Travelin' Joe's Guide to Southern Florida Golf Courses

Travelin’ Joe’s Guide to Southern Florida Golf Courses

The reborn Normandy Shores in Miami Beach.
Nile Young Photography

Southern Florida's motto could well be "Diversity is us." Perhaps no region in the United States has such an astounding mix of ethnic, economic, social and geographic personas. That goes for the golf offerings as well. Undoubtedly the sheer size of the region we're speaking of (pretty much anything south of Orlando) has something to do with the vast variety of courses and backdrops that dot South Florida, but that said, it has much to do with vision and creativity as well. Hey, whether there's water in the distance or not, flat is flat — and that describes South Florida, period, so the architects had to get inventive to build something that's memorable.

The southeast is dominated by two major but wildly different cities, Miami and Palm Beach. The Latin flavor, endless nightlife and anything-goes aura have long ago eclipsed Miami's "retirement-haven" image. In Palm Beach, old, quiet money, conservative tastes and third-home's-the-charm attitudes still rule, even after the Madoff debacle. Exclusive private golf clubs still hold sway in both towns, but neither city is top-heavy with them.

In contrast, the southwest region, spearheaded by Naples, is nearly a desert when it comes to notable public golf. The southwest's answer to Palm Beach boasts terrific beaches, shopping and private real estate golf, but the public side lags. The good news is, all you need do is zip up I-75 along the Gulf Coast to the Tampa Bay region of Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater and you'll encounter all the daily-fee golf your wallet can handle.

What's New in Town

Brand new courses in South Florida are tied to real estate — without exception — so understandably, this market, like most, is flat. The TPC Treviso Bay in Naples opened to little fanfare in December 2008, but its stock rose quickly when it played host successfully in February to the Champions Tour. The Arthur Hills/Hal Sutton design features generous helpings of the usual Florida staples, water and sand, and its overall length, 7,367 yards is sufficient to tax even the longest of the Senior sluggers. Nonetheless, it's the curvaceous greens that form the strongest challenge. True, Loren Roberts birdied three of his last four holes to win — including the par-5 18th from 3 feet — but as testament to the trouble to be found on the putting surfaces, the "Boss of the Moss" three-putted four times during the event. TPC Treviso Bay is technically open to members and guests only, but holders of a TPC Passport can access the layout. If you're desperate to play it, call ahead. In this economy, many private clubs might find room at certain times of the week.

Another relative newcomer along the Gulf Coast is Old Corkscrew, in Estero, a few exits north of Naples. This pristine Jack Nicklaus Signature layout carved from the Everglades has always intended to be private, but circumstances being what they are, the public can tee it up there for the indefinite future. Typical for a Nicklaus course, it's a brute from the back, 7,393 yards, with a 76 rating and 142 slope. It's more playable from closer in, provided you can handle the gigantic sprawls of sand and pine-edged wetlands on many holes.

In the southeast sector, dramatic redesign is the theme these days. For bargain seekers, look no further than the beaches — or rather, the bunkers — of Normandy. Miami's Normandy Shores Golf Club reopened in late December 2008 following a $7.5 million makeover by Arthur Hills/Steve Forrest and Associates, after sitting fallow for four years. Boasting an enviable location adjacent to Biscayne Bay on man-made Normandy Isle, Normandy Shores originally bore the 1941 design imprint of Howard Toomey and William Flynn, who also authored Cherry Hills, Shinnecock Hills and the Homestead's Cascades course. Normandy was never in that league, but in an attempt to correct years of neglect, the neo-classic touches that Hills instilled have imbued the course with a delightful Old World feel, both in appearance and strategy.

Finally, few names carry more impact in resort golf, or on the PGA Tour, than Doral — but usually all talk revolves around its Blue Monster course. This past May, however, it was the little-known Silver that took center stage. Following a complete re-working by Doral instruction guru Jim McLean, the Silver took a new name, The Jim McLean Signature Course at Doral, and might one day take on a new identity — as perhaps Doral's second most in-demand track. Usually regarded as an afterthought by Doral visitors, due in part to its off-campus location, the old Silver/new McLean now moves front and center, thanks to its changes. A yardage boost from 6,557 yards to more than 7,100, a par shaved from 71 to 70 and new irrigation, cartpaths, bunkers and grasses are among the highlights. Most memorable is the transition of holes 13-15 into the Bermuda Triangle. This trio of demanding, watery tests hits its peak with the island-green, par-3 14th, its championship tees moved back and well to the right. Hotel guests can tackle the new McLean in late July, with autumn online as the time where everybody can get at it.

The Trophy Collection

Other than the most plugged-in golf geeks, there's nobody we know that could tell you what the World Golf Championships-CA Championship is — or where it's played. Then again, mention "Doral" and we're talking instant recognition. The PGA Tour has made Doral's Blue Monster an annual stop-off since 1962 and a host of memorable duels, from Nicklaus vs. Weiskopf in ancient days to Norman vs. Faldo in 1995 to Woods vs. Mickelson in 2005, have made the Blue Monster as much a Miami institution as South Beach or Joe's Stone Crab.

Ranked No. 98 in our Top 100 Courses You Can Play, the Blue Monster has been tweaked more times through the years than Cher and Joan Rivers combined. Eight large lakes and more than 100 bunkers define this flat, breeze-fueled 1961 Dick Wilson design, but most walk away with one lasting memory — the Blue Monster itself, the ripsnorting 467-yard, par-4 18th. Any shot even thinking about going left means a watery double-bogey — or worse. Nowadays, there may be a fistful of harder, better-looking or greater bargain courses in South Florida, but not one has the magical aura of Doral's Blue.

Southeast Florida's most improved resort is unquestionably the Fairmont Turnberry Isle, in Aventura, just north of Miami. It's also unquestionably one of the region's priciest golf experiences — you've got to stay to play, and rooms don't come cheap — but slap on the classic adage, "you get what you pay for," and you've got a winner. A $150 million makeover, upgrades to the Willow Stream Spa, world-class shopping steps away are all powerful enticements — but best of all are the free green fees (cart fees only) for guests through September 30. Both the Soffer and Miller courses were remade by Raymond Floyd, but if you're a decent stick, stick to the longer, tougher Soffer course, site last year of an LPGA event.

Tiburon Golf Club is best known to television viewers for its hosting of the annual Merrill Lynch Shootout each December, though many still remember it by its old name, the Shark Shootout, with Greg Norman presiding. Norman is still around, working his formidable shotmaking skills on the courses he designed. Tournament host is the 7,288-yard Gold, which plays firm and fast, with multiple wetlands and vast, sandy waste areas providing the peril down the stretch. Yet, its shorter sister course, the Black, is the stronger test, thanks to a plethora of forced carries. Access to the courses had solely been via the adjacent Ritz-Carlton, but market forces have now opened them to public play.

Bold enough to tackle the "Bear Trap?" Then fork over the coin to duel with PGA National Resort and Spa's Champion course in Palm Beach Gardens. The centerpiece of a five-course complex, the Champion is a Jack Nicklaus redesign of a Tom Fazio layout that's now played host to a Ryder Cup, a PGA Championship, multiple Senior PGAs and several knuckle-whitening Honda Classic finishes on the PGA Tour. Water hazards that edge fairways and greens on 16 holes can drown anybody's chances at glory, notably at the aforementioned Bear Trap, where the question that comes up most is which par-3 is meaner, 15 or 17? It'll set you back $364 to play here as a resort guest in prime time — significantly less in summer, but if you're game to see how much game you've got, this is the place.

PGA Tour footsteps are also visible at the Copperhead course at Innisbrook Resort, near Tampa, home to a Tour event favored by top shotmakers such as Mark Calcavecchia and Retief Goosen, who have won the past two editions. Ernie Els claims this is the best Tour course in Florida. Perhaps that's a trick, because Copperhead's rolling, water- and pine-lined fairways make the course look and feel more like a Carolinas track. You'll need to sort out your geographical bearings, because the elevated, fiercely trapped greens call for nothing except perfectly struck approaches.

Best of the Rest

You could spend an entire vacation merely playing superb sister courses to the aforementioned trophy tracks. Doral's Great White, Fairmont Turnberry Isle's Miller, and PGA National's Palmer are all solid tracks, but the best of the sibling rivals is the Island course at Innisbrook. Copperhead might be the better straightforward test, but with all of its water features, Island is every bit as tough for most golfers — and likely more interesting. Also, it does have some pedigree: Phil Mickelson won the 1990 NCAA Championship there.

Perhaps it's no surprise that the greatest triple-play in Florida golf is PGA Golf Club in Port St. Lucie, just down the road from Traditions Field, where the New York Mets conduct spring training. The Tom Fazio-designed Ryder and Wanamaker courses are both terrific values, but a recent refurbishment has elevated the Pete Dye course to new heights. Not as overtly nasty as some other Dye efforts, this mogul-studded, links/parkland blend plays firm and fast, with gnarly grass bunkers, vast coquina shell waste bunkers, pine straw rough and undulating greens wreaking havoc on substandard shots.

In 2006, longtime local resident Jack Nicklaus took the once-private, 1920s-era North Palm Beach Country Club and transformed it into a modern marvel of public-access golf — and he did it all for one dollar — Jack's way of giving back. With several holes along the Intracoastal Waterway, a set of wildly undulating greens and an affordable price tag, North Palm Beach might be the best muni in the Sunshine State.

Remember that odd Christmas song pairing of Bing Crosby and David Bowie? I'm not saying that the two courses at the venerable Breakers hotel are that different from each other — but it's close. Yet, they're both worth their healthy tariffs. The Breakers' venerable Ocean course barely glimpses the Atlantic, but its short, tight, classic routing, its array of modern sand and water hazards and its setting in the front yard of the Gatsby-esque Breakers Hotel makes this the quintessential Palm Beach layout. Six years ago and twenty minutes to the west, "Open Doctor" Rees Jones transformed a handsome but tired real estate track into a superb test, one with timber cart bridges and a quartet of eye-candy par-3s, three of which flirt with water.