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Florida golf resorts: Ranking the best of the best

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

Florida resorts offer some of the best golf vacation options in the world. Tim McDonald ranks the cream of the crop, led by Doral in Miami, the Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress in Orlando, the Innisbrook near Tampa, the Ritz-Carlton in Naples, and Amelia Island Plantation.

Doral Resort
Doral resort has that old-time Miami look and feel.
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Doral ResortCopperhead course at Westin Innisbrook ResortNew Course at The Grand Cypress Resort
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No matter where you enter Florida — via Interstate-10 in the west, I-75 in the north/central, I-95 in the northeast, or even if you wash up on shore in a rickety bath tub from Cuba — you will run into a golf course sooner or later, and probably sooner.

The state has only slightly fewer golf courses than palm trees — more than 1,200 at last count. That's more than any other state in the union, and more than most countries and some continents.

No way to play them all, at least in a normal human life span. That's why many snowbirds and traveling golfers opt for multi-course golf resorts. You park your car, check in, get all pampered-up and just go out and play golf.

Here is what TravelGolf.com considers the best of the Sunshine State's sunny golf resorts, in order:

No. 1: The Doral Golf Resort and Spa has a classic, Miami look, with palm trees swaying from the ocean breezes, under blue, cloudless skies. It seems to take up the entire town of Doral, spread out over 650 acres.

The spa is a big attraction here, but make no mistake, golf is the centerpiece. In fact, it's sometimes referred to as the Kingdom of Golf. Its five courses make it unique among South Florida golf resorts.

First, of course, is the Blue Monster. The Blue Monster at Doral is a tough golf course in and of itself, but maybe the toughest thing about it is the fact that so many try to play it like the pros. You may want to think about a fairway wood off the tee.

Then, there's the Greg Norman-designed Great White track. It's 7,171 yards long and is the only golf course in the Southeast to use crushed shells as its main design element. Norman put in demanding fairways with scattered palms and occasional, Scottish-style bunkers, with water in play on 14 holes.

The Gold course was designed by Raymond Floyd. The Red has water on 14 holes and the Silver features rolling fairways, raised tee boxes and an island green on the 14th.

No. 2: The Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress in Orlando is wall-to-wall Nicklaus. The New Course is an emulation of the Old Course at St. Andrews, Scotland, one of Nicklaus' favorites, with 12-foot pot bunkers, stone walls and a wide-open Scottish links feel.

The North, South and East nine-hole courses put more emphasis on accuracy over length. The original North-South 18 is target-style golf, with sharply ledged fairways, elevated greens, and tall, shaggy mounds. The East course is more wooded, but also more open, with less bunkering, especially in front of the greens. The three nines can be played in any combination.

No. 3: The Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club near Tampa is a luxury resort where you'll never have to start your car engine or carry your clubs; they'll whisk you and your clubs to the course and all you have to do is show up ready for the first hole.

The golf is excellent. Start with Copperhead, one of the top resort courses in the state. PGA pro Curtis Strange said, "I could play this course for the rest of my life and enjoy it — it has that much character."

The Copperhead is indeed one of the better golf courses in Florida, which is why the pros used to visit every fall for the Chrysler Championship. It isn't a typically flat, Florida course even though it's pretty far from the central highlands of the state, which also give you some atypical Florida highs and lows. Copperhead has up to 70 feet of elevation changes, and you might think for a fleeting instant you're in the Carolinas.

The Island course, with its glimpses of primordial, Southern swamps, is more scenic than Copperhead and many say it is as difficult — if not more so — than its more touted sister course.

The other two courses, Highlands North and South, are more typical resort courses, though no slouches either.

No. 4: There are two Ritz-Carltons in Naples, the one on the Gulf and, about three miles inland, the Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort, ranked the No. 1 golf resort in Florida by Conde Nast magazine.

The star of the show for golfers is the two courses at the golf resort, both designed by Greg Norman: The Black and the Gold.

Both courses wear their Ritz-Carlton badges well, with immaculate conditioning, beautifully-groomed fairways, greens and grounds and attentive service. They share a huge, luxury clubhouse you could spend most of the day in.

They share some other common traits and some important distinctions. Both are Greg Norman designs, and they both show his British influence, with stacked sod wall bunkers and fast, firm fairways. The grass is cut short at both courses, and you can putt from well off the green.

No. 5: The Amelia Island Plantation is probably the prettiest resort in Florida, set on the northeast coast, so that you get the ocean as well as the beautiful hardwood hammocks. The plantation has two golf courses available to resort guests, and the one you want to play depends on, well, what you want.

"We ask people if they're playing for the scenery or the challenge," Head Professional Gary Chambers said.

If you're looking for scenery, you're looking for the Ocean Links course. It's a great course for the golfer — be he or she, husband or wife — to drag around his non-golfing partner. Even the non-golfer will enjoy a stroll or cart-ride around the Ocean course, with its up-close-and-personal vistas of the wide Atlantic Ocean.

The Oak Marsh course, on the other hand, is much longer with your usual array of par 3s, 4s and 5s and a par of 72. No that it's too shabby to look at, with its views of the Intracoastal Waterway; five holes play along it.

Florida golf resorts: Best of the rest

No. 6: Yes, Walt Disney World is cheesy, but then again, there are 99 holes for the golfer in the family: three 18-hole golf courses, including the top-notch Osprey Ridge designed by Tom Fazio and Pete Dye's Eagle Pines. They're a little spread out, but Disney is always watching you, and they'll give you a free ride.

No. 7: The Marriott Sawgrass resort in Ponte Vedra offers five golf courses, including of course, one famous course, the Stadium, and another, the Valley, that some say is even better. They upgraded the Stadium this past summer, mainly to improve the irrigation, and added a new, 80,000 square-foot clubhouse. They also raised the level of the parking lot so no more long climbs to the clubhouse.

No. 8: The PGA National Resort and Spa in Palm Beach Gardens has five courses, by Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Tom and George Fazio and Karl Litten. The Champion is the new home of the Honda Classic, designed by the Fazios, with a re-design by Nicklaus in 1990. Nicklaus added the "Bear Trap" — Nos. 15, 16 and 17.

No. 9: The Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort in Destin is situated on 2,400 acres on beach and bay. It offers five courses: the Raven, designed by Robert Trent Jones. Jr; Burnt Pine, a Rees Jones work with views of the Choctawhatchee Bay; Baytowne, the most popular course at the resort and the Links course.

No. 10: The Ponte Vedra Inn and Club is an old-time Florida resort opened in 1928 on 300 acres of oceanfront. It has two courses, the Ocean and Lagoon. The Ocean in particular, has a charming feel to it. It is a beautiful course, mostly open with tall stands of palm trees swaying in the Atlantic winds. Most of the holes still run north and south, so the early and late sun, making the water dazzle with reflected sunlight, is seldom in your eyes.

No. 11: Mission Inn in Howey in the Hills is one of my personal favorites, though it only has two courses. I don't know about you, but whenever I'm in Orlando, I try to get out of Orlando. The Mission Inn Resort and Club is only about 35 minutes northwest of Orlando, but a world away in effect.

It's in Howey-in-the-Hills, a place as funky as its name, with rolling land and orange groves and a small-town friendliness.

Mission Inn is a family-owned, family-run resort with untraditional resort activities. They have skeet shooting, for example. But the thing I like best about it is the boats for rent: they have everything from small bass boats to pontoon boats to 26-foot cabin cruisers. You can put in here and get to the Atlantic Ocean.

It's got two nice golf courses, with one, El Campeon, being a very good, under-rated course.

Florida golf resorts: Honorable mention

World Golf Village
Palm coast Resort
The Breakers
Saddlebrook
PGA Village

Tim McDonaldTim McDonald, Contributor

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.


 
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