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NFC South is a Golfer's Paradise and a Football Fan's Conundrum

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The Tampa Bay Bucs handed new head coach Jon Gruden a sweet 14-10 preseason victory over in-state rival Miami last Monday. With two capable quarterbacks (Brad and Rob Johnson), a solid receiving corps and a defense choc-full of Pro Bowlers, the Bucs are the hands down favorite to win the new NFC South Division this season.

The more pressing question for you, oh traveling golfer, is what does this bustling Sun Belt division have to offer in terms of resort and daily fee golf?

Plenty. Charlotte, home of the Carolina Panthers, is a hotbed of quality, public access golf and is just a short drive from the golfing pantheons of Myrtle Beach, Pinehurst and Hilton Head. Atlanta is one of the country's most storied golfing towns, Tampa/St. Petersburg is a veritable resort playground, and New Orleans even chimes in with a few serviceable venues.

Here's the shakedown on these sizzling southeastern cities.

1. Charlotte

The Queen City claims no less than 20 semiprivate and daily fee golf courses that would command $100 a round if situated in a true destination spot. The flavor of the area is gently rolling hills, tree-lined fairways, and bentgrass greens. Top selections include the golf club at Ballantyne Resort, Skybrook Golf Club, Stonebridge Golf Club, Rocky River Golf Club, and Olde Sycamore. The Sandhills region, home of Pinehurst Resort and over 30 other quality courses, is just a two-hour car ride east. Each year, thousands of Charlotteans make the 3.5 hour trip to Myrtle Beach, where over 120 courses await. It's a stretch, but dozens of posh resort courses in Hilton Head come into play at just 4 hours southeast of the city.

2. Tampa Bay

Westin Innisbrook Resort in Palm Harbor, just north of Clearwater, is the Bay Area's top golf destination. The resort's famed Copperhead Course was remodeled back in the late 90's and is one of the best tracks you can play on the Gulf Coast. The Island Course is a superb shotmaker's course routed through swampland and orange groves, and the 27-hole Sandpiper layout is playable and fun. Saddlebrook Resort in Tampa is home to two 18-hole Arnold Palmer designed courses. The TPC of Tampa Bay, a Bobby Weed design, hosts the Senior PGA Tour's Verizon Classic and is known as one of the better-conditioned courses in the area.

3. Atlanta

There's no disputing Georgia's place in the annals of golf: Bobby Jones, Augusta National, Eastlake Country Club, Gene Sarazen at Chateau Elan. But Hotlanta has been much maligned for its lack of affordable daily fee golf. Not much has changed in the "ATL," as courses like the Tom Fazio designed White Columns command $100 plus for a round of golf. But if you are willing to take to the highways, Atlanta can serve as a homebase for a number of worthwhile golf road trips.

Reynolds Plantation is the top resort draw, located north of the city along the shores of Lake Oconee. The resort is home to four layouts from the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Bob Cupp, Rees Jones, and Tom Fazio. The Golf Club at Cuscowilla, just south of Reynolds, is quickly becoming one of the most talked about courses in the country. The minimalist architectural duo of Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore designed the course, which was recently ranked as Golfweek's 10th best modern course. The aforementioned Chateau Elan is a short drive northeast of the city, and is home to two outstanding courses and the state's best winery.

4. New Orleans

Most golf fans recognize Naw-lens as the home of the PGA Tour's Compaq Classic. The tournament is played at the English Turn Golf and Country Club, but only the course's 450 members have access to the track when the pros leave town. For quality daily fee pickings, drive one hour north of the Big Easy to the Ron Garl designed Money Hill Golf and Country Club. Money Hill is the No. 1 course in the state as ranked by Golf Digest, and was designed (in part) to host a PGA Championship. Bonus: the course was named after a local legend that a huge sum of money was buried somewhere on the island by wealthy planters fleeing smugglers and pirates. Happy hunting.

Projected Order of Finish

1. Tampa Bay – Moving out of the competitive NFC Central benefits the Bucs, a team that should flourish under Gruden and the Johnson boys at quarterback. Last season was a down year for the defense, so expect Warren Sapp to be out for atonement.

2. Atlanta – In most divisions, the Falcons would be staring at third or fourth place. But the lowly Panthers and Saints help the dirty birds' cause, as does the ultra athletic combination of quarterback Michael Vick and running back Warrick Dunn.

3. New Orleans – Ricky Williams for a second round draft pick? This is almost as ludicrous as the draft picks the Aint's gave up to get the former Heisman Trophy winner.

4. Carolina – New coach, stud rookie running back, so what. The Panthers are still one of the three worst teams in the NFL, and five wins would have to be considered a major improvement from last year's abysmal 1-15 record.

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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