You don't have to be a pro to play where the pros go. Here are some of Florida's famous tournament courses.
Every golfer has Walter Mitty-like dreams of playing - and winning - a big professional tournament. We all play the same game, after all, and it just takes a solidly hit drive, a five-iron feathered in to five feet or a curling thirty footer that drops into the cup and we hackers begin to think "Those guys are good? I'm not so bad myself!"
Not to deflate the dream, but the truth is we'll never be as good as Tiger Woods, David Duval, Annika Sorenstam or Karrie Webb. But we can follow in their footsteps. Literally.
Florida, which is home to more than 1,000 courses, has often been called one long fairway surrounded by sand and water. Also, some of the best golfers in the world call Florida home, including Tiger Woods in Orlando. The PGA, LPGA, and Senior tours host professional tournaments here every year. Many of those courses are open to the public. It's what makes golf so cool. Avid baseball fans can't experience the thrill of standing at home plate at Yankee Stadium, but any golfer can play the exact same dangerous approach shot toward the water-guarded 18th at Doral or Bay Hill or the dreaded 17th island hole at the TPC Sawgrass as Ernie Els or Phil Mickelson or Sergio Garcia.
That they make birdie while we're lucky to score a double-bogey is entirely beside the point.
Florida golfers can also easily visit the home course of the Ladies Professional Golf Association, the LPGA International facility in Daytona Beach. Headquarters for the tour, the facility has two 18-hole courses (the Champions and the Legends) that are open to the public, as well as a practice facility. For more information, call 386-274-6200 for a tour and 386-274-5742 for courses, or visit www.lpga.com.
Doral's Blue Monster in Miami
In early March, Doral Golf Resort & Spa is the second stop on the PGA Tour's "Florida Swing." It's one of the first tournaments of the year on the East Coast and it signals the beginning of the run-up to the Masters six weeks hence, so the tournament always has a star-studded field.
The TPC Blue Monster course at Doral, the tournament venue, has undergone serious renovations in recent years. Designed by architect Dick Wilson in 1962, the TPC Blue Monster - always long, fast and difficult - had softened a bit around the edges over the years. The resort brought in Miami resident Raymond Floyd to restore length, update the bunkering and put some fear back into the Monster. He apparently did his job very well, because the pros complained that the renovated Monster was too hard! Doral's resident teaching professional, Jim McLean, went back and widened some of the newly narrowed fairways and helped find some pin positions that were more easily accessible, and made everyone happy again.
The average player always has his hands full on this course, even when played from the middle tee boxes. Every hole, it seems, demands a drive threaded carefully past some looming fairway bunkers, then an approach shot that must avoid more sand or water. The greens are usually kept hard and fast, conditions not usually faced by the occasional golfer. And if the breeze is up, as it often is, the degree of difficulty climbs even higher.
But golfers enjoy a tough challenge and the TPC Blue Monster is always fun to battle, even if the score climbs into the triple digits. That final hole, with a drive that must be kept out of the lake on the left and a long approach shot over more water to an elevated, tilting green, is one of the best closers in all of golfland.
There are four other fine courses at the Doral Resort including the Great White, designed by Greg Norman and once the host of his Shark Shootout tournament.
Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club in Palm Harbor
One of the "older generation" Florida championship tracks is once again hosting the PGA Tour. The Copperhead course at the Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club hosts the Transitions Championship in March. The course has also hosted the JC Penney Classic over the years - a fun team event pairing members of the PGA and LPGA tours.
The Tour players are always grinding to win enough money to move up on the annual money list, whether to gain entry into the season-ending Tour Championship or to just keep their playing privileges for another year. The drama for ordinary players isn't quite as nerve-wracking, but Copperhead has earned its perennial rank as one of Florida's toughest tracks. Originally designed by E. Lawrence Packard in 1972, Copperhead got a revision in 2000 and was stretched to some 7,500 yards from the tips.
Unlike many Florida tracks, Copperhead has quite a lot of elevation changes, along with plenty of water and some of the fastest greens in the state. The closing trio of holes, from the 460-yard 16th with its bordering lagoon, to the long, uphill finishing hole, can be punishing.
From May to mid-September, the rates at Copperhead are a real bargain. The expansive Innisbrook Resort, home to the Troon Golf Academy, also offers a wide range of package deals in the summer season.
Bay Hill in Orlando
The Bay Hill Club and Lodge is the house that Arnie built. Palmer usually winters here and frequently joins his fellow club members for a friendly afternoon round. He has also lavished a great deal of attention on the golf course that hosts his Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard on the PGA Tour.
Palmer and his architectural partner, the late Ed Seay, continually fiddled with the course over the years. A complete redesign was completed in 2009 by the Arnold Palmer Design Company. It ranks today as one of the top tracks in the state. It's filled with wonderful holes, like the long par-5 sixth, which bends in a semi-circle around a lake. John Daly once made a stirring 16 on the hole when he tried- and tried - and tried - to cut off a corner of the lake.
The three closing holes are exciting. The shortish par-5 16th tempts many players to go for the green in two despite a pond that lurks in front. The long and difficult par-3 17th is followed by the great closing 18th, which demands an absolutely perfect drive and midiron over another lake. Tough to do whether one is playing for a half million dollars on TV or to close out a $2 Nassau with some friends.
Because Bay Hill is a semi-private club, the easiest way to get on the course is to book a room at the intimate Bay Hill Lodge under one of their golf package programs or be accompanied by a member.
TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach
THE PLAYER'S Championship is rightly termed the "fifth major," as it annually attracts one of the top fields of the year, and is staged on THE PLAYER'S Stadium Course, one of the more unique golf courses in the world. This TPC Sawgrass course is the work of Pete Dye and is probably the best example of the "target" style of golf course design. You either hit it where Pete says to, or you pay a heavy penalty. Of course, it's your choice.
This golf course is always a wild, thrill-a-minute ride, and the good news is that the wide Atlantic beach is less than a mile away, so the chastened golfer can go stare out to sea and wonder why he took up this game in the first place!
The course's signature hole, of course, is the island-green par-3 17th. The knowledge that one must face the most knee-knocking shot in golf, just 130 yards or so over water to a green that seems to float in the middle of a pond, is planted in the back of one's mind throughout the entire round. But it's also worth the price of admission.
Guests of the Sawgrass Marriott get discounted greens fees at TPC Sawgrass as well as access to TPC Sawgrass Dye's Valley Course, another wonderful design. From June through September, rates at THE PLAYER'S Stadium course drop by more than half.