The Saddlebrook Course at Saddlebrook Resort

By Jay Mankus, Contributor

WESLEY CHAPEL, FL - When I first heard the name Saddlebrook Resort & Spa, I could not put a face or an image with this resort. However, when I read about the World headquarters of the Arnold Palmer Golf Academy, home to the Arnold Palmer signature course and site of world class tennis facilities featuring the Harry Hopman Tennis Program, I knew I was visiting a special place.

During last season's Super bowl in Tampa, Florida Hollywood stars such as Adam Sandler and Ray Morano from "Everybody Loves Raymond" as well as football lovers throughout the country came to Saddlebrook to play golf or just enjoy the resort facilities the week leading up to Super Bowl XXXV.

Besides professional athletes from the Tampa Bay Bucs, Devil Rays and Lightning, Saddlebrook resort is also a popular place for baseball players during spring training. Yankees such as Roger Clemens come here every year to play the Saddlebrook & Palmer Courses. Even LPGA Hall of Famer Pat Bradley loves to take time off of her busy LPGA schedule to play and practice at Saddlebrook.

While Saddlebrook Resort has two 18 hole championship golf courses, there is only one golf shop located in the center of Saddlebrook Resort. After leaving your vehicle with a valet at the front lobby, a cart will take you around an elegant mall area filled with shops, gardens, and restaurants. The focal point of this outdoor mall area is a superpool, an expansive pool area which begins just outside the spa entrance and ends at the Poolside Cafe.

While the Poolside Cafe is convenient for those who swim or lounge around at the pool all day, this cafe also serves as the halfway house for golfers making the turn on the Saddlebrook Course. Players can quench their thirst with a cold beverage, enjoy a club sandwich or select from several candy bars and bags of chips. Golfers can also choose a hot meal from the cafe's menu before or after their round.

Beyond this cafe, there is a diverse golf shop designed to suit the needs of every visitor. Guests can select from a wide variety of merchandise for men, women and children. Brand names include Bobby Jones, Joey Rodolfo, Cutter & Buck, Antigua, Polo, Nicklaus, and the Greg Norman Collection.

Meanwhile, there are several types of gloves, balls and clubs for those golf academy students looking for an extra advantage. Hats, visors and towels are also helpful items to protect yourself from the hot Florida sun.

After attending the golf academy's morning sessions or just staring at the scorecard on the putting green next to the first tee, you might notice how Saddlebrook's two nines come together and meet in front of the pool area. The Saddlebrook front nine runs along the Palmer Course while the back nine is situated on the west side of the superpool area.

Unfortunately, the Saddlebrook Course can be overlooked since it does not have the name recognition of the Palmer Course. In fact, if I was attending the Arnold Palmer Golf Academy for the first time, I would want to play the Palmer Course simply because of Arnold's name.

Although, after one round on each course, the Saddlebrook Course is more like your prototypical aesthetically pleasing resort course than the Palmer course. Since the Palmer Course is more like a links course, the character of each hole at the tree lined Saddlebrook course stands out brightly.

The theme of the Saddlebrook Course is preserving wilderness. Brooks, ponds and marshlands are protected by tall cyprus, palms and pines. Spanish moss hang from cyprus like garland and tinsel on Christmas trees.

This environment creates a perfect place for wildlife to prosper. While I did not see any alligators, there were several different species of birds throughout the Saddlebrook Course. Birds have cooperated with Arnold's Golf Academy to test your concentration level. Throughout my round, a chorus of birds often filled the tree-lined fairways with an harmonic symphony. Well, at least the music was pleasant!

Except for the 7th and 8th holes, a preview of the open Palmer Course, every hole at Saddlebrook is enclosed by either a forest, a select grove of trees or tropical vegetation. Depending upon the hole, a combination of trees, water, wind and sand make the Saddlebrook Course, in my opinion, the most challenging course at Saddlebrook Resort.

Not only is Saddlebrook challenging, these tree-lined fairways provide a spectacular definition for Saddlebrook's layout. Despite the ongoing Florida drought, this shade filled course has maintained its aesthetic appeal, from tee to green. Beside shade, the Saddlebrook course was built along low lying areas of this resort which has allowed the water levels to remain near normal.

At a meek 4,941 yards from the red tees, 6,127 from the white and 6,564 from the tips, Saddlebrook’s length is a player friendly par 70 layout. However, the trees, water and gusts of wind that periodically sneak through and above these trees will leave some players heading back into the golf shop between nines for more golf balls. In fact, this may be why many golf academy students chose to play the Palmer Course over Saddlebrook.

If you can keep your tee shots in the fairway on the Saddlebrook Course, beside being more enjoyable, you will be left with short irons into many holes. With only one par 4 over 400 yards from the white tees, a golfer who does not feel comfortable with a driver, can still reach par 4s in two with long irons or 3 metals off the tee.

Among these short holes, each nine at the Saddlebrook Course has a great stretch of holes that will challenge any player's ability. On the front, holes 3-5 are scenic and tight. Meanwhile, the back nine has 3 finishing holes that any course would love to call their own.

The 170 yard, par 3 3rd hole is one of Saddlebrook's signature holes. The picture of this par 3 is featured on Saddlebrook's scorecard cover. Surrounded by water on 3 sides, players must carry the water on the left, yet pay attention to any cross winds that might stir up.

Since the 3rd green slopes toward this pond, missing the green to the right is no picnic. A lone sand bunker on the right protects balls that might roll down towards a marshland behind and to the right of the 3rd green. Three is simply a demanding golf hole with a scenic backdrop.

After playing the 555 yard, par 5 4th hole, I was glad there is only one other par 5 on this course. Water comes into play down the right side on your first, second and third shots. While the drive is intimidating enough with water along the entire right side and a forest of cyprus on your left, laying up is even more difficult. Trees along the left rough overhang the fairway, forcing players to hit low punch lay-up shots or aim down the right side of the fairway, toward the water. This slight dogleg to the left is rated the #2 handicap hole on the Saddlebrook Course, yet for many it will be the hardest hole on the course.

The final hole of this stretch, the 414 yard, par 4 5th, is all about trusting your swing. Tall cyprus form a wall of trees that protect this narrow fairway. The good news is that the fairway opens up near the green. The bad news is that the cyprus trees lie in marshlands. Accuracy here is the key to surviving this hole without losing a ball.

Others holes on the front nine which could be considered signature holes are the short but tricky 340 yard, par 4 6th and the treacherous 406 yard, par 4 9th hole.

On the back nine, the final stretch of holes begins with an unique trait, a green surrounded by a half vortex of cyprus covered in spanish moss. The 345 yard, par 4 15th is a ho-hum hole until you reach the green. In all my years of playing golf, I have never quite seen a site so strange, yet imaginative. If the backdrop on the 15th green is suppose to break your concentration, it did. I three putted for bogey.

After exiting this green, players pass a palm garden before reaching the 16th Tee, or should I say, the 16th forest. Fortunately, this fairway opens up mid way through this 407 yard, par 4 hole. An elevated green sits above a pond that surrounds it on three sides. This pond creates a natural dogleg to the right, coming into play off the tee with drives hit down the right side. A long narrow green makes 16 as tough as any hole at Saddlebrook.

The 205 yard 17th hole is the fourth of four great pars at Saddlebrook. Other courses like the TPC at Sawgrass may have more famous pars, but it is hard to find a course with such strong pars. Water makes #3, distance makes #8, trees make #12 and a cross wind makes #17. The relatively open hole on #17 has water placed behind the green to catch those long iron shots which are hit a little too good. Five bunkers drape the left and right sides, while players can run balls up onto this green since it is open in front.

Like a great fireworks show, the grand finale at Saddlebrook does not disappoint. The 18th hole at Saddlebrook is the hardest, one of the most picturesque and has a restaurant, Terrance On The Green, situated just to the right of the 18th green.

This 425 yard par 4 requires an accurate tee shot, one that slices just enough to stay in this fairway that doglegs to the right. Players are then faced with an uphill shot, over water, to an elevated green. If you try to bail out to the left, a large bunker will leave an interesting shot back towards the water.

Whatever your score is after this hole, sit back, relax and enjoy the sites of #18 while you dine at the Terrace on the Green. After my score of 6, you might be comforted to see that you are not the only one who had trouble on this awesome finishing hole. Bon appetite!

Come see why Travel & Golf Magazine recently rated Saddlebrook among the top 5 public golf facilities of greater Tampa Bay. For the latest information on the Arnold Palmer Golf Academy or golf, spa, couples and seasonal packages, call 1-800-729-8383 or visit

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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