Ernie Els suffered a crushing defeat last March at the PGA Tour's Transitions (Tampa Bay) Championship when his putter failed him late in the tournament. It had to be doubly agonizing for the Big Easy, given his fondness for the host venue, Innisbrook Golf & Spa Resort's Copperhead course.
"This is probably Florida's best golf resort," gushed Els in 2006, adding, "and I personally think the Copperhead layout is the best golf course that the PGA Tour visits in Florida. It has a lot of character, some nice design features and, unlike a lot of courses in the area, it has some significant changes in elevation."
The good news for traveling golfers is that you don't need a Tour card to play Copperhead - at least for the other 51 weeks in the year. Conquering Copperhead is another matter. It helps to have Els-like tempo - and his length off the tee - to cope with the thick rough, glassy greens and splatter pattern of bunkers.
The resort is situated in Palm Harbor on the west coast of Florida, not far from the sponge divers and Greek restaurants of Tarpon Springs and just north of St. Petersburg and Clearwater. Tampa International Airport is roughly 20 miles southeast of the resort. But the topography of Innisbrook seems worlds away.
Innisbrook resembles Carolina mountain golf, yet is blessed with Florida weather, making for a rare and wonderful combination. At times, the acreage is flattish, but on multiple occasions, startling climbs and plunges in elevation occur. This is especially true on Innisbrook's signature course, Copperhead. While Innisbrook boasts four 18-hole tracks, including the Island, where a promising southpaw from Arizona State named Phil Mickelson won the 1990 NCAA Individual title, it's Copperhead that remains the must-play for serious sticks.
Copperhead can spit bogeys back at you with the kind of venom usually reserved for its namesake reptile, thanks to its rolling, pine-framed fairways and a collection of elevated greens that are inevitably fortified by sprawling bunkers. Copperhead is fiercely trapped, but it is never repetitive. Toss in a fistful of handsome, if intimidating, water hazards and you have a course dialed in for ballstrikers. If you're the type of golfer who has trouble getting 5-irons up in the air, find somewhere else to play. Its rigors don't exactly play to the strengths of my game, but that doesn't mean I don't have fun trying. Pars definitely mean something here.
For those who are up to the challenge, take advantage of Innisbrook's Tampa Bay Championship package, where guests have the opportunity to tackle the Copperhead course on the Monday after the tournament ends. You'll literally be following in the footsteps of past champions such as Luke Donald, Vijay Singh, Jim Furyk and Retief Goosen. If you want even more golf, on all nine of Salamander Hotels & Resorts' courses at Innisbrook, Reunion Resort in Orlando and Hammock Beach Resort in Palm Coast, check out its Grand Golf Resorts of Florida Legends of Golf Trail package.
All nine of the courses on the Grand Golf Resorts of Florida roster are standouts. Still, I have to leave 100-year-old Larry Packard with the last word on which one is best. Packard is the architect who sculpted Copperhead back in 1972 and remains a champion of its virtues. When I asked him recently about Ernie Els' flattering portrayal of Copperhead, Packard responded, "I think he's right." Are Ernie and Larry correct in their assessment? Try out Copperhead for yourself and weigh in.
(Photo: Courtesy of Innisbrook Resort)