During February and March, The Sunshine State becomes the center of the golf universe with six professional tournaments. This networking opportunity also allows us a chance to create our own Florida fairway experiences.
By Edward Schmidt Jr.
If you’re a Tour pro it’s difficult to pass up the sunny, temperate climate, easy air accessibility and phenomenal menu of more than 1,400 golf courses in Florida. For the rest of us, it’s simply golf’s Mecca.
Not surprisingly, more touring pros from the PGA Tour and Champions Tour live in Florida than any other single destination in the world. In February and March alone, the pros tee it up at six different tournaments around the Sunshine State, a portion of the schedule commonly called “The Florida Swing.”
Florida Swing Schedule
•February 12-14, The ACE Group Classic, The Quarry, Naples
•February 19-21, Allianz Championship, Old Course at Broken Sound, Boca Raton
•March 4-7, Honda Classic, PGA National Resort, Palm Beach Gardens
•March 11-14, World Golf Championships-CA Championship, Doral Golf Resort & Spa, Miami
•March 18-21, Transitions Championship, Innisbrook Resort, Palm Harbor
•March 25-28, Arnold Palmer Invitational Presented by MasterCard, Bay Hill Club & Lodge, Orlando
To create your own version of the Florida Swing, here are some play selections encompassing well-known Tour courses, a few hidden gems and ultimate private golf experiences:
Arnold Palmer is one of Florida’s most celebrated part-time residents. His Bay Hill course, nestled in a splendidly landscaped residential community in southwest Orlando, is one of Florida’s best. For those who remember, Palmer in his prime was one of the modern era’s most daring and aggressive players. The course reflects Palmer’s go-for-broke approach to the game. Sweeping along the shores of the Butler Chain of Lakes, the course is long and tight. The toughest par-4 holes play into a prevailing north wind, encouraging the hard, low tee shot that is Palmer’s trademark. A private club with limited access, the course is accessible to guests who stay at the on-site 70-room lodge.
Across the state, 10 miles north of Clearwater, Innisbrook’s Copperhead course, with its narrow, pine-tree lined fairways, steep elevation drops and pool table fast greens is more remindful of the North Carolina Sandhills than Florida dunes.
In Miami, the Blue Monster at Doral Golf Resort & Spa beckons those looking for an 18-hole ultimate skills challenge culminating with a hole that’s generally regarded as one of the most difficult finishing holes on the PGA Tour. With water on the left side from tee to green and a prevailing wind blowing across the fairway, the 18th will humble all comers.
The Caddie Experience
Would you prefer to play with a caddie today, sir? If the answer is yes, you’re in luck because the Sunshine State has two excellent resort options with caddie programs.
In Orlando, Ritz-Carlton Orlando at Grande Lakes has a Caddie Concierge program with trained, professional, service-first forecaddies that make a round enjoyable for all skill levels. During the winter months, every caddie wears a white jumpsuit reminiscent of those worn at Augusta National Golf Club. The superbly maintained Greg Norman designed Ritz-Carlton course is challenging for long ballers like him, but with generously wide landing areas for golfers who play infrequently.
The TPC Sawgrass course in Ponte Vedra Beach near Jacksonville, home to The Players, offers a full-service caddie program as well as the Tour Player Experience, which allows everyday golfers the chance to live like a PGA TOUR professional for a day. Guests have a personal caddie, VIP players and member locker room privileges, a reserved practice area with a personalized nameplate, lunch in a VIP dining area typically exclusive to the players and numerous other amenities. If you want to play back where the pros hit, the course stretches to 7,215 yards and you’ll have to navigate everything from sinewy fairways with microscopic target areas, mammoth waste bunkers, railroad tie barriers, grassy mounds and knolls, subtle undulations and lightening fast greens.
For frequent visitors seeking to expand their Florida golf horizons or those who will travel anywhere, anytime to play a great golf course, play these three:
World Woods Golf Club, situated just outside Brooksville, a tiny hamlet approximately a 90-minute drive north of Tampa, is a sprawling, 2,100-acre complex encompassing two championship, Tom Fazio-designed courses (Pine Barrens and Rolling Oaks) and a 23-acre circular practice range. If you only have time to play one, the Pine Barrens layout is Florida’s answer to Pine Valley in New Jersey. Pine Barrens is sculpted from an expansive pine forest with dramatic changes in elevation and wide fairways, many of which are framed by large, untamed waste bunkers.
Camp Creek and Shark’s Tooth Golf Club, in Panama City Beach in the panhandle, offer golf in pristine northwest Florida settings. Camp Creek, designed by Tom Fazio, with nary a beach cottage or high-rise condo in sight, incorporates dunes, pine forests and cypress-filled wetlands providing a golf experience dripping with privacy and exclusivity. Five miles away the Greg Norman designed Shark’s Tooth Golf Club, the centerpiece of the Wild Heron community, winds around Lake Powell with acres of preserved wetlands and fairways lined with tall pines and majestic live oaks. Guests at the classy WaterColor Inn, a 60-room boutique hotel in the nearby coastal village of WaterColor, are afforded play privileges at both courses. An added enticement is the hotel’s Fish Out of Water, a AAA Four Diamond rated fine dining restaurant.
Florida has an enviable list of world-class private golf clubs, as well. To play a private club, you typically have to be a guest of a member or arrange a reciprocal play privilege agreement through the club professional at your club. Among the state’s must plays are Seminole Golf Club, a legendary, magnificent Donald Ross design in North Palm Beach; Lake Nona, a Tom Fazio design and home course to Annika Sorrenstam and Ernie Els in Orlando; Isleworth, where Tiger Woods, Paula Creamer and other tour pros reside in Windermere; Calusa Pines in Naples, a lush, verdant Michael Hurdzan/Dana Fry design and Jupiter Hills Club in Tequesta, with 18-hole championship George Fazio designed layouts woven through forests of pine, oak and palmetto.
If you’re looking for the ultimate, secluded, luxury villa as far away from the Caribbean tourist hordes as you can get, Falcon’s Nest was designed for you. After three luxurious days of pampering, I’m firmly convinced; it was definitely designed for me.