Northwest Florida Golf: The WaterColor Inn

    By Frank Fenton

    In a small, coastal community of northwest Florida, some of the highest-ranked golf clubs challenge even the pros to dominate their layouts. The three golf clubs at the WaterColor Inn & Resort make for an excellent Florida golf vacation.

    As I swung open the door to my room at the WaterColor Inn & Resort, a bright ray of golden sunlight streaked into the room from the balcony. I dropped my bag and headed to the source.

    When I walked out onto the balcony, I was overwhelmed by one of the most beautiful sunsets I had seen. Since I live in a Florida town on the Gulf coast I had seen plenty of sunsets, but this one – with the ocean waves softly lapping up onto the beach toward the dunes and the glow of the gold-orange sun sinking into the ocean’s horizon – really struck me. All sixty of the rooms at the boutique hotel look out to the ocean so you’ll never get a bad view. Famous architect David Rockwell did a wonderful job of blending in the unique structure with the beach dunes.

    The WaterColor Inn & Resort is located in Santa Rosa Beach, a small community west of Panama City on the Gulf of Mexico in northwest Florida. If I had to describe the WaterColor Inn & Resort, I would call it “upscale beach house” – easy-going with great service. They have a spa, shopping at their Town Center Shops next door and multiple places to relax and swim.

    And while it feels laid back, it is the only AAA Four-Diamond Rated hotel on northwest Florida's Gulf Coast. It was selected “The #1 Best Family Resort in North America” as well as being ranked one of “The Best Hotels in North America” by Travel + Leisure readers. It is also a member of the “Preferred Hotels and Resorts.” Not a bad place to bunk for a few days during your vacation.

    Of course, all of this is great. But the real question is: What about the golf?

    Camp Creek Golf Club
    Owned by the St. Joe Company (a large Florida real estate development company in Jacksonville), the WaterColor Inn & Resort was in need of some first-rate golf layouts for its guests to play. No problem. St. Joe hooked up the WaterColor Inn & Resort with a local private club, Camp Creek Golf Club, for a very special place for guests to play this magnificent Tom Fazio designed track.

    Opened in 2001, this course was laid out to blend almost seamlessly with its surroundings. The dunes, lakes, grasses and trees frame this work of art and give you the feeling that the course has been there since they first started swatting golf balls over the sandbanks in Florida. Fazio referred to the job he did as “dunescaping” as opposed to the normal landscaping. The ample wildlife is very happy with Fazio’s work and the manner in which the natural look is undisturbed.

    Camp Creek is one tough layout. From the back tees (7,159 yards), it is rated a killer 76.0 with a 152 slope – so strong that this course has already hosted U.S. Open and U.S. Amateur qualifiers. Tour players such as Jerry Pate, Bob Tway and John Mahaffey drop in from time to time to test their games. For the rest of us mortals, the white tees are 6,304 and 71.6/137. I can deal with this a little better. There are two sets of ladies’ tees with the forward tees measuring 5,150 and a rating/slope of 71.3/129 – still a good test.

    The number 6 hole, a sturdy par 4 that’s 410 from the white tees, is a classic-looking, pine barrens-style hole. From the slightly elevated tee, you can imagine the ocean just over the dunes as you prepare to deal with the sea breeze. A huge waste bunker guards the right side of this dogleg as you attack the pin.

    Number 14 is a beautiful par 3 playing to a peninsula green that juts out into the lake to make things interesting. Be sure to carry the whole way to avoid the bunker and the steep slope that will gobble up your ball and send it into the water.

    Hole 17 – a par 5 at nearly 500 yards – is Fazio’s favorite. You come out of a chute of pine trees, past the heavily bunkered fairway and end up on an undulating green that will test your putting skill on the speedy Tif-Eagle surface. Not an easy birdie hole, to be sure.

    According to the course's General Manager, Camp Creek is set up for golf only – no tennis, swimming pools or shuffleboard here. Also, there are no houses or condos built on this course, so the pure, natural look of the track will remain.

    The best time of year to play here is in the spring or the fall to catch the very best weather northwest Florida has to offer. Ranked by Golfweek as one of the “Best Places You Can Play,” Camp Creek is a place you’ll want to spend the day to experience excellent golf in a gorgeous setting.

    The Origins Course

    Just a couple of miles from Camp Creek, Will took me to see an unusual little layout that was designed by Davis Love III called The Origins Course. Influenced by the Scottish-style links course, it may be played as an 1,800 yard nine-hole layout. It can also be set up as a six-hole executive course or a ten-hole par 3 track, depending on the tee boxes for the day.

    Open to the public, it is a wonderful place for families to play together since it is walker friendly, has few sand bunkers and forced carries over water and every green will accept a run-up shot – key to many beginners’ skill level. The place looks like a big open forty-acre park. Kids will love learning the game here.

    Shark's Tooth Golf Club

    My last stop on this northwest Florida golf trip was at the superb Shark’s Tooth Golf Club located on beautiful Lake Powell near Panama City Beach. This again is a private club that allows play by the guests of the WaterColor Inn & Resort.

    Greg Norman was the previous owner and designer of this fantastic layout and you can see his touch in each hole’s design. Opened only since 2002, it has already held the U.S. Open qualifying five times! Golf Digest called it the second best new private course in America upon its opening. Golf Digest consistently ranks it in the top ten in the state – really a tribute when you consider all the great tracks in Florida.

    Norman did an amazing job of routing the holes around Lake Powell and the various streams and waterways near the lake. He was so dedicated to using the land properly that he had to build many elevated wooden cart paths to traverse the wetlands and allow the golfer to reach the playing areas of the holes.

    General Manger and Director of Golf, Mike Jansen, informed me that Shark’s Tooth went to a great deal of trouble and extra work to be sure to preserve the undeveloped areas of land around each hole and to protect the natural environment – so much so that they have been designated as a Silver Signature Sanctuary Course by the Audubon Signature Program. Quite an honor.

    You’ll find all sorts of wildlife here – bobcats, osprey, the occasional bear and the rare bald eagle soaring high above. For a golf course located so close to the Gulf of Mexico, Shark’s Tooth offers quite a few elevation changes. As the holes move toward, from and along eye-catching Lake Powell, the fairways rise and fall.

    Some of Shark’s Tooth course specs:
    From the tips – 7,204 yards, rated at 74.9, slope is 136
    Next men’s tees – 6,511, 70.6/126
    Ladies’ tees – 5,149, 69.1/117

    You can see that this course offers a challenge to every skill level.

    Hole number 11 asks you to work the ball into this par 3 over the many deep bunkers protecting the green. Don’t be short!

    With that one out of the way, you then must deal with number 13, a dangerous par 5 that is all about risk/reward when you attempt to make birdie here. The hole runs right up to Lake Powell and you must assail the pin protected by the strategic bunkers.

    Number 18 is a strong uphill finishing hole that frames your view of the handsome clubhouse on the hill. What a great way to wrap up your round of golf. From here, you can head inside for a tasty lunch and a cool drink.

    If you spend some time in northwest Florida, you must plan a visit to the WaterColor Inn and set up a few tee times at Camp Creek, The Origins Course and Shark’s Tooth. I especially love the area in the fall months, but anytime is a good time to experience these breathtaking spots.