It doesn’t matter if you are just starting out or a seasoned veteran of the game, Florida has something for every golfing fan.
By Grant Fraser
Most Canadians make their annual golf pilgrimage to Florida shortly after the pins have been pulled and the turf equipment stored away for the winter. Usually this mass exodus happens between December and March when thousands of snowbirds flee our cold climate in desperate search of warmer temperatures. With over 1,200 courses to choose from, it is no wonder you’ll often see a Florida license plate bordered with the phrase “World’s Golf Capital” as you travel along Interstates 75 or 95.
Getting to Florida has never been easier. With regular direct flights from Montreal and Toronto you can be on the first tee or lying under a Florida beach umbrella in less than three hours – the same length of time it would take to drive north to cottage country on a long weekend.
For a group of any size, Florida features many outstanding and affordable stay and play golf destinations. Here are several of my favourites that provide the perfect getaway for a passionate group of golfers looking to play from sun up to sun down.
Starting on the east coast in Ponte Vedre, most avid golfers would agree that the kingpin of the area is one of the game’s most preeminent addresses – TPC Sawgrass. Built in 1982, TPC Sawgrass is the brainchild of former PGA TOUR commissioner Deane Beman, who paid one dollar ($1) to transform over 400 acres of gator-infested swampland into one of golf’s most feared and revered designs. During the first week of May, TPC Sawgrass becomes the most famous eighteen holes in golf when the world’s best golfers convene to contest the PLAYERS Championship on Pete Dye’s diabolical Stadium Course.
South of TPC Sawgrass along Florida’s Historic Coast is St. Augustine’s World Golf Village and the World Golf Hall of Fame and Museum. More than 4,000 golf artifacts, old and new, are on display tastefully showcasing the history and traditions of the game. Be sure to check out the Member Locker Room where the likes of Nicklaus, Palmer, Player, Watson and Mickelson (just to name a few) have each left mementos behind in their own personalized locker for fans to see and appreciate.
There are two “official” golf courses at the World Golf Hall of Fame; the King & Bear and Slammer and Squire. The former is the only golf course in the world designed in collaboration between the game’s two greatest players – Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. The latter was designed by architect Bobby Weed along with golf legends Sam Snead (the Slammer) and Gene Sarazen (the Squire). Both are certainly worth playing and were recently listed among Golf Digest’s Top 75 Golf Courses in Florida.
On the west side of the state along Florida’s Gold and Treasure Coasts, there are too many exceptional golf courses to mention. Among the best however, is the famous Innisbrook Golf Resort. Located in Palm Harbor, 40 minutes from Tampa, Innisbrook features 620 guest accommodations, four championship golf courses, 11 clay tennis courts, six swimming pools, a fitness centre, and a children’s recreation centre. For hard core golfers looking to emulate their PGA idols, a must-play is the 7,209-yard Copperhead Course, home of the PGA Tour’s Valspar Championship. The 7,194-yard Island Course is also a must-play and, after its recent renovation, may now be more challenging than its famous cousin. Two other golf courses, the North and the South Course, and the Innisbrook Golf Institute, can also be found on the resort’s 900 manicured acres. In addition to being one of Golf Digest’s “Top 75 Golf Resorts in America”, Innisbrook also offers fine dining at any one of their five restaurants, including Packard’s Steakhouse, appropriately named after golf course designer Larry Packard who designed all four of Innisbrook’s championship courses.
The undisputed hotbed of Florida golf can be found in the heart of the state – in and around Orlando. Renowned for its world famous theme parks, the Orlando area is home to more golf courses and PGA Tour professionals than anywhere else in the U.S. There are hundreds of golf courses to choose from but none finer than the three championship courses at Reunion Resort.
Owned and operated by the Salamander Group, Reunion is more than a resort, it is a golf community. The focal point of the 2,300 acre property is Reunion Grande, an eleven-storey luxury hotel and conference centre designed with every modern day amenity in mind. Three exceptional golf courses encompass the property designed by none other than the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson; the only golf destination in the world that features signature golf courses from the game’s three greatest players.
Down the road from Reunion is another outstanding golf development called Champion’s Gate. Designed by Greg Norman, Champion’s Gate features two, 18-hole golf courses – the 7,363-yard International Course and the 7,197-yard National Course. Situated on over 1,000 acres, the development abuts the neighbouring Omni Orlando Resort and is home to the David Leadbetter Golf Academy.
No trip to Florida would be complete without visiting Walt Disney World. With its theme parks, dining, shopping and 81 holes of golf, Walt Disney World has something for everyone. Of the four 18-hole golf courses at Disney, the two best are the 7,011-yard Palm Course and the 7,516-yard Magnolia Course. Both courses have hosted numerous PGA Tour events and entertained many of the world’s best golfers including Jack Nicklaus, who won the first three tournaments hosted by Disney, and Tiger Woods who concluded his rookie season with a win here in 1996.
If you enjoy playing where the pros play, then Orange County National (OCN) should also be part of your Florida golf itinerary. Located 30 minutes from Orlando, two championship golf courses comprise the Orange County experience. Both the 7,493-yard Crooked Cat and the 7,350-yard Panther Lake are equally impressive and have served as PGA Tour Qualifying School venues since 2001. In addition to the golf courses, OCN is also home to the largest practice facility in the world and the Core Golf Academy.
Inventors Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, widely considered two of the most intelligent men in American history, both spent their winters in Florida. These two American business legends knew a great thing when they saw one. That’s why leaving the snow and cold of the north for the palm trees, tropical breezes, and sandy beaches made perfect sense to them. Not much has changed today. The only difference is that it’s much easier to visit now than it was back then and there are a lot more golf courses to play. That being said, what are you waiting for? Within three hours you could be standing on the first tee enjoying a round of golf in the undisputed golf capital of the world.
GETTING THERE: Air Canada and WestJet offer regular non-stop flights from Hamilton, Toronto and Montreal to Tampa and Orlando. For more information visit www.aircanada.com or www.westjet.com
Visit Florida: www.visitflorida.com