For the last dozen years this reporter has been heading to Florida during January for the PGA Merchandise Show. There are always many good things to see and write about at the Show and it has always been a productive place for me to get stories that we run all year in Southern New England. As part of this business trip, we usually try to visit a nice resort to relax, play golf, enjoy the warmer weather and get a good travel story.
This past year we decided to go all out, since there was no Golf Expo to get home to in the middle of February. Our plan was to set up trips to four of the best resorts in Florida and do a large story. In this case the plans all came to fruition and we visited four wonderful resorts that have long been staples in southern Florida. We could compare and contrast them, but it’s better to just talk about the excellent golf, accommodations and amenities at each.
The first place we visited was PGA Village in Florida. We often head there right after the Merchandise Show as it is about an hour and one-half drive from Orlando.
With three excellent courses designed by Pete Dye and Tom Fazio, this home of the PGA makes for a wonderful golf experience as it also includes one of the best practice areas in the world.
PGA Village was the first public facility owned and operated by The PGA of America and its 26,000 members. It serves as the winter home to PGA professionals. While we were there this year the NEPGA was conducting a tournament and we saw teams from Russia and Holland preparing for the 2016 Olympics. The PGA Education Center located on the property is home to the PGA of America Golf Schools and serves as a training forum for PGA apprentice professionals.
Tom Fazio built the first two courses in 1996, then called the North and South courses. Pete Dye’s course opened in 2000. All three made the Top New Courses in America list when opened. All three courses went through major renovation in 2006 and 2007 and Fazio’s courses were renamed the Wanamaker and Ryder Courses.
The Ryder Course reminds players of a Carolina layout with tall pines and even some hills. It was named after Samuel Ryder who founded the Ryder Cup matches. There is plenty of water, especially on the par 5 fourth hole.
Fazio’s other course, Wanamaker, is named after Rodman Wanamaker who organized a meeting of top golf professionals and amateurs that led to The PGA’s founding in 1916. This is a true Florida layout with a great deal of wetland and plenty of vegetation and palm and palmetto trees. In typical Fazio fashion, there are bunkers everywhere and of every design. Accuracy will definitely help you on this course which most rate the most difficult of the three with two par 3’s well over 200 yards.
The Dye course is a links-style design with plenty of water, but not much that should come into play. There are five sets of tees, and it is important to select the one for your game. The championship tees tip out at 7,215 yards with a rating of 74.7 and a slope of 139. Move up!! Champion Ultra Dwarf Bermuda grass makes the greens roll perfectly true.
All three courses have earned the Audubon International Signature Status award. Each is distinctive and memorable. The conditioning on all three, the practice tee and the fine clubhouse where the sandwiches and meals are excellent and reasonably priced make you smile when reliving your rounds. There is also a family fun course that is great for children and wives who might not want to venture onto the championship course. The Practice Center is phenomenal. There are two putting greens, one almost the size of Rhode Island, chipping areas, bunker areas with dozens of different kinds of sand and a three-hole course used for on-course instruction. Many of the touring pros visited the center to practice hitting sand from the bunkers like they would play in Hawaii in January. There are more than 100 hitting stations on this 35-acre site that is really a golf park. You do not pay for a bucket of balls. Your fee is for the whole day, very reasonable, and you get as many balls as you want to use.
Imagine three championship golf courses, two designed by Tom Fazio, and the other designed by Pete Dye. Add to that the PGA Center for Golf Learning and Performance, rated Number 10 best practice area by Golf Digest, the PGA Historical Center that has wonderful memorabilia from the PGA and an incredibly helpful and knowledgeable staff, you have a place that every golfer should make plans to see.
Our next stop was PGA National Resort & Spa located in Palm Beach Gardens, an hour north of Miami and an hour south of PGA Village. Home to The Honda Classic with its famous “Bear Trap” holes designed by Jack Nicklaus on the Champions Course, you get to play a course where the Tour pros play every year.
PGA National has a proud history of hosting major golf events. The 25th Ryder Cup Matches were contested here in 1983, the 69th PGA Championship was held in 1987 and the Champions Tour held matches here for many years.
PGA National Resort & Spa has recently undergone a $100 million renovation (they call it a reinvention), and it is marvelous. As you drive up to the resort you pass croquet lawns, a health and racquet club, a new fitness center and about 20 tennis courts. You’ll see glimpses of the four courses on property and you haven’t gotten to the front entrance yet.
PGA National’s renovations include numerous enhancements to its 379-room resort hotel, clubhouse, golf courses, spa, health and racquet club, and conference and meeting space. Among the contemporary additions is a stunning zero-entry pool, newly named signature restaurant – Ironwood Steak and Seafood – and trendy, sophisticated iBAR.
We played the redesigned The Fazio course that was formerly called The Haig. The changes made the course much more playable and you see the PGA Headquarters from the sixth hole.
The Champions course is a challenge, but since we don’t play the “pro” tees, we were able to make three pars along the “Bear Trap.” It was fun watching the pros struggle especially with the par 3 17th with water front and right.
There are two other courses on site (The Palmer and The Squire, named after the famed Gene Sarazen). Both are quite flat but fun to play with water peaking out on many occasions. The resort also owns The Estate Course located five miles from the property.
My wife had a wonderful spa treatment and we enjoyed sitting by the huge pool surrounded by palm trees. The meal in Ironwood Steak and Seafood was outstanding as befits this excellent resort.
Our third stop was a place that we had never been before, Saddlebrook Resort, just one-half hour north of Tampa. We had heard about Saddlebrook years ago because of their great tennis facility. Now we need to tell everyone what a fine golf resort it has become.
There are two Arnold Palmer-designed courses on the sprawling property not far from Interstate 75. The Saddlebrook course was closed for renovations while we were there, but had the chance to ride around the course with Kyle Bruce, the golf director.
There is some water on each hole at the Saddlebrook course, although it really only comes into play on a few of the holes and especially nine and 18. The signature 18th is a long dogleg right with water up the right side of the fairway and in front of the green, a very intimidating finisher that will decide most matches.
We played the Palmer course early in the day with the morning fog still hugging the ground. The first few holes were spooky with the cypress and live oaks with moss hanging down and hugging the fairways. It soon cleared away and we were left with a beautiful course with many risk/reward holes, especially numbers 4 and 5.
The 18th is a short par 3 back to the clubhouse with water right and large bunkers left and right of the green. An interesting way to finish. We felt like we were back in New England with the slanting fairways and elevation changes on some of the holes.
My wife loved the resort, especially the accommodations. We had a one-bedroom suite, but they also have 240 two-bedroom suites and 133 deluxe hotel rooms. “A great deal of our business is conventions and meetings (they have 95,000 sq.ft. of versatile meeting and function space),” said director of marketing Al Martinez-Fonts, Jr., who was our host and tour guide during our stay. Each of the 540 accommodations has a private balcony, and ours looked over a pretty par 3 hole. There are three heated pools on the property including a 500,000 gallon Superpool that seemed to meander around the property as much as a few golf holes.
There is a large Golf Academy and Tennis Academy on this vast property. The Bann-Lynch Golf Academy had 30 resident students when we visited and the tennis academy had 70. Keegan Bradley spent two years at the academy that is an accredited school.
Since the other course was closed, Kyle Bruce set up golf at nearby Lake Jovita C.C., a 36-hole facility that hosted Qualifying school for the PGA Tour. Saddlebrook has a reciprocal agreement for guests to play there. Large elevation changes—the par 5 11th hole drops 280 feet from tee to green—huge greens and giant bunkers make this a place where scoring is difficult. St. Leo’s University sits next door to the course.
Our last stop was Innisbrook Golf Resort and Spa just a few miles away from Saddlebrook and also one-half hour from Tampa. This was our fourth trip to Innisbrook, which is one of the Salamander Golf and Spa Resorts, and we never tire of it.
Larry Packard, who died last year at the age of 101, designed all four courses on the property. The most famous one is the Copperhead Course, home to the Valspar PGA Tour event every winter where Tracy West, who was the tournament director at the Champions event at Nashawtuc for many years, was recently named tournament director. Again, it is so much fun to play a course and then watch the pros play it during the tournament. Too bad we can’t play it the way they do. Unlike most of Florida, Copperhead has many uphill and downhill shots. With tree-lined fairways, quite a few water holes and sloping greens, you will feel just like the pros when you play it. Don’t go back to their tees, though.
My favorite of the four courses is the Island Course. As the name suggests, there is water on many holes. With large ospreys flying overhead and some narrow fairways, the Island Course is truly memorable. The ninth and eighteenth holes require shots over water to the green. Make the first and you’ll enjoy lunch at the excellent restaurant at the Island’s clubhouse, and make the last and you will regale the troops at one of the fine restaurants and pubs on property that evening.
The other two courses at Innisbrook are the North and South courses. They are mirror images of each other, and both are fun with many distinct holes. The North Course has the lowest slope and rating, but the holes are fun and many require exact shots over water.
On the South Course you will see some beautiful homes and also some beautiful holes. The twisting par 5 second with an approach over a pond will definitely get your attention. It is the number one handicap for good reason. The par 3 third then goes back over that pond to a wide green with a yawning bunker in front.
There is also a golf school at Innisbrook. There is a separate double-ended lighted driving range in the middle of the property, and it is always crowded. Dawn Mercer, Director of Instruction at Innisbrook, has a very knowledgeable staff giving lessons.
Packard’s Steakhouse overlooking the Copperhead Course serves wonderful meals. There is also a pub and a grill on property. With four golf courses, six pools including a water park, the five restaurants a great spa, nature trails, tennis courts and its location 10 minutes from the Gulf of Mexico Innisbrook is a fabulous resort.
My wife always looks forward to going to the wonderful spa on the sprawling property. There is a wide range of accommodations on the property including 225 sq.ft. guest rooms, executive suites and one- and two-bedroom suites that are ideal for golf groups and conventions.
With trips to two resorts on the southeastern side of Florida and two on the southwestern side, we truly had a great vacation. Oh, that’s right it’s business! At least I tell my wife that. If you get a chance to get to one or all of these wonderful resorts, you will certainly have a great time.
Bruce Vittner is a member of the Golf Writers Assn. of America and the Golf Travel Writers of America and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
PGA Village—www.pgavillage.com 800-800-GOLF
PGA National—www.PGAresort.com 561-627-2000