Tom Fazio's Pine Barrens course at World Woods
John & Jeannine Henebry
Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Tampa a great golf town? It's probably not the first golf destination travelers think of in Florida. But stretch the city limits to include the greater Tampa Bay area and it's not far off.

Without a broad definition of Tampa Bay, the region's best daily-fee might appear to be out of reach. World Woods Golf Club in Brooksville, 50 miles north of Tampa, has dazzled golfers and architecture critics since it opened 10 years ago in a 2,100-acre pine forest. Despite the club's off-the-beaten-track location, World Woods's Pine Barrens and Rolling Oaks courses attract golfers from far and wide. Pine Barrens, ranked 10th on GOLF MAGAZINE's Top 100 You Can Play, is a testament to designer Tom Fazio's reverence for Pine Valley. With its 44 acres of waste bunkers and pine-packed fairways, this is as close to the perennial world No. 1 as most traveling golfers will get. Yet Pine Barrens stands on its own as one of the most compelling designs in Florida.

At first blush, Pine Barrens appears to be a haven for long hitters, but shot values are of the essence, with most par 4s and 5s offering a clear position "A" off the tee. Fazio also toys with the unconventional, using split fairways on the 494-yard 4th and 547-yard 14th to force a choice between routes. From the fairways in, Pine Barrens is target golf at its finest.

Moving from Pine Barrens to Rolling Oaks (46th on GOLF MAGAZINE's Top 100 You Can Play) is a bit like switching from jazz to blues. What was angular and enigmatic becomes straightforward and simple. Not that Rolling Oaks, also deigned by Fazio, is a pushover -- as one ranger confided, it is the preferred layout of most World Woods' employees. Think gentle doglegs with stately live oaks and rolling terrain. It's easy to shoot a high number on Rolling Oaks. It's just as easy to not care.

Back in Tampa, a revitalized downtown and waterfront area features a new multi-sport arena, aquarium, museums, hotels and eateries. The SoHo district -- named for a now-fashionable stretch of South Howard Avenue and appropriately adorned with pubs, chic restaurants and coffee houses -- is a haven for the young professional crowd.

Your next stop, the Westin Innisbrook Golf Resort, is one of Florida's venerable golf institutions. Its unassuming entrance off U.S. 19 is a poker-faced front for what lies within. This 1,100-acre property houses 72 holes, four restaurants, six pools, tennis and racquetball courts, cycling trails, and even a wildlife preserve.

Innisbrook's Copperhead Course, designed by Lawrence Packard, is home to the PGA Tour's Chrysler Championship. With elevation changes and thick stands of pines, Copperhead calls to mind the Sandhills of North Carolina. The par-71 layout stretches to a meaty 7,295 yards, but most holes offer plenty of landing room. The first hole is a stout, 560-yard double dogleg that tumbles from an elevated tee. Seventeen strong holes later, Copperhead culminates with one of the area's best finishers, the uphill, 445-yard, par-4 18th.

Copperhead may be Innisbrook's marquee course, but the 7,063-yard, par-72 Island Course more than holds its own. In fact, while Copperhead is expansive and ready-made for driver, the Island Course is sinewy and tight, a haven for precision. The first six holes play around a large lagoon that can keep the fear of gators in the back of your mind. The next six venture back to dry, hilly terra firma, while the final six holes offer a bit of both worlds.

Crib Sheet: Tampa Bay
World Woods Golf Club
Greens fees $50-$120
352-796-5500; worldwoods.com
TPC of Tampa Bay
Greens fees $92-$149
813-949-0090; tpc.com
Saddlebrook Resort
Greens fees $70-$145
800-729-8383; saddlebrookresort.com
Westin Innisbrook Golf Resort
Greens fees $60-$200
877-752-1480; westin-innisbrook.com
Belleview Biltmore
Greens fees $40-$100
727-581-5498; belleviewbiltmore.com
Dunedin Country Club
Greens fees $46-$54
727-733-2134; dunedincc.com
Fox Hollow Golf Club
Greens fees $60-$85
800-943-1902; sandri.com
Westchase Golf Club
Greens fees $59-$84
813-854-2331; westchasegc.com
Heritage Harbor Golf and Country Club
Greens fees $40-$55
813-949-4886; heritageharborgolf.com
Lake Jovita
Greens fees $85-$115
352-588-9200; lakejovita.com
Dunes Golfers Club
Greens fees $35-$50
800-232-1363
For more information, contact the Gulf Shores Golf Association at 888-815-1902 or www.golfgulfshores.com.

The resort's two other tracks, Highlands North and South, are serviceable, affordable layouts that appeal to golfers on a budget. The 6,768-yard South holds a special place in Florida golf lore: It's home to the longest hole in the state, the 650-yard 13th.

Saddlebrook Resort in Wesley Chapel, 30 minutes north of downtown, is another must-play on the Tampa rota. Guests here rave about the resort's two courses -- the 6,564-yard, par-70 namesake layout and the 6,469-yard, par-71 Palmer Course. The Saddlebrook Course emphasizes careful placement off the tee and represents everything most golfers have come to expect from Florida golf: pancake-flat fairways, doglegs framed by tropical trees, and plenty of water hazards. Across the way at the Palmer Course, approach shots are the name of the game. Ed Seay, Arnold Palmer's design partner, built the putting surfaces with nary a flat spot, and hitting the correct portion of the green is the only way to get yourself a realistic birdie putt. There's plenty of mounding, which gives the layout a decidedly modern feel.

Two years ago, Sarasota-based architect Chip Powell and the Donald Ross Society restored the 6,614-yard, par-71 Belleview Biltmore Hotel, Golf and Spa Resort course to its former glory. Donald Ross designed the original course here, Pelican Golf Club, in 1925. For good measure, Powell threw in a series of new fairway bunkers and lagoons that appeared on Ross's plans but never made it off paper. And true Ross aficionados will also need to check out nearby Dunedin Country Club, a 6,565-yard, semiprivate track that opened in 1927 and served as the headquarters of the PGA of America from 1945 to 1962.

The most popular course in town, according to readers of the Tampa Tribune, is the Tournament Players Club of Tampa Bay. This Bobby Weed-Chi Chi Rodriguez collaboration has hosted a Champions Tour event since 1992. Not long at 6,898 yards, the layout is visually dramatic, with lots of mounding, and all the golf you could want. The design weaves through protected wetlands north of Tampa with a grace that earned it a citation as an Audubon-certified sanctuary. Good golf with a clean conscience is hard to beat.

The Tampa Bay area also has a number of highly regarded daily-fee courses and affordable municipal venues. Fox Hollow in New Port Richey is a Robert Trent Jones design that most locals count among their favorites. Westchase Golf Club (in Tampa), Heritage Harbor (Lutz), Lake Jovita (Dade City) and the Dunes Golfers Club (Brooksville) are worth exploring.

The peak season runs from December through March. When in doubt, opt for March. Spring training is alive and well in the Bay area, which serves as preseason home to baseball's New York Yankees (in Tampa), Philadelphia Phillies (Clearwater) and Toronto Blue Jays (Dunedin), as well as the hometown Devil Rays (St. Petersburg). If you can handle the heat, the summer months are full of discounts, with the bargains often stretching all the way into November.

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