By Len Ziehm
SARASOTA, FL. — The main goal was to get to know a new area on our first two-month winter odyssey and — of course — that meant getting to know the golf options on Florida’s Gulf coast. We did a good job of both.
Between our arrival in Sarasota on Dec. 30 and our departure on Feb. 29 we played 14 of the 18-holers and one of the nine-holers. We didn’t have access to the area’s premier private clubs, like Concession, The Founders Club, Sara Bay, Longboat Key Club, Venetian, TPC Prestancia or The Ritz Carlton Members Club — but that didn’t matter.
This was more about discovering the best golf bargain in the highlight of the tourist season rather than getting in that one memorable round on a course with a big reputation.
Once friends learned of our winter plans we were advised to contact representatives of two prominent golf course management groups. We did, via email, but our contacts at neither Billy Casper Golf nor Pope Golf responded with either advice or invitations. So, the resulting selection of courses was solely ours. We were like any golf addicts on vacation looking for the best deal. Tee time availability and greens fees were prime considerations with a few suggestions from fellow tourists — those more experienced here than us — mixed in.
We went into our stay determined to play as many courses as possible. Therefore, we had a policy of playing each course only once. Our tour took us from Venice on the south to Leesburg on the north, but eight of the courses were within the Sarasota limits and three more were in the neighboring big city of Bradenton.
Florida golf is different than what we are used to in the Midwest. Tee times are, understandably, much higher in the winter months. There’s also a premium if you want to tee off in the morning. I found that hard to understand, and it was also puzzling to find most courses closing operations for the day in late afternoon — some even before we finished our rounds. That limited our opportunities to sample clubhouse food and beverage options.
I had a taste of Sarasota area golf when my parents lived part-time in the area for about 30 years, but then it was limited to The Meadows, a private club, and the nearby Bobby Jones Golf Complex, a busy, basic 45-hole facility with the most attractive greens fees. Those visits were made largely in the 1980s and 1990s. I hadn’t been back to Sarasota since 2002, and returned 10 years later with a different perspective on golf. I found the area in general had changed a lot in that period as well.
This time around the most notable things were the lack of bright flowering, so prevalent around Midwest courses, and bunkers that didn’t have nearly the sand in them as the courses closer to home. But the variety in the courses we played was outstanding. Courses that would be deemed too short around Chicago were pleasantly sporty in this climate. One course, Green Valley in Clermont, started with two par-5s. We’d never seen a course with that before. And water was a big strategic factor on most courses we played, a departure from what we were used to in the Chicago area.
While there wasn’t much in the way of cheerful flowering, there was plenty in the way of wildlife on all the courses. An alligator was about to devour one of our golf balls at Boca Royale, in Englewood, and big turtles formed a gallery on our tee shots at Rosedale in Bradenton. We spotted a bald eagle, quite a few sand cranes as well as a few woodpeckers and ducks. Squirrels were also in abundance at some of our stops.
While these tough economic times have taken a toll on Florida’s golf courses, just as they have everywhere else in the country, there was an upside to that. Many of the private clubs made their courses available for at least some public play. That enabled us to sample the challenging Waterlefe layout, most expensive of the courses we played at $79 per person with an afternoon tee time.
Best buy was also at a private club that welcomed public play, Bent Tree in Sarasota. This layout had been a stop on the Ladies PGA Tour, and legendary Nancy Lopez won both her first and last pro tournaments there. We were able to play it, though, for $39 apiece on one beautiful afternoon.
The Meadows, a long-time Sarasota golf landmark, opened two of its three courses to the public. The Groves was short but definitely challenging, the Highlands full-length and user-friendly. The Meadows limited its premier layout, called the Meadows, to member play though there didn’t seem to be much of that during the course of our stay.
Most unusual course we visited was Sarasota National, in Venice. It was supposed to be the centerpiece of a golf community, but the homes never got built. As a result, we had the feeling that we were playing golf on the moon — no homesites and not much in the way of trees bordering the fairways that were well spaced. But Sarasota National was one of our favorite courses on our tour, that also included Oak Ford and Sarasota Golf Club (not to be confused with Sarasota National) — both fairly priced and user-friendly.
Lowest greens fees — and that was always a consideration — came when we were willing to take day-long trips and cash in on the most attractive Players Pass program instituted this year by GolfVisions, which manages Foxford Hills, Tanna Farms, Oak Grove, Settler’s Hill, Nettle Creek Village Green and Heatherridge in the Chicago area. Two of the GolfVisions’ other courses are in Florida, and we played both Green Valley and Pennbrooke Fairways, in Leesburg. Thanks to the Players Pass our expenditures at both places — for two greens fees — was only $27. Now that’s what you call a bargain for Florida golf in the dead of winter, and making the approximately two-hour drives also brought us to two surprisingly great dining experiences — Cheesers (for breakfast and lunch) and City Grille (for dinner) in Clermont.
If you’re a golf history buff — and I am — a must stop (and one of the cheapest) is the Bobby Jones Golf Complex. Jones, who won golf’s Grand Slam in 1930 and then abruptly retired from competition, was on hand for the dedication of this layout in 1927. Donald Ross, the legendary architect, designed the first 18 holes. The facility grew by nine-hole increments in 1952, 1967 and 1977. The last was the creation of the John H. Gillespie Executive Course, named after a Scotsman who built the first two holes in the area in 1886. Local golf historians claim those two holes were the first built in the U.S.
Now the area has courses designed by celebrity player types like Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer as well as prominent world-wide architects like Tom Fazio, Robert Trent Jones and Arthur Hills. Most prolific architect for this area, though, is Florida-based Ron Garl, who has his name on Longboat Key Club, Plantation, TPC Prestancia, The Meadows, University Park and The Highlands. Chicago golfers might also be interested in Palm Aire since its architectural work was done by Dick Wilson and Joe Lee, the co-designers of the Dubsdread course at Cog Hill.
Scheduling golf the way we did educated us on Florida living and brought us into contact with a wide array of nice playing partners, all determined by chance. We were paired with an 86-year old at Waterlefe, who just happened to know other family members from the Chicago area. We played rounds with two couples from Michigan. One wasn’t married, just friends who enjoyed a round while their partners were tied up with work projects. We also met up with a telephone technician from Vermont, two good ol’ boys from Kentucky and a Korea-born computer programmer who had settled in Bradenton. All seemed to be good people and were good golf partners, for sure.
The biggest drawback was the lack of walking courses. Only Bobby Jones and Green Valley fit that category. And, unfortunately, we didn’t get to test such courses as University Park, Legacy at Lakewood Ranch, Tatum Ridge, Serenoa, River Strand and Rolling Green. We were told each had their good qualities. They’ll be must-stops on our next Florida golf tour.
So will Streamsong, a 36-hole resort facility that will open in Polk County, Fla. (between Orlando and Tampa) in December. It’ll be managed by Chicago-based Kemper Sports.
By Len Ziehm
GULF SHORES, AL. — There is, I believe, a misconception about golf in Alabama.
Sure, the creation of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail 20 years ago was a big boost for golf in the state. In fact, it was a marketing breakthrough for the entire golf industry. The Trail has 11 courses covering 468 holes, with most in the Birmingham area. Newcomers to Alabama may well gravitate to those layouts.
There’s a lot more to golf in Alabama than the Jones Trail, however. I witnessed that up-close-and-personal on the way home from a winter spent in Florida. Alabama golf is much different than its neighboring state to the south. Gulf Shores is less than an hour’s drive from Pensacola., FL., near Mobile.
The courses I played in Gulf Shores were much more like the ones in the Midwest in terms of the grass, then bunkers and the designs. And all of them were good.
Tourism in Alabama has had it tough recently, due to the bad publicity produced by an oil spill that affected its coast-line in June, 2010. There were no signs of lingering problems in Gulf Shores, however. In fact the 32 miles of white sand of neighboring Orange Beach produced a waterfront that rivaled (maybe even surpassed) Florida’s Siesta Key, which happily points out a recent survey that proclaimed it the No. 1 beach in the United States.
Orange Beach has a lot more golf to go with it than Siesta Key does. Golf GulfShores boasts nine signature courses covering 189 holes, all within easy driving range of each other. Probably the best is Kiva Dunes, designed by former U.S. Open champion Jerry Pate in 1995. It’s Alabama’s only beachfront golf resort.
That wasn’t on my itinerary, though. My first tee time was at Craft Farms, which boasts the only Arnold Palmer-designed courses in Alabama — Cotton Creek and Cypress Bend. Cypress Bend, the newer of the two, reminded me of another Palmer design in Illinois — Hawthorn Woods Country Club, site of the Illinois Open from 2008 to 2011. Wide fairways make it user friendly, but undulating putting surfaces and big bunkers make it challenging enough, as well. Palmer’s design company also handled the updating of Lost Key, another Gulf Shores course, in 2006.
Second stop was at GlenLakes, which has 27 holes and claims to be “the best golf value on the coast.’’ Visitors play for $65 before noon, $45 from noon-2 p.m. and only $30 after 2 p.m. during the busy winter season. By comparison, the Palmer layouts at Craft Farms charged $89 before 1 p.m. and $69 afterwards.
GlenLakes’ 18-hole links-style Vista Dunes course was a design combination of Bruce Devlin and Robert von Hagge. The nine-hole Lakes is more resort style but has water on six holes. I played the Vista and Lakes nines, which were fine, but Duncan Millar, the Golf GulfShores executive director, told me I missed something special by not taking on the well-mounded Dunes nine.
Two other 27-hole facilities — Peninsula and TimberCreek — were designed by Earl Stone, and he also was the architect for 18-hole Rock Creek. The father-son team of Jay and Carter Morrish did the design work on Gulf Shores Golf Club. Built in the 1960s as the first course in Gulf Shores, the Morrishes did a complete makeover in 2005.
Four of the Golf GulfShores courses — the two at Craft Farms as well as Rock Creek and Peninsula — are well-managed by Honours Golf, which oversees 13 courses in Alabama, Florida and Mississippi and is somewhat of a rival to the Jones Trail. Honours also includes Alabama layouts Limestone Springs (Oneonta), Highland Park (Birmingham), Cider Ridge (Oxford) and Gateway and Lagoon Park (Montgomery) in its portfolio but will lose one of its best clubs, FarmLinks in Sylacauga, this spring.
FarmLinks, a very special location that’s a 200-mile drive from Gulf Shores, is moving in a new direction after a management change. Developments there will be detailed in a future Len Ziehm on Golf report.
Gulf Shores, though, stands on its own as a golf destination. In addition to the courses and spectacular beaches, the area also offers such entertainment options as deep sea fishing, kayaking, surfboarding, cycling, water sports, hot-air balloon rides, horseback riding, family fun parks and cruises.
It also has a surprisingly wide range of restaurants. One that we can heartily recommend is Tin Top, a fish and oyster bar with an out-of-the-way location that fits the stereotype of rural Alabama down to the hot rod enthusiasts who revved up their engines on the country roads. That added spice to an already spicy lunch.
Of a more genteel nature, there’s Nolan’s Restaurant and Lounge — one of the many appealing places right off the main drag of Gulf Shores Parkway. There are plenty of other good, non-chain restaurants to visit, and the lodging options are almost as varied. In addition to the beach resorts and condo rentals available you might want to check out the Courtyard Marriott GulfShores at Craft Farms. It just underwent a $2.2 million renovation, the completion of which was celebrated during our visit.