Monday, February 10, 2014

The Florida Swing – PGA Tour-Tested Courses Everyone Can Play

The PGA Tour makes five trips to Florida every year, with four consecutive events in March and THE PLAYERS Championship in May. All are held at terrific courses, but unlike some others on the Tour’s schedule, all five courses are also open to the public.
On its annual golf barnstorm across the United States, the PGA Tour visits several iconic courses that practically reach out and tease fans through their televisions -- Augusta National, Muirfield Village, Colonial, East Lake.
They tease because unless you have serious connections, you and your buddies don’t have a prayer of playing the courses.
But every March, the Tour makes its Florida Swing, a four-week junket from South Florida to Central Florida that isn’t a tease at all. The courses that Tiger Woods and Co. have played and authored so many memorable moments on are all accessible to the masses.
Between the Florida Swing and one more return visit in May to the PGA Tour’s signature course, there are five tracks in all that should be on any golfer’s must-play list. The pros don’t visit any state more times than they visit Florida, and their playgrounds can be yours.
Here’s a look at all five.
PGA National Resort & Spa, Champion Course, Palm Beach Gardens (home of The Honda Classic, Feb. 28-March 3)
The PGA of America is based in Palm Beach Gardens, and its flagship resort features five courses and an acclaimed golf school, not to mention great restaurants and the spa. One could spend a week there without leaving the grounds.
Golf Digest recently named Palm Beach as one of the top destinations for a buddies’ golf trip, and among its recommended courses was PGA National’s Champion Course, home of The Honda Classic.
The course was originally designed by Tom and George Fazio for big tournaments (the 1983 Ryder Cup was played there) and got a facelift in 1990 from Jack Nicklaus. Holes 15-16-17, two par 3s and a par 4 weaving through water, are nicknamed The Bear Trap. The pros are happy to escape with three pars, and so should vacationing amateurs.
Doral Golf Resort & Spa, TPC Blue Monster, Miami (home of the World Golf Championships-Cadillac Championship, March 7-10)
Venerable Doral has hosted the PGA Tour for more than a half-century at the famed Blue Monster, whose name says it all.
The course is getting a facelift after this year’s Tour event, as developer Donald Trump bought the resort and has hired respected architect Gil Hanse to renovate the course. In some parts it will be more “Blue”, with bigger greens but also expanded water hazards.
“Doral can be the absolute best,” Trump told the Associated Press last year. “We are going to do this really right.”
Trump, for all his brash outspokenness, has an excellent track record in building great courses. Will be fun to see what becomes of the Blue Monster in 2014, for both the Cadillac Championship and the public.
Innisbrook Resort, Copperhead Course, Palm Harbor (home of the Tampa Bay Championship, March 14-17)
Among the hustle and bustle of north Pinellas County is an oasis in Innisbrook, a woodsy  resort with four championship courses including a gem in the Copperhead Course.
The Copperhead is a beast for the pros at 7,300 yards/par 71, but many have singled it out as their favorite Florida layout on Tour. There’s water, of course, but scoring is more incumbent on working the ball left and right and judging the various elevation changes that are rare for the area.
Innisbrook also features the Island course, which has hosted many pro events over the years and is strong enough to be a headliner. Except Copperhead is just down the street.
Arnold Palmer’s Bay Hill Club, Orlando (home of the Arnold Palmer Invitational, March 21-24)
Bay Hill is in the heart of Orlando, just of I-4 and Sand Lake Road, having been built well before many of the attractions and vacation spots around it. The great Arnold Palmer first played the course in 1965 and then bought it in 1976, and ever since then it has been The King’s winter home.
Palmer’s fingerprints are all over the place, which is classy without being showy, respectful of the game without being suffocating. Gentlemen are asked to remove their hats before entering the clubhouse, like many finer clubs, but a starter’s loudspeaker welcomes guests to the first tee, like many municipal courses. The on-site Lodge is cozy, with Palmer photos and memorabilia spread throughout. (Visitors must stay in the Lodge to play Bay Hill.)
The course has been tweaked often and lengthened over the years by Palmer, assuring a good test for the pros. Amateurs should approach it like the owner – hitch up the pants and swing hard.
TPC Sawgrass, Players Stadium Course, Ponte Vedra Beach (home of THE PLAYERS Championship, May 9-12)
PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman had a vision in the late 1970s to create a great golf course, not only for pros but for spectators. The “Stadium” concept was born, and golf fans have been treated to great theatre at TPC Sawgrass’ famous Players Stadium course ever since.
For the public, it’s on the short list of absolute must-plays in American golf. The par-3 island green 17th hole is the star attraction and the calling card – tell a friend that you played the Stadium course at TPC Sawgrass and they’ll first ask what you did on 17. Ideally, your ball(s) won’t be among the 120,000 fished from the lake annually.
Visitors will find that 17 is just one of the relentless tests on the Pete Dye layout. From the tips, the Stadium course plays to a USGA slope of 155 – the highest possible.


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