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Southern Exposure America's southernmost golf course

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

Live from the 19th hole at the Key West Golf Club in Key West, Fla.:

Nibbling on sponge cake, watching my putt break. Another birdie opportunity foiled. Reload on the next tee. To hell with the green fee. Forever in this game I choose to toil! Wasted away again in double bogeyville.

We here at TGG headquarters couldn't help but notice it is still cold as Stuart Appleby on the back nine at Bay Hill throughout much of the Midwest and Northeast. Sorry to hear that (and very sorry for Stu, a TGG favorite). Better days are ahead. To get you through the next few weeks, we are reporting live from the southernmost golf course in the U.S. - the Key West Golf Club.

The KWGC is no place to take your game - or yourself for that matter - too seriously. As they say around here, Key West is a drinking island with a fishing problem. The course has been in existence since the early 1920s when it belonged to the U.S. Navy. Since getting a major makeover from Rees Jones in 1983, it belongs to the people - over 70,000 strong.

"We have a captive market here so we do about 70,000 rounds a year," says assistant professional Jeff Ryan. "There's not another golf course for 150 miles. And let's face it, people didn't move down here to work. There's a lot of free time going around."

Most daily fee courses would settle for half that. Anything more would be like blackening on the Grouper.

But it happens that a) The KWGC is the only game in town and b) it is a mere five-minute drive away for the majority of the island's resident population. Then again, everything on this four-mile by two-mile island is a five-minute drive away.

Just how small is the Conch Republic? Locals check their rear view mirrors when backing out of parking spaces to make sure they don't drive into the ocean. If Key West was a par 4, Hank Kuehne would get on in one. Paul Bunyan, playing through one day - once mistook it for an island green.

So the KWGC is one of those tiny turn 'em and burn 'em executive courses, right? Wrong!

Those expecting a mini-me course will be pleased to learn the KWGC is a full-fledged, 18-hole, 6,500-yard, par 70 layout. The entire thing fits on a 100 acre tract - an economy of space compared to today's 180 to 200 acre circuits.

There's even plenty of on-course variety. The rides out and in are as different pre and post 1990 Jimmy Buffett. The front nine tunnels through a series of mangrove estuaries, each hole tucked into its own little world. The back is wide open, windswept and hop scotches over a mess of fresh water lakes.

"When you only have one course it's good to have the nines play like two different courses," says Ryan.

Turns out the KWCG not only plays like two golf courses, it also a favorite fishing hole. The aforementioned fresh water lakes serving at the main attraction.

"Those lakes are filled with fresh water Tarpon," Ryan says. "I took (PGA Tour player) Paul Azinger fishing a couple times."

Zinger! Cool. Did you guys tee it up?

"He comes down here to fish, not to golf," Ryan says. "Golf is his job. Why would he want to golf on vacation?"

The pro shop here overflows with this sort of wisdom. For instance, they'll tell you to aim at the top of the pin on the 178-yard, par-3 eighth - the KWGC's signature hole. Of course, the top of the pin is all you can see from the tee box of this one-shotter, what with a rather large mangrove bosque in the way.

As for navigating the rest of the course, possessing a cadre of wind-cheater shots will lead to bragging rights at Sloppy Joe's later that night. If the winds are blowing around 15 to 20 knots, you've caught the course on a good day. Gusts of 25-30 knots are common on the back nine during the blustery winter months.

"If you can keep it below the mangroves you'll be fine," Ryan says.

Wasted away again in double bogeyville. Searching for my lost Pro-V1 balls. Some people claim that there's a 12-pack to blame, but I know - it's my slice that's to fault."

Southern extremes

Rio Rico Resort and Country Club - Rio Rico is located 45 minutes south of Tucson, Ariz. about a pitching wedge from the U.S./Mexico border. The Robert Trent Jones Sr. golf course is one of the most revered classic layouts in the state. At over 4,000 of elevation, temperatures are 10-15 degrees cooler than Tucson and Phoenix and lush mesquites and cottonwoods replace cactus and creosote. (800) 288-4746.

South Padre Island Golf Club - South Padre Island Golf Club is a must-play for duffers cruising the southern extremes of the Lone Star State. The Bay Course - the southernmost in Texas - is actually located on the mainland in Port Isabel. But the Chris Cole/Jeff Potts layout still snuggles up to the watery Laguna Madre, making for some stunning scenery and hostile winds. (956) 943-5678.

Fast Facts

The Key West Golf Club was revamped by Rees Jones in 1983.

Shane SharpShane Sharp, Contributor

Shane Sharp is vice president of Buffalo Communications, a golf and lifestyle media agency. He was a writer, senior writer and managing editor of TravelGolf.com from 1997 to 2003.

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