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War may loom, but spring trips must go on

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - With the State Department issuing a global caution alert last week for increased threat of al-Qaida terrorism, the thought of air travel isn't all that appealing. And with the threat of war looming large on the horizon, golf isn't exactly at the forefront of most Americans' minds this winter.

But make no mistake about it - spring golf trips will go on. And when they do, there are a few emerging golf markets that have more to offer than just 36 holes a day, all-you-can-eat buffets, and seedy late night entertainment, not that there's anything wrong with that.

Rising Stocks

Tampa/St. Pete, Florida: Home of the Super Bowl champion Bucs and some of the best daily free and resort golf outside of Orlando. As an added bonus, Tampa is a real city, complete with fine dining, upscale accommodations and one of the best nightlifes in the Sunshine State (see Ybor City.) If you need a catharsis from golf, St. Petersburg and Clearwater feature some of the widest, whitest beaches in world.

As for the golf, it comes in a variety of packages. There's the posh resort variety served up at the Westin Innisbrook and Saddlebrook resorts; the nationally ranked daily fee option an hour north at World Woods; championship caliber brand at the TPC of Tampa; and historic/traditional alternative at the Renaissance Vinoy and Belleview Biltmore. And a few words about Ybor City - every type of music imaginable, restaurants and nightclubs on every corner, scantily clad tan women - you get the point.

Houston: Everything is bigger is Texas, right? Well, the courses aren't bigger in Houston, but there sure are more of them than just about any major city in the United States. By some counts, there are 150 golf tracts within a 45-minute drive of downtown and a third of them are quality daily fee layouts from big-name designers. Oh, and don't worry about packing a golf sweater: it is just as balmy in "H-town" in March and April as it is in central Florida. Similar to Tampa, there's no shortage of nightlife in Houston, and the restaurant lineup is downright respectable.

Contrary to popular belief there's also plenty of environmental variety. The northern part of the city is situated on the southern end of the East Texas Piney Woods, while the southern part of the metro area extends into the Coastal Bend down to Galveston Island. If you want tree-lined fairways, Houston's got 'em. If you want windswept linksy layouts, it's got 'em, too. For a sweet high-end sampler plate, check out the Redstone Golf Club, Tour 18, the TPC Woodlands, and BlackHorse Golf Club. To save a buck or two, check out one of the state's best muni's at Memorial Park.

Jacksonville, Fla.: Anyone who's been there will tell you that Jacksonville is one of the best-kept secrets on the eastern seaboard. A vibrant, midsize city with an enviable waterfront setting and an NFL franchise, "J-ville" as locals call it, often plays second fiddle to Atlanta, Ga., Charlotte, N.C. and even instate rivals Tampa and Miami in the southern city popularity contest. The metro area lays claim to 68 golf courses, most of which are available to the golfing public. Further cementing the city's reputation as one of the true golf capitals of the south, the PGA Tour and Senior PGA Tour headquarters are in town and the World Golf Village is a chip shot away in St. Augustine.

A couple of Jacksonville's newer establishments have gotten a fair amount of ink lately, and rightfully so. The Slammer and the Squire, a popular Bobby Weed design, is pure Florida golf (marshes, sand, and gators) with two drastically different sets of nines. Its sister course, the King and the Bear, is the first collaborative effort between Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, who between them hold 25 major titles, over 130 PGA Tour victories, and some 350 golf course designs to their credit. Whether or not the King and the Bear ever set foot on the property is neither here nor there.

Other solid choices include the Golf Club at South Hampton, from Tour player turned designer Mark McCumber, Cimarrone from designer David Postlethwait who helped build the TPC at Sawgrass courses in Ponte Vedra Beach, and Royal St. Augustine, located off I-95 in route to the World Golf Village. Also within reach from Jacksonville: Sawgrass Marriott Resort in Ponte Vedra, the Ponte Vedra Inn and Club, and the three resort courses of Amelia Island Plantation.

Solid Investments

The Outer Banks

Awesome scenery and a slew of courses on the up and up in the Outer Banks. The Curituck Club, Nags Head Golf Links, and the brand spanking new Kilmarlic Club are worth the trip to this secluded slice of Carolina heaven.

Charleston, S.C.

Still riding high from its lofty ranking in Golf Digest's list of the best cities in the U.S. for golf. World-class resort golf is Charleston's primary M.O., what with Kiawah Island, Wild Dunes and Seabrook Island on the roster. But there's plenty of daily free and semiprivate action for golfers on a budget.

Daytona Beach, Fla.

Can you say the Myrtle Beach of Florida? Courses like the LPGA's Champions and Legends, Ocean Hammock Golf Club, and Halifax Plantation have established this NASCAR vortex as burgeoning golf destination.

Texas Hill Country

Pound for pound, one of the best regions in the U.S. for quality golf, food and football. Barton Creek outside of Austin is home to four of the state's best tracts from the likes of Tom Fazio, Ben Crenshaw and Arnold Palmer. San Antonio is no slough, either, with courses like La Cantera and the Quarry.

Mississippi and Alabama Gulf Coasts

Gambling, golf, the Gulf Coast. What's better than that?

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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