Heading south over the 3.6-mile Choctawhatchee Mid-Bay Bridge in Okaloosa County, the anticipation builds. Destin is the destination, with its miles of sugar-sand beaches and impossibly blue Gulf waters.
Oh, but we’re not actually going to the beaches, at least not yet. This visit to Destin is about golf, a not-to-be-overlooked part of the Northwest Florida vacation experience.
To cross that bridge (or a few others to reach the beachfront areas) is to enter into a territory that can hold its own with other terrific golf hamlets in Florida. Courses of all sorts are available, featuring tree-lined fairways and bay views, and depending on the time of year, some diversity in weather.
Here are some of the stops essential to a Northwest Florida golf trip:
Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort: There are just a handful of Florida resorts with four golf courses on property, and of those only Sandestin has beachfront property. It’s a massive, all-inclusive resort, with 1,300 rooms, villas, condos and townhomes spread across 30 different neighborhoods on 2,400 acres. Put another way, there’s a free tram that runs throughout Sandestin to help visitors get around to all the shops and entertainment options. That’s how big the place is.
Four 18-hole golf courses are within Sandestin, and one can’t go wrong with any of them. The venerable Links Golf Club, built in 1973, has five holes along Choctawhatchee Bay and can play differently from day to day depending on winds. Tom Jackson designed the course as well as Baytowne Golf Club, which boasts a few elevation changes. The Raven Golf Club, designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr., hosted the Champions Tour a few years ago and is regularly mentioned among Florida’s best public courses. Burnt Pine is semi-private but offers tee times every day to registered Sandestin guests, who should take advantage of the Rees Jones course if at all possible.
Kelly Plantation: When completing that drive south across the Mid-Bay Bridge, the first golf course available is this Fred Couples/Gene Bates design, on the right side of the road. Kelly Plantation also boasts Bay views, none better than at the par-4 fourth hole. Even if you haven’t played the course, you may have seen the photo, one of the iconic shots that tells the story of Northwest Florida golf.
Regatta Bay: Also within reach of the Mid-Bay Bridge, Regatta Bay is designed by Robert C. Walker, one of Arnold Palmer’s former lead architects. Another one of the area’s more acclaimed layouts, the 6,894-yard par-72 winds through the pines.
Camp Creek: Driving east on U.S. 98 from Destin takes you to Panama City, where Camp Creek Golf Club is a must-play. The Tom Fazio design runs through wetlands and has no houses visible from the holes, resulting in a completely tranquil golf experience. Well, until you have an approach shot from a sidehill lie to one of Fazio’s well-protected greens.
Bay Point Resort: Tucked into Saint Andrew Bay in Panama City Beach are two terrific courses at Bay Point, the Meadows and Nicklaus. The Meadows is the kind of course you’ll want to play first on a vacation, a relaxing course that doesn’t require your “A” game for good scores.
That’s not quite the story at the Nicklaus, built in an era where tough was king in golf course design. In 2004-05 the course -- the only Nicklaus Design in Northwest Florida – was renovated to take some of the edge off, and today it’s still a very tough test. But not so much as to ruin a vacation, especially with those sugar-sand beaches not far away.
We’ll get to the beach, once we’re done making birdies.
If you go…
9300 Emerald Coast Parkway
307 Kelly Plantation Drive
465 Regatta Bay Blvd.
Camp Creek Golf Club
684 Fazio Drive
Panama City Beach
Bay Point Resort
4701 Bay Point Road
Panama City Beach