Ernie Els doesn't have an endorsement deal with the Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club. But why wouldn't he? The South African professional golf star praises the resort's Copperhead course without prompting. And that's saying something for a man who travels the world.
Els first saw the course when he played in the 2003 Chrysler Championship. And his opinion hadn't changed at the 2006 event, now known as the PODS Championship and played in March.
"They can host any kind of a big event," Els said of the 900-acre Palm Harbor resort. "It's that good." He enjoys playing courses like Copperhead, in large part because of the challenge. "You've got to be right-on from the first tee shot – you've got to be concentrating from the first go. It's got undulation unlike other Florida golf courses. The bunkering is different than other courses we play."
And those words of praise came before Sheila Johnson took over ownership of the resort with a plan to make it even better. Johnson, who co-founded Black Entertainment Television (BET), is president and CEO of Salamander Hospitality, which purchased the resort in July 2007. Johnson lauds Innisbrook as a unique property with a great history of championship golf, but she sees room to improve.
"We want to make Innisbrook one of the best properties out there," says Johnson, who estimates that upgrades will cost between $20 and $35 million. The renovations include a new full-service spa, new shops, new restaurant concepts, room refurbishments and enhancements to all four golf courses. Some of the improvements are already making their mark.
The Famed Copperhead Course
The highlight of the resort is the Copperhead course, designed by Lawrence Packard in the early 1970s and still a marvel to those who arrive at the Innisbrook property. With its majestic stands of pine trees and rolling fairways, the course's landscape evokes more of North Carolina than Florida's west coast.
From the tournament tees, Copperhead is a stern test, measuring more than 7,300 yards and playing to par-71. This course is so good that it didn't need much alteration, but there was a recent refurbishing of the greens.
The Island Course
The Island course is often underrated because of its neighbor, the Copperhead. But that should not be the case. On its own, the Island is as good as any course in Florida and can play every bit as tough as Copperhead. It is where a young Phil Mickelson won an NCAA individual title in 1990 when he played college golf at Arizona State.
One of Salamander's first tasks was shutting down the Island course, adding some length to stretch it past 7,000 yards and re-doing the greens. The course has plenty of water and tight fairways. Before the renovations, it already ranked among Golf Digest's Top 50 resort courses.
The Highlands Courses
For golfers who hail from snow-bound locales and visit Innisbrook in the winter and spring months, the Highlands North and South courses offer excellent warm-up tests to get the game back in shape. They also offer a respite from the rigors of the Copperhead and Island.
The Highlands North is the shortest of the four Innisbrook courses. Recent improvements include lengthening some of the par-4s and par-5s with added bunkering and waste areas. Although it measures just 6,600 yards from the back tees, 11 of the 18 holes are guarded by water.
The Highlands South is more difficult than it looks, and boasts one of the longest par-5s in Florida – the 630-yard 13th hole. The course incorporates the nine newest holes on the property.
Dining and Over-Nighting
Of course, all this can literally be within walking distance of your room – or a short tram ride. Innisbrook has several types of accommodations, including one- and two-bedroom suites. All have full kitchens and a private balcony. Room service is available, but the resort boasts four restaurants, including Packard's Steakhouse, a fine dining establishment named for the designer of the resort's courses.
Packard's is at the Copperhead course, while Bamboo's is at the Highlands courses and the Turnberry Pub awaits players at the Island. The Grill at Loch Ness is a great outdoor eating option. The Loch Ness Pool & Spa is part of a three-acre fun park that includes two sand beach areas, a plunge pool and two large, winding water slides. Which makes the resort as fun for families as it is for golf lovers.