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Tee time.

'Tis the season to visit Florida's great golf resorts.

When Golf Digest published its annual list of the best golf courses in America for 1992, Florida topped the list with a whopping 163 nominations -- nearly as many as California (131) and Hawaii (38) combined. Included on that list of Florida's finest courses were 18 award-winning resorts where golf may be the main draw, but guests feel like they're on vacation both on and off the links.

Fall is the perfect time for Floridians to sample the pleasures of these resorts. Courses are less crowded and rates are lower than during the busy midwinter season; and the state covers enough territory to allow you to choose your autumn weather, from crisp North Florida days ablaze with fall foliage to Miami's balmy blue skies and palm trees.

Here's a look at five of those 18 resorts, each from a different region of the state -- and each a great site for a fall vacation. The winners are -- Marriott Bay Point Resort, in Panama City Beach in the Panhandle; Innisbrook, near Tarpon Springs on the Gulf coast; Marriott at Sawgrass at Ponte Vedra Beach on the Atlantic coast; Walt Disney World in Orlando; and the Doral Resort & Country Club in Miami.

The farthest from Sarasota Bay Point, about a 400-mile drive. Sawgrass, just south of Jacksonville, is 250 miles away. Doral is 200 miles, Disney World is 130 and Innisbrook is just an easy drive up the coast on U.S. 19.

But whichever you choose, at each you can play golf from dawn to dusk, often on courses that host major pro events. You can eat like royalty, then work off the excess pounds at fitness centers on the order of Doral's Saturnia Spa, which imports therapeutic black mud from Italy.

Every resort offers a host of activities. Bay Point, for example, will limo you to its own little amusement/sports park, complete with a driving range and bumper boats. But just in case you tend to go stir crazy if you're cooped up with room/maid service all week, these five resorts are also excellent vacation choices because they're in areas with sights to see and plenty to do.

And you can economize or blow a bundle. Package rates start at very reasonable levels and skyrocket to as much as $5,000 per week, depending upon how much high life (and black mud) you want to experience.

Packages are a must for serious golfers. At Disney World, for example, you pay $85 for one a la carte round of golf at Osprey Ridge or Eagle Pines. No lodging included, just an $85 tee time. But with a special Disney golf package available from May 1 to Dec. 20, a foursome can get a quad room at Disney's Vacation Club Resort (two-night minimum stay) plus 18 holes of golf per day for all four players -- and at that same price, $85 apiece per day. (Rates quoted are daily, per-person rates and include 18 holes of golf, unless otherwise indicated. They're subject to change and should be used merely as guidelines when making inquiries and reservations.)

So what are you waiting for? Grab your clubs and go!

Marriott Bay Point Resort

Panama City Beach (904-234-3307)

Complex: Remodeled as a resort in 1985. 1,100 acres, 386 rooms/suites

Courses: 36 holes. Lagoon Legend (7,080 yards); Club Meadows (6,913)

Tour stop: None, but home to the PGA tour's qualifying school

Amenities: Five swimming pools (one indoors), 12 tennis courts (four lighted), two workout complexes, water sports center, sailing, deep-sea fishing, kids' activity program

Packages: $64.70 to $96.95

Low: early November through end of January 1994

High: Jan. 1-mid-August

The resort: Originally a residential yacht community, Bay Point was purchased in 1985 by Marriott, which spent $40 million to transform it into an AAA "Four-Diamond" resort. All 200 rooms in the main hotel were refurbished in 1990.

Located on a peninsula in St. Andrews Bay, Bay Point transports sunbathers to Shell Island's pristine Gulf Coast beach via the Island Queen, a Mississippi-style paddle wheeler that serves beer and hot dogs enroute.

If you tackle the Lagoon Legend course, you better be one of two things -- talented or masochistic. When it opened, Golf Digest heralded this Bruce Devlin-Bob von Hagge layout as the second most difficult course in America. The Legend's slope rating, for those who understand such golf esoterica, is 152; for those who don't, think of it as the score a duffer might make on No. 18, where you have to shoot over the water twice.

Best advice: Prior to tee time, watch the special video with tips on how to survive the Legend. The Club Meadows layout is only a few yards shorter, but the fairways are much wider and the urge to throw yourself to the alligators after adding up your score is considerably less.

Ever have a golfing vacation ruined by rain? Then you'll bless Bay Point's new Rain Cheque package; if the resort's rain gauge registers as little as one-tenth inch of rain in any four-hour period from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., that day's lodging is free.

The neighborhood: Panama City Beach has gorgeous emerald-colored water and the kind of fluffy white sand that feels great between your toes. Traveling with kids? Be a hero and take them to Miracle Strip amusement park or its sister property, Shipwreck Island water park. If you're into scuba, you can dive on several wrecks at nearby St. Andrews State Recreation area, including a 465-foot British tanker that was torpedoed by a German U-boat and sank in 1942.

Side trip: Take County Road 30-A toward Fort Walton Beach and stop for lunch or dinner at Seaside, a charming, Victorian-style resort that has won numerous awards for its design and architecture. For more information, call the Panama City Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau, 904-233-6503.


Tarpon Springs (800-456-2000)

Complex: Opened in 1970. 1,000 acres, 1,000 suites

Courses: 63 holes. Copperhead (7,087); Island (6,999); Sandpiper (3,243), (3,002), (2,967)

Tour stop: J.C. Penney Classic/PGA and LPGA, Copperhead

Amenities: Six swimming pools, 15 tennis courts (seven lighted), four racquetball courts, aerobics/yoga programs, nature walks, kids' activity program.

Packages: $134-389 (36 holes per day). Low: late May to mid-September. High: early February to mid-April

The resort: When it comes to golf resorts, Innisbrook is the genuine article. It's not as new as Sawgrass; it doesn't have Bay Point's beach life, Doral's swank reputation or Disney's extracurriculars. But for more than 20 years, it's been a mecca for Northerners who come to Florida to play golf.

The Mobil "Four-Star" rating Innisbrook racks up every year proves there's more to do here than just play golf. Nature lovers appreciate the five-acre nature tract, home to swans, otters and egrets.

But beware: Not all the wildlife is friendly. Copperhead, rated the toughest course in Florida by Golf Week, is a real snake in the grass. Its long, winding, pine-strewn layout, designed by E. Lawrence Packard, is reminiscent of such Carolina classics as Pinehurst. The Island course is also a tester. High handicappers should concentrate on the three Sandpiper nines, although there's still enough water there to keep things interesting.

The neighborhood: Tarpon Springs is close to Tampa, which Sarasotans know for its Latin Quarter, Old Hyde Park shopping village, Busch Gardens, Adventure Island and, of course, Bern's Steak House of the legendary beef and the 43 dessert rooms. But the little community of Tarpon Springs has charms of its own -- the historic Main Street area, Greek cuisine and the picturesque fishing boats that bring in $7 million worth of shrimp and $5 million worth of sponges every year. For more information, call the Greater Tarpon Springs Chamber of Commerce at 813-937-6109 or the Tampa/Hillsborough Convention and Visitors Association at 800-826-8358.

Walt Disney World

Orlando (407-W-DISNEY)

Complex: Opened in 1971. 43 square miles. 18 hotels, 17,000 rooms

Courses: 99 holes. Magnolia (7,190); Palm (6,957); Lake Buena Vista (6,800); Osprey Ridge (7,105); Eagle Pines (6,842); Oak Trail (2,913)

Tour stop: WDW-Oldsmobile Classic/PGA (Magnolia, Palm, Lake Buena Vista)

Amenities: Name your pleasure and the world's most popular resort will deliver it. Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, MGM Studios, Typhoon Lagoon water park, children's activity program, plus all the amenities at Disney's fabled hotels

Packages: Call Disney

The resort: When it comes to entertainment, Disney never rests -- and that motto also applies to WDW, the golf resort. With the addition of two new courses, designed by noted golf course architects Peter Dye and Tom Fazio, the Magic Linkdom is now a 99-hole, par-396 layout.

The new courses -- Eagle Pines (Dye) and Osprey Ridge (Fazio) -- opened in January 1992. They are located in the northeast sector of Disney's property, a John Daly 7 iron from the Fort Wilderness and Dixie Landings resorts.

Eagle Pines has been characterized as a "low-profile" course because it was built at or below the existing elevation, similar to Dye's Old Marsh course in Palm Beach County. As the name implies, Osprey Ridge has a different flavor, with some tees and greens situated 25 feet above the grade of the fairway. Osprey Ridge has more water, but it can play as short as 5,402 yards from the front tees. Dye did two favors for weekend golfers at Eagle Pines. He flanked the fairways with pine straw instead of rough, making the course more forgiving of errant tee shots, and he added a lip to the edge of the fairways bordered by water hazards, making it harder for your ball to roll into the drink.

WDW's other three 18-hole layouts were designed by Joe Lee. Magnolia, as you might guess, is graced by 1,500 magnolia trees. The final round of the WDW/Olds Classic is played here, and the sixth hole has a hazard shaped like -- who else? -- Mickey Mouse. The Palm course is loaded with water and sand, and No. 18 is among the toughest on the PGA tour. Lake Buena Vista is heavily wooded, and the holes uniquely configured -- in circular fashion, instead of up and back, up and back, meaning the holes play in all different directions, with crosswinds a frequent problem.

The neighborhood: We don't have to tell you about Walt Disney World; you can have a whale of a time without ever leaving the grounds. But if you get the chance, there's always Universal Studios, Sea World and Wet 'n' Wild. And there's more to Orlando than theme parks. Turkey Lake Park has a terrific playscape for small fry, and the Orlando Science Center offers a unique experience for all ages.

Side trip: Deland's Blue Spring State Park, a winter refuge for a herd of 60 manatees. You can see them up close and personal from the end of October through March. For more information, call the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors' Bureau: 407-363-5800.

Marriott at Sawgrass

Ponte Vedra Beach (800-457-GOLF)

Complex: Hotel opened in 1987. 4,800 acres, 541 rooms/suites

Courses: 99 holes. TPC Stadium Course (6,857); TPC Valley Course (6,838); Marsh Landing Course (6,850); Oak Bridge Golf Course (6,019); Sawgrass Country Club: East (3,519); West (3,534); South (3,440)

Tour stop: The Players Championship, PGA (TPC Stadium Course)

Amenities: 2.5 miles of private beach, six swimming pools (two kiddie-sized), 10 tennis courts (four lighted) at the hotel and 11 courts (including grass) at ATP headquarters, two fitness centers, horseback riding, 350 acres of freshwater lakes and ponds, sailing, deep-sea fishing, kids' activity program.

The resort: This "Four Star," "Four Diamond" resort serves as headquarters for both the PGA and ATP (American Tennis Professionals) tours. It's that good.

No wonder. The serpentine-shaped hotel -- encased in emerald-colored glass and surrounded by 15 acres of water -- cost a cool $62 million.

One hundred thousand golf balls end up in Sawgrass water hazards every year, and 40,000 of those are deep-sixed on one hole. We're talking about the Stadium Course's notorious No. 17, a par-3 island hole that rivals No. 18 at Pebble Beach as the world's most-photographed hole. Water comes into play on every hole of this Pete Dye course, which has been both praised and vilified for dictating a style of play known as "target golf." Dye also designed the TPC Valley course, a links-style layout which, like the Stadium course, ranks among the top 100 courses in the United States. And don't miss the Ed Seay-designed east layout at the Sawgrass Country Club, where oceanside fairways and a 90-foot, tee-to-green dropoff (No. 5) offer thrills and experiences that can't be captured by a mere number on a scorecard.

The neighborhood: Jacksonville was once the largest city in Florida. That distinction ended with World War II, but the six-acre Jacksonville Landing shopping and entertainment center and the 1.2-acre Riverwalk complex have made the north and south banks of the St. Johns River the focal point of a vibrant city -- especially during the summer arts/music festivals.

Interesting side trips: St. Augustine or lesser-known Fernandina Beach, a resort community located north of Jacksonville, where you'll find a quaint, 50-block historic area and wharfside eatery, Brett's Waterway Cafe, perfect for watching the sunset. After dinner, stroll up Centre Street, where the Bradford pear trees are strung with miniature, white Christmas tree lights year-round. For more information, call the Jacksonville Convention and Visitors Bureau: 904-353-9736.

Doral Resort and Country Club

Miami (800-FOR-A-TAN)

Complex: Built in 1961. 2,400 acres, 650 rooms/suites

Courses: 99 holes. Blue Monster (6,939); Silver (6,801); Gold (6,279); White (6,208); Red (6,120); Green (Nine hole, par 3)

Tour stop: Doral Ryder Open/PGA (Blue Monster)

Amenities: 300-foot beach, Olympic-sized swimming pool, water sports club, Saturnia Spa, 15 tennis courts (four lighted), 18 lakes, scenic trails

The resort: This sprawling grande dame of American resorts marked its 30th birthday with a reported $20 million facelift. All 650 guest rooms were remodeled, and the exterior boasts newly tiled roofs and extensive landscaping. Most of the resort's 99 holes were refurbished, too. The resort was virtually unaffected by Hurricane Andrew, which did its worst damage farther south.

The Blue Monster is both famous and infamous, for its long, narrow, water-festooned course. The PGA rates the 18th the toughest finishing hole in the United States. The Gold course is much shorter, but also ultra-treacherous, owing to water, water, everywhere. Not to be outdone by the Blue Monster, its finishing hole is completely surrounded by water. Both the White and Red layouts are gentler on the ego and scorecard. The Red might be the better choice, since three holes -- Nos. 6, 7 and 8 -- have been remodeled around a huge lake with a wooden embankment.

The neighborhood: Miami has become a hot, hip city with an exotic, ever-growing population and an endless list of entertainment possibilities. Just a few: Latin Quarter, Miami Youth Museum, Seaquarium, Columbia Bazaar Shops, South Beach and the art deco district, Bayside marketplace, the new $38 million Cocowalk entertainment and retail complex, and so on and so on. If you get lost, look for one of the new information kiosks. For more information, call the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors' Bureau: 800-283-2707.

Kent Hannon is a former staff writer at Sports Illustrated. He wrote "The Monica Mystique" in the May issue of SARASOTA.
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Title Annotation:Florida's golf resorts
Author:Hannon, Kent
Publication:Sarasota Magazine
Date:Nov 1, 1992
Previous Article:Dateline: Schroeder-Manatee.
Next Article:The Michael Saunders and Company Oaks Collection.

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