South African Ernie Els has never won the Chrysler Championship in suburban Tampa, Florida. His countryman, Retief Goosen, triumphed here in 2003, and his President’s Cup teammate Vijay Singh hoisted the trophy in 2004. Nevertheless, Els is smitten with the host venue, the Copperhead Course at the Westin Innisbrook Resort, in Palm Harbor.
“This is probably Florida’s best golf resort,” gushed Els this week, 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. Copperhead has thick rough, glassy greens and splatter pattern of bunkers.
The Innisbrook Resort is situated 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, though more often than not, peaks and valleys dominate the landscape. On more than one occasion, startling climbs and plunges in elevation occur. This is especially true on Innisbrook’s signature course, the Copperhead.
Golf at Innisbrook unfolds over 72 holes: the Copperhead, The Island, the Highlands North and the Highlands South. Of the latter two, the South is the slightly tougher and better course. Of the former two, there is much to recommend about the Island, which is held in such esteem that it was selected to host the 1990 NCAA Men’s Championship. The individual title that year went to a promising southpaw named Phil Mickelson. Island is flatter than Copperhead and the bunkering is neither as dramatic nor as severe, but plenty of water hazards and meaty par-4s make it a superb challenge.
Nevertheless, the course you’ve got to play at least once is the Copperhead, which can spit bogeys back at you with the kind of venom usually reserved for its namesake reptile. Designed in 1972 by Lawrence and Roger Packard, the 7,340-yard, par-71 Copperhead tumbles up and down sandhills lined with towering long needle, Australian and slash pine trees and places a premium on accuracy, but your long game had better be working as well, as the majority of greens are elevated and well-guarded by sprawling sand traps. Copperhead is fiercely trapped, but is never repetitive.
A pair of marvelous par-5s — the uphill, then downhill 605-yard fifth and the double dogleg, 590-yard 14th — linger as Copperhead’s most memorable holes. With its sea of sand and collection of elevated greens, Copperhead’s a bit too much golf for beginners. However, its straightforward virtues and hard-won pars appeal to the boys who play for pay. If you’re anywhere in between, you’ll warm instantly to this honest, handsome challenge.