Golf on the Florida Panhandle

For snowbirds who frequent the fairways of Palm Beach, Boca Raton and Orlando, the Panhandle has been a hinterland--simply not on the map. That's because of a "Redneck Riviera" reputation as outdated as metal spikes and $500,000 PGA Tour purses. Sure, 15 years ago this 102-mile-long strip of land, which doglegs along the Gulf of Mexico from Pensacola to Panama City, was strictly a beer-and-burgers beach destination with a few drab courses. But the region--now dubbed the "Emerald Coast" by marketers touting its green-hued Gulf waters--can compete with its posh Southern neighbors. Mediterranean-style gated communities and pastel boutiques are mushrooming on a shoreline once dotted with fishermen's shanties. Home prices are climbing at a staggering rate of 5 percent a month. Wine has eclipsed beer as the beverage of choice (see sidebar). And golf is the diversion du jour. Today, the area boasts 50 courses, 90 percent of which are open to the public.

Along with the pristine white-sand beaches of the Panhandle, golfers will find surprising contrasts to south Florida: temperatures 10 to 15 degrees cooler, greens fees 15 to 20 percent cheaper, a season that stretches well past May and terrain that has more natural roll than most of the Sunshine State. There are also as many magnolias as palms lining the courses--a reminder that this is the Deep South. Hush puppies appear as often as french fries on grillroom plates, and local attractions include the Civil War Soldiers Museum in Pensacola and the Greek-revival-style Wesley House antebellum mansion at Eden Gardens State Park.

To sample the best of Emerald Coast golf, fly to Fort Walton Beach and drive 20 miles east along Highway 98 to Destin, a sport fishing hub dominated by the 2,400-acre Sandestin Golf & Beach Resort, the largest Florida resort this side of Orlando. Sprawling between the sparkling Gulf and sailboat-dotted Choctawhatchee Bay, this mega-playground--so big it has its own zip code, 32550--encompasses nearly 2,000 guest accommodations, from cottages to condos, and four diverse courses, two of which, Burnt Pine Golf Club and Raven Golf Club, are must-plays.

The 1994 opening of Rees Jones's semi-private Burnt Pine pushed Emerald Coast golf beyond the ordinary and attracted to the area other big-name architects, including Tom Fazio and Fred Couples. Demanding 12 carries over wetlands and lakes, the stern, 7,001-yard layout features undulating fairways and tiered greens, many guarded by pot bunkers. Towering pines and million-dollar mansions with red-tile roofs line the front nine, while the back opens onto the bay. The most beautiful place to get burnt? The lethal 212-yard 14th, which skirts the vast blue of Choctawhatchee on the right. All four sets of tees require a clean sail over a marsh to a curvy, bulkheaded green protected by a cunning little pot bunker in the back-left corner. During a casual round in 1998, an unsuspecting mini-tour player named David Goode notched 10 birdies at Burnt Pine before confronting the 14th, where he crashed with a triple bogey. Bruised but still standing, he made it home with a course-record 65.

Emerald Coast Bargains
Here are the regions five best deals, according to GOLF MAGAZINE'S Bang for the Buck value-rating system
Courses and Contacts Peek Weekend Slope Wow! Factor (Scale 1-10) Condition (Scale 1-5) Pace (Scale 1-5) Service (Scale 1-5) Rating
Windswept Dunes $56 143 8.9 4.8 5.0 4.2 93.1
Lost Key $70 144 7.5 4.5 4.7 4.5 88.6
Marcus Pointe $49 129 6.7 4.6 4.6 4.3 85.8
Tiger Point G&CC (West) $50 138 6.5 3.9 4.6 4.5 83.3
Woodlands GC at Craft Farms $69 123 6.6 4.6 4.6 4.6 83.3

Sandestin's two other tracks, The Links Course and Baytowne Golf Club, both designed by Tom Jackson, are spunky and kind to the ego but less spectacular than their high-profile siblings. The 30-year-old, 6,710-yard Links twists and turns around 12 lakes, with five holes (8, 9, 13, 14 and 15) flirting with the bay. The most forgiving of Sandestin's quartet, the 6,745-yard Baytowne is heavily bunkered and lined with pines on the front but turns topsy-turvy on the back, with generous landing areas that invite full-throttle drives.

After your round, wander through Sandestin's Village of Baytowne Wharf, a New Orleans-style cluster of 45 shops and 12 bistros. At the dockside Hammerhead's Bar & Grill, potent quenchers like the Category 5 Hurricane and Electric Lemonade erase bad memories of missed three-footers. Marlin Grill serves superb seafood, including the not-to-be-missed plank-grilled salmon in maple syrup sauce. The cheery, French-country-style Another Broken Egg, which starts stirring at 6 a.m., offers an infinite selection of robust omelets, such as the crabmeat-filled Floridian.

A driver and long iron up Highway 98 from Sandestin, Couples--along with Gene Bates--designed one of the Emerald Coast's best groomed and most acclaimed layouts. Kelly Plantation Golf Club, carved from a turpentine plantation, appears as affable and low-key as Couples himself. There are no doglegs, no roller coaster contours and the fairway bunkers, while copious, are shallow. But at 7,099 yards from the tips, this 5-year-old track can get cranky. The Bermuda rough is as tough as steel wool, and there's enough water to float an armada--15 lakes and the bay come into play on 10 holes. The skinny, rippling fairway of the gorgeous 401-yard fourth hole sits flush against Choctawhatchee on the left, with a large lake protecting the right. Hook or slice and you're all wet.

If outfoxing erratic winds turns you on, pop over to nearby Regatta Bay Golf & Country Club, a Robert Walker production heavily laced with wetlands. Fifty highly stylized bunkers--rife with capes and fingers--increase the challenge on this 6,864-yard layout. The 191-yard eighth curls perilously around a lake on the left to a green defended by bunkers front and back. Stealth breezes tease well-struck irons on this dangerous one-shotter. "If you take three there, just go home," jokes Regatta Bay shop assistant Rick Walker.

Wine Holes
Going native on the Panhandle means getting serious about the grape. Not only do wine bars abound--10 lie within a 26-mile stretch between Destin and Rosemary Beach--but also wine shops, festivals, classes, tasting events and dinners. At the annual Sandestin Wine Festival, which draws thousands of Southeastern oenophiles, $150,000 of vintage labels were sold in eight hours last year. (The festival is scheduled for April 21-25 this year; visit sandestin.com for more information.)

Golfers figure prominently in this exploding wine culture. Several wine bars, like Medusa Rouge, Vintage and CuvEe Beach Cellar & Wine Bar Restaurant tune their televisions to The Golf Channel and ESPN. "If wine bars aren't the new 19th hole, they're the 20th hole," says Patrick Crumpler, manager of Cuvee Beach, which pours about 100 glasses a day, starting at 5 p.m. "Sometimes golfers have a cold one at the clubhouse--then finish up here."

Golfers' favorite juice? "Big, bold reds, without a doubt," says Chan Cox of Chan's Wine World, a retail outlet with four locations. "Cabernet Sauvignon is their favorite."

Crib Sheet
Baytowne GC
Greens fees:$89-$109*;
800-622-1038; sandestin.com
Burnt Pine GC
Greens fees$135-$155*;
850-267-6500; sandestin.com
Camp Creek GC
Greens fees: $125; 850-231-7600;
watercolorinn.com
>Kelly Plantation GC
Greens fees: $130;
800-811-6757; kellyplantation.com
Raven GC
Greens Fees: $115-$135*;
850-267-8155; sandestin.com
Regatta Bay G&CC
Greens fees; $69-$89;
800-337-8080; regattabay.com
Sandestin Golf & Beach Resort
Greens Fees: $90-$840;
850-267-8000; sandestin.com
The Links Course
Greens fees; $89-$109*;
850-267-8144; sandestin.com
Windswept Dunes
Greens Fees: $39-$56;
850-835-1847; windsweptdunes.com
Watercolor Inn
Room rates; $270-$445*;
850-534-5000; watercolorinn.com
* subject to change
The Truman Show

Just down the road in Seagrove Beach, the chic WaterColor Inn, a boutique hotel with 60 rooms done in seashell tones, bunks golfers intent on tackling Camp Creek, which lies six miles east in a windblown, isolated landscape that conjures up Shinnecock Hills. Camp Creek has created a lot of buzz since its 2001 opening. Some liken it to red-hot Bandon Dunes, while others see hints of Torrey Pines and Pebble Beach. Fazio describes it as "a coastal dunescape golf course." One thing is certain: It doesn't look like Florida.

The 7,159-yard Camp Creek routing, which dips, rises and swerves through seas of tall grass, yawning sand washes and lakes bristling with birds, is all about elevation change--Fazio moved a million cubic yards of earth here. The immense greens undulate as severely as the fairways, and high-lipped bunkers form menacing clusters throughout the course. On the 360-yard 13th hole, 10 bunkers squeeze the approach, creating a bottleneck that ascends to a pedestal green with a false front.

Backtracking 30 miles northwest to the sleepy burg of Freeport, you'll find the Emerald Coast's newest links, Windswept Dunes. This six-month-old track stretches to 7,584 yards, but six sets of tees cut it to size. Each hole is framed by stark-white man-made dunes, which, thankfully, are more cosmetic than they are hazardous.

The rolling layout, with huge, subtly contoured greens, marks the first Florida endeavor of midwestern designer Doug O'Rourke, who with GOLF MAGAZINE Top 100 Teacher Rick Smith built the Signature track at Michigan's Treetrops Resort. Intent on shaping tons of white sand into natural-looking dunes, O'Rourke thought he'd have to ship it in. Windswept's developer assured him the sand was there--just keep digging. One day, while excavating to build a lake, O'Rourke struck a Sahara of the stuff. Now it frames holes like the 472-yard finisher, a dogleg-right that starts over a broomsage-studded waste area stretching from the tips to just beyond the forward tees.

After carrying that rough patch, golfers deserve a hot dog and a cold one at Windswept Dunes' aluminum-sided snack bar/pro shop. Aluminum-sided? That sounds like the Redneck Riviera of old. Thankfully, the shack is temporary. Plans for a posh, grand clubhouse are in the works; it will anchor an upscale gated community called Windswept Estates. That sounds so Emerald Coast.

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