OK, maybe I do have an ulterior motive: I’d like to play more golf with my Chicago friends during the cold weather months. That would be possible if more of you would just head to Florida.
The Sunshine State is officially my residence now, though I’ll again be on hand for the heart of the Chicago golf season in a few months. Believe me, though, Florida is the place to be if you want to get a golf fix before the snow melts. I did that for years as a snow-bird. Now I’m the recruiter for Florida golf instead of being the recruited one.
Just to be prepared for my new duties as your trusted golf scout I made five road trips to various parts of Florida after settling in in early September. I liked what I saw – a lot!
Topping the list was a visit to Streamsong, which is near Lakeland. It’s been well-received since its opening in 2013, but this year is different than last in that the Black Course is now available for play. That means you can play 54 holes now, all on fine courses. I consider the Red Course my favorite but none really stands head-and-shoulders above the others. You’ll want to play them all.
Streamsong is on the pricey side, but you won’t likely leave the premises once your stay begins. The golf is exceptional, the chance to play it walking is an extreme rarity in Florida, caddies are available as are push carts (they’re called rickshaws at Streamsong) and the dining and other off-course options in the big lodge will satisfy anybody’s taste.
Next up should be Daytona Beach – a community where its golf courses don’t get the attention they deserve. Admittedly visitors go to Daytona first for its beaches and then for its auto races. Still, the golf is pretty good – especially if you’re adventurous enough to hit the nearby towns of New Smyrna Beach and DeLand.
Within Daytona proper the main option is LPGA International, with its two 18-holers. Neighboring towns, though, can supplement your options. Best of those is Sugar Mill Country Club, in New Smyrna Beach. It’s a 27-hole private facility, but I’m told tee times for the public are available – though limited. Trying to get on this layout is well worth the effort. Sugar Mill is one of the best courses in Florida, and that’s saying a lot. Florida has over 1,300, more than any other state.
DeLand has another memorable layout in Victoria Hills. Few courses anywhere can match its 104 ferocious, big, deep bunkers. You might not like them, but you won’t forget them.
Next up is PGA Golf Club, a place close to my heart since I live within walking distance of three of its courses. The designated winter home of the PGA of America’s 29,000 members, PGA Golf Club has been on a steady upswing the last five years. In December its Ryder Course was re-opened following a renovation. That completed a cycle that include its Wanamaker and Dye courses undergoing such work previously.
The renovations all turned out well, but the evolution of the facility continues. More improvements — probably to the already decent practice facility next — will be made following the sale of the off=the-property St. Lucie Trail course and the spacious PGA Learning Center.
Innisbrook Resort, in Palm Harbor near Tampa, has long been one of my favorite destinations. While its famed Copperhead Course gets the most attention – it hosts the PGA Tour’s Valspar Championship in March – the North Course was re-opened this fall after undergoing a renovation. It’s more popularly referred to as Little Copperhead.
Another tried and true stop is World Golf Village, in St. Augustine. It has two courses, one of which – The King & The Bear – is the only layout jointly designed by Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. World Golf Village also offers two other great attractions – the World Golf Hall of Fame and the Caddie Shack Restaurant.
Orlando has its Disney World, Sea World and Universal Studios to bring in tourists. It also has Bay Hill, the long-time home of the legendary Palmer who passed away barely a year ago. His memory lives on at Bay Hill.
The first course that Palmer played as a professional back in the 1950s was Miami Springs Country Club. Located just a couple miles from the famed Trump Doral Resort, Miami Springs went public long ago and is part of the Florida Historic Golf Trail. Mixing in course on the Trail is a relatively inexpensive option that will appeal to visiting golfers who have an interest in the roots of the game.
Finally, I’ve uncovered new destinations in an unlikely location that might suit those adventurous ones who are looking for something different. The Florida Panhandle isn’t known for its golf but the game is played in a few spots in this area that is roughly 60 miles from the Alabama and Georgia lines.
Panama City is a hopping place in the Panhandle, and its Bay Point facility has two 18-hole courses. One has a checkered past. When it went by the name of Lagoon Legends it was said to be the most difficult course in Florida if not the entire country. Jack Nicklaus, of all people, was brought in to “soften’’ the course and he did it so well that the layout is now called the Nicklaus Course.
The town of Carrabelle is a two-hour drive from Bay Point, and it’s not nearly as hopping a place as Panama City. Carrabelle, though, is a mecca for fishermen in search of tarpon. If they want to enjoy a diversionary round of golf there is one course in the town – St. James Bay. It was purchased last year by a Chicago investment group.
No matter where you go in Florida you’ll find a golf course that fits your needs as well as your price point. If you come for a visit you might turn out like me – a happily transplanted Floridian.