FLORIDA'S PANHANDLE, a former pirate's playground "entrepreneured" by Chicago gangsters during Prohibition, has always been a red-headed stepchild to the Sunshine State's more elite getaways. The quality of the region's powdery white-sand beaches and turquoise-blue Gulf waters has never been in doubt. And the fishing is terrific. But not until Vancouver-based Intrawest, North America's largest ski resort developer and operator, acquired Sandestin Resort in 1998 did the so-called Emerald Coast begin to sparkle.
After outlining a $400-million makeover of the 2,400-acre property to include a retail and residential village, an aquatic recreation complex, and other amenities, Intrawest's first order of business was to bolster the resort's line-up of courses. The $12-million Raven at Sandestin, designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr. and opened last March, gives the region its first true marquee resort course. It joins three other Intrawest Raven courses (two in Arizona, one in Colorado) as a top-of-the-line, service-oriented venue. For example, player assistants, who wear two-way radios with headsets, serve as forecaddies. Unfailingly cheerful, they dispense course knowledge, clean clubs, and can make babysitter or dinner reservations for golfers during the round. On hot days, players are handed a chilled, mango-scented towel that's every bit as refreshing as the variety of challenges offered on the 19-hole course. (The Raven has two par-three 16th holes that are used on alternate days).
After cannibalizing nine holes of Sandestin's 27-hole Baytowne course, Jones and design associate Kyle Phillips set to work creating interest and movement on a flat Florida canvas framed by slash pines. The goal was an aesthetically pleasing, user-friendly resort course. The Raven is marked by lush landscaping -- more than 250,000 flowering plants (including 50,000 day lilies) were placed around the layout, as were aquatic plants in the ponds and ornamental grasses beside the fairways. The use of sand is varied and dramatic, as befits a Jones course. Flashed-faced, Tillinghast-style bunkers, many of them inset with large noses of turf to provide ease of access, break up the Florida flatness. They are balanced by well-placed target bunkers and by cluster bunkering inspired by Seminole, the exclusive club in North Palm Beach. The sand is used with restraint, however: Four holes -- 3, 5, 9, and 10 -- have no fairway bunkers. There is water in play on 13 holes, but with only three forced carries, the prudent golfer can safely tack his way around the Raven's hazards.
Brimming with strategic options, the well-conditioned, 6,910-yard, par-71 layout has wide corridors, generous bail-out areas, and kicker slopes beyond fairway bunkers designed to propel the ball forward. Most of the large, subtly contoured greens are flush to the fairway and invite either an aerial attack or a bump-and-run shot. For the good player, the game begins on the greens: The Raven's putting surfaces are uniformly slick and, in some places, treacherous.
Each of the nines ends with a long, straightaway par four with ample amounts of water in play. Each can be very testing -- a Nassau nightmare -- when a breeze stirs off Choctawhatchee Bay. Other feature holes include the par-three sixth, where players hit across a marsh to an island-style green canted from back to front; the double-dogleg par-five seventh, an intriguing hole that can be played heroically or conservatively; and the petite 130-yard 12th, its shelf-like green defended in front by a shaved bank that drops into a pond. Come up a wee bit short, and you're treated to the awful sight of your ball trickling slowly back into the hazard.
Green fees include cart and range balls. Walkers welcome. Tee times: (850) 267-8211. Golf package information: (800) 277-0800. Web site: www.sandestin.com.