Friday, February 16, 2007

Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue. That familiar rhyme could be applied to South Florida, where historical layouts from the early 20th century stand side-by-side with eye-catching newcomers less than five years old.

In fact, courses such as The Breakers in Palm Beach (1905, Alex Findlay) and The Biltmore in Coral Gables (1925, Donald Ross), have served the needs of traveling golfers for decades, and they continue to do so today.

In the "something new" category, there are far more courses from which to choose nowadays. Doral Golf Resort & Spa alone has five layouts, including a new design by Greg Norman called the Great White, and boy does it have teeth.

Other new courses, too, have opened in the last few years, such as the TPC at Heron Bay (1996, Mark McCumber) and the Diplomat Resort Country Club and Spa (1998, Joe Lee), built on the site of a bulldozed 1957 Red Lawrence design.

And if you were wondering about the "something blue" in the rhyme above, Doral also features the Blue Monster, the course on which the PGA Tour's Genuity Championship is played.

In all, there are more than 1,000 courses in Florida, 76 of them in the greater Miami and Fort Lauderdale areas. Quite a few more are just one county north in Palm Beach. These courses represent everything from inexpensive par-three layouts perfect for family fun or honing your game, to layouts on which PGA Tour events are held.

In addition to the PGA Tour event played at Doral, the Honda Classic is played on the TPC at Heron Bay, the Senior PGA Tour visits Crandon Golf course (formerly the Links at Key Biscayne) each year for the Royal Caribbean Classic, and dozens of other non-professional events are held in South Florida.

And as for the "something borrowed?" I'm still working on that.

At 7:00 a.m. on a typical morning, the breakfast room at Doral starts to come alive with golfers. As you make your way along the buffet line you'll hear Japanese, English, various forms of Spanish, and other languages being spoken.

Of course, it's Miami, so you expect that. But you'll also recognize words such as "par," or "bogey," because at Doral, the common language is golf.

The newest course on property is the Great White, a 7,171-yard Greg Norman design that is fun, frustrating, fair and nasty -- all at the same time. What immediately stands out is the abundance of coquina sand -- crushed shell -- which lines the fairways (and will twist the club in your hands like a corkscrew). There's also 222 pot bunkers sprinkled throughout and water that comes into play on 14 of 18 holes.

Not a lot of elevation change occurs, except on the sixth hole, which Norman must have designed in a bad mood. Even if he wasn't, it can certainly put golfers in a bad mood quickly. It measures only 149 yards from the blue tees, but from the tee box the green is elevated roughly 30 feet and the putting surface is sloped to the edges and as narrow as a cliffside hike. Even perfect shots have a tendency to roll off the side and into some gnarled grass below, making recovery close to impossible.

Aside from that hole, the course is a fair test and fun to play. Even though water comes into play on more than half of the holes, golfers have plenty of room to land their drives and approach shots. One funny thing: Norman used short, Australian-style flagsticks, which throws your distance perception into a tizzy. And you'd better take a cell phone to call the pro shop for directions, because the course is not well marked.

Overall, though, the Great White gives Doral Resort something totally different to offer guests.

The Blue Course -- dubbed "the Blue Monster" by the PGA Tour professionals during the inaugural 1962 Doral Open after the 18th hole played to a total of 102 strokes over par after only three rounds -- is the course that everybody HAS to play. You've seen it on television, and the chance to play a PGA Tour course is hard to pass up. Some even dare to tackle it from the 7,125-yard professional tees, but it's not recommended.

The Blue Monster features monstrous par threes. The fourth plays 236 yards to a putting surface sloping severely uphill with water to the right, and the 13th plays 245 yards and is surrounded by sand. If you hit a high ball that lands on the front of the green it will stop. But if you hit the middle of the green the ball will run into the bunker behind.

The signature 18th -- a par four which plays 443 yards with a lake bordering the entire left side and curling around the long, narrow green -- always frustrates the pros, not to mention wayward hackers.

After golf, the scene shifts to the sports bar, the pool or one of the resort's restaurants. The best of the latter is The Atrium at the Spa, a venue which gives chef de cuisine Jackeline Abreu a chance to display her talents.

Doral is just now finalizing a much-needed $25 million renovation of their rooms. If you've been here over the past several years, you know the accommodations had become somewhat tired.

A tour of renovated rooms, however, found new carpeting on the floors, fancy new marble in the bathrooms, and balcony doors that opened with two fingers. Good enough to give this international hub of golf a resurrection.

Biscayne Bay is one of Miami's more desirable addresses. So it's not surprising to see a new Ritz-Carlton resort open here. In fact, it's the first of three Ritz-Carlton hotels that will open within a year of one another: The Ritz-Carlton Coconut Grove will open in January 2002, and another in South Beach will open in March 2002.

Just down the road from the Biscayne Bay property is Crandon Golf course (formerly The Links at Key Biscayne). Several holes sit next to scenic Biscayne Bay, and the Miami skyline shines in the distance.

Many sand bunkers dot the course, protecting putting surfaces and demanding accuracy from the tee. To add to the enjoyment, numerous varieties of trees and critters call the course home, including blue crabs, egrets, ibis, iguanas, and the occasional crocodile.

A new clubhouse is scheduled to open in 2003, with expanded player facilities for both the public and the tour professionals. Guests seem to be plenty happy at the hotel, too.

Set right on the beachfront, the Ritz-Carlton Key Biscayne offers catamaran cruises and other beach activities, and also features two swimming pools, a state-of-the-art, full-service spa, and some larger, privately owned suites that are available for guest rentals when the owners are not in town. These suites come complete with kitchen facilities, a dining room, living room and all the service and amenities of The Ritz-Carlton.

Built in 1926, The Biltmore and its 279 rooms have seen its share of ups and downs over the years. Today, thankfully, it is in very good shape.

In its heyday, the hotel hosted presidents and royalty, entertainers and movie stars. It was not uncommon to see the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Judy Garland, Bing Crosby, and other luminaries. Al Capone is said to have favored this grand property when in Miami, and the "Al Capone Suite" (also known as the Everglades Suite) is still available for special guests today.

During World War II, the War Department converted The Biltmore into a hospital, and much of its luster was covered over. It remained a VA hospital until 1968. That's when the City of Coral Gables was granted ownership of the historic hotel, although it took another 15 years for it to be fully refurbished into its former self.

Unfortunately, The Biltmore could only sustain itself for three years before being forced to close once again due to financial troubles in 1990. Since 1992, however, when it reopened under the ownership of an international consortium, things have been looking up.

The 18-hole, Donald Ross-designed golf course, now owned and run by the City of Coral Gables, was also recently refurbished, and today is a fun test of golf. Biltmore guests get preferred tee times both here and on the nearby nine-hole Granada Course, also owned and operated by the city.

The Ross course plays around the perimeter of the property, and is dissected by a river that comes into play on six holes. The layout is just more than 6,600 yards, but stands of mature trees overhang some fairways, requiring accuracy off the tee. The course is a very fair, straightforward test with very little elevation change, and it's not as penal around the greens as some Ross courses, such as Pinehurst No. 2 in North Carolina.

The state-of-the-art Conference Center of the Americas now draws guests from around the world. Wonderful culinary offerings, a pool that is among the largest in the United States, a spa, and a tennis center only begin to round out the offerings here.

Twenty minutes north of Miami in Aventura is the Turnberry Isle Resort and Club. Although this resort doesn't have the same high profile as some of its Miami neighbors, it is nonetheless comparable in terms of luxury and golf.

Formerly run by the Rafael Hotel group, the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group took over management in 2000 and acquired partial ownership of Turnberry Isle. One of the first things they did was allocate $10 million for the world-class, 25,000-square-foot Turnberry Spa, which opened last June.

As for golf, the two courses have an extensive membership from the surrounding residential areas. This results in a "clubby" atmosphere for resort guests, as you are often paired up with someone who knows the courses intimately.

Typical of Robert Trent Jones Sr. designs, both courses feature runway style tee boxes, an abundance of landing area, and greenside sand bunkers. The putting surfaces are generally large and receptive.

What is not typical is that relatively few greens are elevated, which runs somewhat against Jones' "easy bogey, tough par" philosophy. Still, with plenty of water to negotiate on both designs, course management will prevail over pure length. Stay in the fairways and you should be able to score well.

The South Course is the longer and more challenging of the two at 7,003 yards. Water comes directly into play on half of the holes, and is lurking at the edges of three others.

The 545-yard, par-five 18th is a splashy finishing hole -- pardon the pun -- with the putting surface on an island next to the hotel, and an audience of the entire Magnolia wing and a gaggle of swans looking on.

At 6,403 yards, the North Course is considerably shorter, yet should not be brushed aside as easy. Its primary challenge is on the front nine that winds around Lake Julius, named after the late Julius Boros. The two-time U.S. Open champion (in 1952 and 1963) lived nearby and is said to have fished this lake frequently in the resort's early days

Holes two through seven of the North have water directly in play. The fifth hole is a 562-yard, par-five that requires an accurate drive down the left of the fairway -- Lake Julius is on the right -- a well-placed second shot still hugging the left, and a wedge to the large green that is tucked into the lake. The closer you are to water, the better is your angle to the green, but the greater the risk.

In Hollywood, Florida, 10 minutes north of Turnberry Isle, the new 1,000-room Westin Diplomat Resort & Spa is set to open early this year.

Located between the Atlantic Ocean and the Intracoastal Waterway, the Westin is a sister property to the Diplomat Country Club and Spa, a smaller, 60-room luxury property situated right on the golf course. In fact, the pro shop is in the resort's lobby. Combined, these two hotels can meet the needs of everything from a large convention group to a couple looking for a golf getaway weekend.

The 18-hole Diplomat golf course was originally built in 1958, but was bulldozed in 1998 by Joe Lee, who designed a brand new course on the land. Lee preserved many of the wonderful old banyan trees, and brought in thousands of royal palms. But the course is now, as it always has been, defined by water.

Quick Facts

  Doral Golf Resort & Spa
(800) 71-DORAL
$195-$275*

  Crandon Golf Course
(305) 361-9129
$52*

  The Biltmore Hotel
(305) 445-8066 $37-$46*

  Turnberry Isle Resort & Club
(800) 327-7028
$105-$145*

  Westin Diplomat Resort & Spa
(954) 457-2000
$125-$179

  TPC At Heron Bay
(954) 457-2000
$130

  Palm-Aire Country Club
(954) 975-6225
$65-$99*

  Bonaventure Country Club
(954) 389-2100
$70-$95

* Includes cart.
Please contact the course to confirm green fees.

Water comes into play on 12 of the 18 holes (including an island green on the par-four second hole), and is the primary resistance to scoring.

In addition to the lakes and water systems, Lee added plenty of fairway bunkers, and the quartet of strong par-threes, ranging from 160 to 194 yards, require carry and accuracy. Some potentially nasty pins tucked next to water or on top of ridges add to the challenge.

At the Westin Diplomat all guestrooms will be equipped with high-speed internet access and other amenities for the business traveler. But no matter how much business you do, don't forget to bring the sticks. This new property has it all.

The Tournament Players Club at Heron Bay, located in Coral Springs, is home to the Honda Classic, which has been contested here each March for the past five years.

A Mark McCumber-designed layout, Heron Bay stretches to 7,268 yards from the professional tees, which you can play if you enjoy punishment.

McCumber's goal was to create a golf course with maximum flexibility to accommodate the world's best players, as well as the rest of us. He accomplished this by incorporating plenty of landing area off the tees (to compensate for South Florida's infamous winds), and placing almost 100 sand bunkers throughout the course to protect both the greens and doglegs.

Not a lot of dirt was moved in the building of this course, so it is pretty flat. But with greens that are typically kept at 10 on the Stimpmeter -- 11-13 for the Honda -- it can still be a stern test.

Some water does come into play, such as on the par-four 18th, a solid finishing hole of 450 yards, where water borders the entire length of the hole on the right. Since this hole plays into the prevailing wind, it's not advisable to play conservatively, and we all know what can happen when a driver is pulled from the bag on a hole with water.

While the TPC at Heron Bay is open to the public, the nearby Radisson Coral Springs has golf packages available and can arrange preferred tee times for guests.

Several other golf courses in the greater Miami area are well worth the visit in both Dade and Broward counties, starting with Palm-Aire Country Club, a five-course facility just off I-95 in Pompano Beach. Just next door to the Palm-Aire courses is the Fairfield Palm-Aire, a time-share facility that also has a daily rental pool. The Fairfield offers its guests up to 50 percent discounts on green fees at all five Palm-Aire courses.

Bonaventure Country Club in Weston features two courses, the 7,011-yard East Course and the 6,189-yard West Course. Both are fun rounds, with the East Course playing with a higher degree of difficulty than the West Course, which has a more resort-style layout. A Wyndham Resort is located adjacent to the courses, offering discounts and preferred tee times to guests.

George Fuller is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.

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