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Copperhead golf course at Innisbrook Resort near Tampa: Roll with the PGA Tour pros

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

The Copperhead is one of four superb golf courses at the Tampa area's Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club, site of an annual PGA Tour stop.

Copperhead Golf Course at Innisbrook Resort
The Copperhead Course is one of the most scenic golf courses in Florida, with plenty of water and uncharacteristic elevation changes.
Copperhead Golf Course at Innisbrook ResortCopperhead Golf Course - Difficult Course

PALM HARBOR, Fla. - It starts right off the bat, at No. 1. With the dew still heavy on the grass, you look downhill from the tee box and see all those elegant but treacherous bunkers in the fairway: left, right, short and long.

Your first thought: What would the pros do?

This, after all, is the Copperhead Course at the Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club, a design several PGA Tour players have raved about.

"Copperhead is the best course we play on tour," 2008 Ryder Cup Captain Paul Azinger told the media.

So it's an intriguing option to see this course the way the pros see it. Watching it on television is one thing, playing it like they do is something else.

Back to No. 1: "Most of them use three-wood," said Doug Schmidt, the director of marketing at the resort who said he's seen the pros attack the course six times and played it at least 100 times. This wise counsel came a tad too late, after I had hit driver into the left bunker.

Playing Copperhead, the best of four superb courses at the resort, is a treat under any circumstances. Playing it the way the pros do, minus the talent, enhances the experience.

"You can get an appreciation of what they face in their approaches by playing the green, or even the white, tees," Schmidt said.

No. 2 is a sharp dogleg left. You can either play safe to the center/right or bomb it over the trees that guard the dogleg. Even if you play it safe, you still have the lake to contend with. The closer you get to the water, the better route you'll have to the green.

The pros let the weather dictate what they do here. With a helping wind, many bomb it over the trees with driver. With the wind a hindrance, which it is almost every day when it kicks up from the nearby Gulf of Mexico, it's back to the safety of the three-wood.

Even Tiger Woods said this isn't a course you can overpower. Whaling away with the driver here doesn't do you much good if your tee ball lands deep in the woods with no chance of recovery.

Even though Copperhead is 7,340 yards from the back tees, distance isn't its biggest test.

"To me, it's a thinking man's course," Schmidt said. "That's why Jeff Sluman can shoot a 62."

How did the light-hitting Sluman do it?

"I was unconscious when I started and I never woke up the whole round," Sluman told reporters.

In fact, Copperhead was one of the toughest tests on tour this past year, harder even than Augusta National, Pebble Beach or Torrey Pines South, according to PGA Tour statistics.

Copperhead Course at the Innisbrook Resort: The verdict

Copperhead is a golf course of angles and slopes, elevation and execution, risk and reward. The Larry Packard design lies atop the Ocala Sand Ridge, a geological formation that extends across the state to Ocala and terminates in the north in Jacksonville. That elevation can make a two or three-club difference.

Almost every hole has some sort of risk/reward, even if it's not always initially obvious. You have to stay focused the entire round, if not necessarily unconscious. Play wily and stay below the hole.

Of course, even if you're trying to see the layout the way the pros do, you're not playing the same course as they do during the actual tournament. For the pros, officials grow the rough to 4 and a quarter inches and have the tour-quality greens rolling between 11 and 12 on the stimpmeter.

Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club

Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club is one of the premier Florida golf resorts, and the country for that matter. You turn off busy Highway 19 and enter a world of peace and plenty on 900 wooded acres and 70 acres of lakes less than a half hour from Tampa International Airport. Park your car, pack your keys and let the golf tram shuttle you to the golf courses.

This fall is a good time to visit. The resort is offering a fall special - a three night, all-inclusive golf package - and throwing in two free rounds through January 14 of next year.

It costs $269 a person, per night, and includes five rounds with cart and three nights in a suite with a full kitchen and private balcony or patio. It also includes a daily breakfast, a daily clinic and use of the practice facilities. Groups of nine get their own golf concierge.

The big news down here is the new title sponsor. Transitions Optical Inc. recently signed a four-year deal for a title sponsorship. That ensures the PGA Tour will stop by here for at least the next four years.

The resort, as of this date, is completing the final stages of a $25 million restoration and rejuvenation plan. The resort was bought by Salamander Hospitality last year with a promise to return it to its glory days, not that it ever fell into disrepair.

The first thing the new owners did was revitalize Innisbrook's Island course and re-do all three clubhouses.

The plan is to open a new 12,000-square-foot spa and 4,000-square-foot fitness center overlooking the Copperhead Course before the Super Bowl next year. The spa will have 12 treatment rooms, as well as a hair and nail salon. It will also have an outdoor area with whirlpool, cabanas and outdoor treatment areas.

The resort is also creating a centralized "gathering village" - sounds vaguely tribal - where registration, golf shops and a gourmet market are centrally located. Not to mention a central place for everyone to drink beer and watch the game.

Here's the part I like: The Highlands Clubhouse renovation, which is almost finished, will have retractable walls for outdoor seating around fire pits.

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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