off the tee. At this bend, players face a shot of 250 yards, uphill to a green surrounded by a wall of trees.

The 383 yard, par 4 5th hole, may be the toughest hole on this course. A narrow fairway is guarded by trees on either side with water to the right. As this hole opens up near the green, railroad ties stare players in the face as they attempt to land on dry ground. The visual effects from the fairway looking over this water to the green, make the 5th one of Arnold's signature holes.

Just when you thought a hole could not get tighter, the 355 yard, par 4 6th makes you wish for open spaces. If you can keep it between the pines, #6 is easy. If not, #7 will give you one final shot at a tight hole. This 156 yard par 3 is the feature hole on the Palmer scorecard. As long as the pin is not in the back right portion of this green, #7 is an elegant little par 3.

Since there are fewer trees to block out the wind on the Palmer course, golfers will get a taste of what it is like to play into two or three club winds. Down wind is a blast and cross winds can be fun depending what kind of shot you play, but playing into the Florida winds will bring humility. Enjoy the 300 yard drives when you can, just don't tell anyone about the ones that do not roll over 200 yards into the wind.

The back nine on the Palmer course is usually hilly for the state of Florida. In fact, holes 10-14, the driest section of the course, contain the greatest changes in elevation at Saddlebrook Resort. The most scenic hole on this portion of the course is the 161 yard par 3 13th hole.

This may be the most famous hole at the Saddlebrook Resort. An aerial picture of #13 hangs near the ceiling of the golf shop, highlighted by an eight foot wall made of railroad ties that protect this green from water on three sides. From an elevated tee, players face the second most intimidating shot on the Palmer course.

What is the most intimidating tee shot? Well, if #16 plays into the wind like it did the day I played, golfers will be praying to clear the water off the tee. At 347 yards from the tips, players have to carry their tee shot 200 yards if they hit it straight. From the white tee, a drive must carry 170 yards. Players can bail out left, but large rolling mounds and trees guard the left hand rough.

Meanwhile, the ladies catch a break, but just one. The ladies only need to carry their tee shots 125 yards, but their tee is placed between two ponds. Therefore, any shot to the right or short of 125 yards is wet! By the way, these ponds are full of water for your playing convenience.

Arnold takes it easy on you early, but a hole like #16 is a great test for golf academy students working on their full swing. For a resort course with water on 17 holes, Arnold has done an excellent job of keeping the Palmer course fair, yet challenging.

When you visit Saddlebrook, if you like to play fast, play early. Since there are several golf academy students playing each afternoon, the pace of play is obviously much slower than the morning round. However, if you do choose to play 36 holes each day on either the Palmer or Saddlebrook Course, be patient with those students who are learning to master this game.

Come play where Arnold and his friends are building the foundations for golfers of the next generation!

Jay Mankus, Contributor

A former golf standout at Concord High School in Wilmington, Del., Jay Mankus graduated from the University of Delaware with a degree in Recreation & Parks Administration. Before graduating, Jay spent time as an intern at a golf club in the east suburbs of Cleveland specializing in golf course maintenance and design.

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