Shake off the chill with a golf trip to the sunbelt

January 29, 2010

When Jack Frost starts nipping at your driver and the prospect of a long winter starts to wear you down, there’s only one solution: Road Trip. Make plans now: You’ll feel better immediately. If sun-baked fairways in December, January or February sound like a sure cure for what’s ailing you, then here’s a sampling of where to play in shirtsleeves this winter.

Southern Florida

Warm breezes, swaying Coconut palms and lush Bermuda fairways say 'winter escape' like nothing else I know. For a steady diet of all three, head to the Sunshine State.

Trophy Course

Doral Golf Resort & Spa (TPC Blue Monster)
Miami, Fla.

Newly branded as a TPC course, the fabled Blue Monster has played host to the PGA Tour since 1962. Past winners include Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, so for the hefty fee, you’re walking in seriously famous footsteps. Best of all, you can actually walk. Tour-quality caddies and forecaddies help you negotiate the flattish terrain that’s sprinkled with eight lakes, more than 100 bunkers and plenty of wind.

It honestly isn’t that intimidating from the forward tees — provided you’ve practiced your sand shots before arriving — but the aura is simply overpowering. Perfect greens, with only the mildest undulation, adds to the appeal, but for my money, the one 'can’t miss' is the hot dog at Doral’s Champions Bar & Grill that overlooks the incomparable par-4 closing hole. I don’t care if it is $13 — it’s the best grilled dog I’ve had in memory.

A Strong Number 2

PGA National Resort and Spa (Champion)
Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.
$364 high-season max; year-round package pricing available

No slouch, either, in the golf history department is this 1981 Tom Fazio design that Jack Nicklaus re-tooled in 1990, creating the infamous 'Bear Trap,' holes 15 through 17, a watery par-4 sandwiched by equally watery par-3s. When the wind is up, you could rinse two sleeves of balls on this trio alone.

The Fazio course played host to the 1983 Ryder Cup and the 1987 PGA Championship, while the Nicklaus version was the venue for two fistfuls of PGA Seniors Championships, a major on the Champions Tour. It currently hosts the PGA Tour’s Honda Classic, where par is a very good score. My advice: bring a sturdy ball retriever — you’ll be using it a lot.

Hidden Gem

North Palm Beach Country Club
North Palm Beach, Fla.
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Local boy Jack Nicklaus modernized this 1920s-era muni in 2006, adding 800 yards, wildly undulating greens and an expanded practice and teaching facility — all for the fee of $1 — Jack’s way of giving back to his adopted hometown. With a pair of holes along the Intracoastal Waterway, strategic bunkering and a relatively tiny high season green fee for a Jack Nicklaus Signature design, North Palm Beach is one of Florida’s top values.


Fairmont Turnberry Isle Resort & Club
Aventura, Fla.
December package rates start at $265 per person, per night, based on double occupancy

A stay at the Fairmont Turnberry doesn’t come cheap, but it’s worth the freight, thanks to a recent $150 million makeover. Among the improvements are an upgraded Willow Stream Spa experience and a major overhaul to both courses by Raymond Floyd. Both the Soffer and Miller courses proved beautiful, rugged tests for the pros in 2008, when Annika Sorenstam won an LPGA event with an 8-under-par total.

Phoenix/Scottsdale, Arizona
Thanks to spectacular sunsets, endless mountain vistas and a remarkable variety of layouts — plus 70-degree days in January, Arizona is truly a winter golf mecca. In particular, the Phoenix/Scottsdale hub is truly a case of cactus makes perfect.

Trophy Course

TPC Scottsdale (Stadium)
Scottsdale, Ariz.

I count plenty of courses in the Valley of the Sun that offer more scenery and drama, but for golfers who notch their belts, the TPC Scottsdale Stadium is an absolute must-play in the Phoenix area. This 1986 Tom Weiskopf/Jay Morrish design is home to the largest, most vocal golf galleries in the world each year for the FBR Open — and the top on-course festival in the game at the par-3 16th, site of Tiger Woods’ unforgettable ace in 1997. A pair of watery tests, the par-5 15th and par-4 17th, both with McDowell Mountain backdrops, are two of the finest risk/reward holes on Tour.

A Strong Number 2
Grayhawk Golf Club (Raptor)
Scottsdale, Ariz.

Host the past three years to the PGA Tour’s Open, Grayhawk’s Raptor is a first-class track that regularly delivers wild finishes, thanks especially to the 18th, a long par-4 for the pros that’s edged by a lake to the right. This 1995 Tom Fazio desert creation was Phil Mickelson’s main haunt before he relocated to San Diego a few years back — but his memorabilia-loaded Phil’s Grill remains intact, right down to the tastiest margaritas in town. Classic rock and roll piped onto the practice range and the (Peter) Kostis-(Gary) McCord Learning Center are among the other attractions.

Hidden Gem
Gold Canyon Golf Resort (Dinosaur Mountain)
Gold Canyon, Ariz.

It’s not hard to find folks who question the 45-minute drive east of Phoenix’s Sky Harbor Airport just to play golf, given that there are so many good courses much closer in the city limits. Those who have made the trek no longer question. This stunning Ken Kavanaugh design boasts scenery that’s equal to anything in Scottsdale, owing to roller-coaster elevation change and incomparable encounters with the Superstition Mountains.

The Boulders Resort
Carefree, Ariz.
December rates start at $179 per room per night.

Carefree is not only the town where the Boulders resides, but the spirit exuded by most guests during their stay. Accommodations take the form of low-slung adobe casitas that melt into the background, each with hand-hewn, wood-beam ceilings and wood-burning fireplaces. Two Jay Morrish courses that traverse giant Saguaro cacti and even bigger rocks (that give the resort its name) are highlights, as is the re-opened Latilla restaurant (try the Southwestern Corn Chowder and the Rocky Mountain Elk Loin) and the sybaritic Golden Door Spa.

Sure, Hawaii is a haul from the East Coast, but when your goal this winter is to take in amazing beaches, sugar-cane and pineapple fields, waterfalls and active volcanoes, it’s easily worth the journey. Toss in 80-degree days and impeccably groomed courses — and plenty of frequent flier miles — and Hawaii becomes closer still.

Trophy Course
Kapalua Resort (Plantation course)
Kapalua, Maui, Hawaii

Win a tournament on the PGA Tour and one huge perk vests immediately: You’re going to Kapalua! The Bill Coore/Ben Crenshaw-designed Plantation course plays host to the Tour’s season-opening winners-only event (now called the SBS Championship) for the 12th time, Jan. 7-10, 2010. Past champs include Tiger Woods, Jim Furyk, Sergio Garcia and Ernie Els, but no one really dominates this breeze-fueled former pineapple plantation. Course features include hilly, firm, extra-wide landing areas that lead to huge, rolling putting surfaces, placing emphasis on knockdowns and ground game prowess. Jungle-strewn canyons, elevated tees and Pacific Ocean vistas spice the play on the final two holes.

A Strong Number 2
Poipu Bay Golf Course
Koloa, Kauai, Hawaii

Best known for its 13-year run as host for the PGA’s Grand Slam of Golf, Poipu Bay became Tiger Woods’ personal playground. He won seven editions, including a 5-peat from 1998-2002. Of course, it’s his top rival, Phil Mickelson, who has the low 18, scorching the Robert Trent Jones Jr. design in 59 strokes to win the 2004 title. Poipu Bay sports a solid, if unmemorable front nine, followed by an exclamation point-filled back nine, notably at the cliff-top oceanside trio of 15, 16 and 17.

Hidden Gem
Puakea Golf Course
Lihue, Kauai, Hawaii

Puakea was once known as the best 10-hole course in the U.S. but after architect Robin Nelson added eight more holes to the property where some of 'Jurassic Park' was filmed, it took notice as one of Hawaii’s best values. The downhill jungle plunge at the 176-yard, par-3 6th is Oscar-worthy.

Four Seasons Resort Hualalai at Historic Ka’ upulehu
Ka’ upulehu-Kona, Big Island, Hawaii
rates start at $495 per night

It’s been 209 years since the 8,171-foot peak of Hualalai last overflowed with molten lava. Nonetheless, the catch phrase at this Four Seasons is 'go with the flow,' because the vibe is so 'can’t shake this grin' pleasant. A surprisingly mellow Jack Nicklaus design hosts the season-opening Mitsubishi Electric event on the Champions Tour. The par-3 17th embodies the spirit of the layout perfectly, with its medium-sized green isolated brilliantly by black lava, white sand and the blue Pacific. What elevates the property, however, is the flawless guest service, its relaxed Hawaii gourmet restaurant, Pahu i’a and one of the nation’s top-rated spas.

Palm Springs, Calif.
Whirl around virtually anywhere in the Palm Springs area and you’re bound to stub your toe on a terrific golf course. You’ll also encounter year-round sunshine, desert breezes, tall palms and awe-inspiring mountains, making the Coachella Valley a great winter golf playground.

Trophy Course
TPC Stadium Course at PGA West
La Quinta, Calif.

After nearly 25 years of horror stories, Pete Dye’s west coast answer to Sawgrass is smiling all the way to the bank — because everybody still lines up to play it. Technology has rendered the course the PGA Tour pros refused to go back to (following the 1987 Bob Hope event) less dangerous than in its Big-Hair heyday, but for less proficient ball-strikers, it’s absolutely relentless in its assault of insanely deep bunkers, Vail ski hill-size moguls and demanding carries over water and desert. Lee Trevino captured the 1987 Skins Game when he aced the island green 17th, but even he advises, 'do not shoot at the flag — go to the dead-center of the green, like Jack Nicklaus would do.' Sound advice for a scary hole.

A Strong Number 2
La Quinta Resort & Club (Mountain course)
La Quinta, Calif.

Perhaps its sibling, the Jack Nicklaus Tournament course, has handed out more trophies in the past 20 years, but if you’re a course collector, you shouldn’t miss this Pete Dye masterpiece, that kicked off the Palm Springs resort golf boom when it debuted in 1980. Canada, paced by Dan Halldorson and Dave Barr, captured the 1985 World Cup here, with England’s Howard Clark winning the individual crown and Chi Chi Rodriguez edged Gary Player to claim the 1989 Senior Skins Game here. Mountain is home to a truly memorable back nine, especially holes 14-16 that plunge up and down the mountainside.

Hidden Gem
Escena Golf Club
Palm Springs, Calif.

Re-opened in November 2009 following a two-year, real estate downturn-induced closure, this 2005 product from Nicklaus Design nabbed honors as Palm Springs’ Top Value during its first go-round — and things are even better now. A comfortable new 16,000-sq.-ft., clubhouse, done up in 'Mid-Century Modern,' is the most welcome addition, but the main draw is and always was the fun, fair, reasonably priced layout itself, complete with amply wide fairways, modestly undulating, sensibly quick greens, a smattering of attractive water hazards and plenty of mountain scenery.

La Quinta Resort & Club
La Quinta, Calif.
December golf package rates start at $279 per person, per night, based on double occupancy.

Hollywood elite have been regulars at the La Quinta since it opened back in 1926. It’s easy to see why. As legendary 'It’s a Wonderful Life' director Frank Capra put it, 'It was the kind of place everybody was looking for. It was a wonderful green oasis in the middle of the desert and it was absolutely private.' The one- and two-story casitas, with whitewashed adobe walls, are tucked in among palms and bougainvilleas, with in-your-face views of the surrounding mountains. Easy access to five courses, plus superb restaurants and a world-class spa are further enticements.

The Caribbean/The Islands
Call it a revival, a rebirth, or merely a rediscovery, but The Bahamas, the Caribbean Isles and Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula have re-established themselves as wonderful winter golf destinations. Sun and sea were always attractions; add gambling, eco-tourism and improved golf course grasses to the mix and you’ve got a warm, winning combination.

Trophy Course

El Camaleon at Fairmont Mayakoba Resort
Quintana Roo, Mexico

Its name means 'the chameleon,' but Mexico’s PGA Tour stop is so unique — and so good — that they shouldn’t change a thing. It’s no surprise that three of the PGA Tour’s most accurate drivers, Fred Funk, Brian Gay and Mark Wilson, have triumphed at this seaside/jungle track south of Cancun, near Playa del Mar. Impenetrable mangroves corset many fairways, while other landing areas are laced with bunkers, tropical trees and shrubs as well as lagoons and remarkably clear canals that snake through limestone walls. Also unique are the cenotes (natural, cave-like sinkholes) that affect play on several holes. Bring your camera — and your straight shot — to Mayakoba.

A Strong Number 2
Punta Espada at Cap Cana Resort
Punta Cana, Dominican Republic

March 22-28, 2010, brings us the third edition of the Champions Tour’s Cap Cana event and you can credit the venue for the stellar fields it draws. With half of its holes edging the Caribbean Sea and the rest in sight of it, this 2006 Jack Nicklaus design is among the most scenic tournament courses in golf. Situated on the Eastern tip of the island, the 7,396-yard Punta Espada layout is a wildlife-filled romp from beginning to end, but save some camera disk space for the par-3 13th, a 249-yarder that demands a carry over the sea. Double-bogey never felt so good.

Hidden Gem
Sandy Lane Resort (Country Club course)
St. James, Barbados, West Indies

Venerable Sandy Lane Resort simply gets better with age, much like Bernhard Langer, who at age 49 helped capture the 2006 World Cup for Germany here with partner Marcel Siem. Tom Fazio crafted the Country Club course, venue for that World Cup, in 2001 and while it’s not as memorable as its simian sibling, the Green Monkey course, it offers plenty of golf — at $150 to $200 cheaper to play. Its funky 5-5-3-5-3 finish is highlighted by the downhill 174-yard 16th, backdropped by the Caribbean Sea and the 195-yard 18th, which plays over a pond.

Casa de Campo Resort
La Romana, Dominican Republic
December rates from $178 per night

A private beach, a new category of elite rooms and the adjacent Altos de Chavon (a recreated 16th century Mediterranean village/arts colony) are some of the highlights at this top Caribbean resort. Jump it up big-time for golfers, because it’s also home to three Pete Dye courses, including one that Pete calls his very favorite, Teeth of the Dog, ranked #43 in our rankings of the Top 100 in the World. Its seaside par-3s are among the most memorable in the sport.