Golfers headed to Florida know that just about anywhere in the state promises great golf on a course open to the public. Florida has well over 1,000 public golf courses, so choosing the top ones is a challenge in itself. With temperate climes across the large state, there is a wide choice of terrain, from ocean views with swaying palm trees to rolling hills with old cypress or banyan trees. Summer months mean savings.
TPC at Sawgrass – THE PLAYERS Stadium
110 Championship Way, Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida
Built to challenge the pros, home of THE PLAYERS Championship, and birthplace of the TPC (Tournament Players Club), Sawgrass is consistently ranked as the best public course, and one of the best overall, in Florida. Located 12 miles from Jacksonville and designed by Pete Dye, it is an 18-hole, par-72 course. In particular, the outstanding 17th island hole is widely celebrated, praised, and sometimes cursed. The main criticism is price, so save this one for a special day. High season green fees run $375 (includes cart). The very best tip for saving is to check out golf packages being offered by the Marriott.
Waldorf Astoria Golf Club
14224 Bonnet Creek Resort Lane, Orlando, Florida
Welcome this addition to the list of great public courses, a Rees Jones-designed beauty. “Best new public golf course,” said 2009 Golf Digest. Enjoy 18 holes on a wetland preserve filled with stands of cypress and pines and shimmering lakes with a five-tee system for all levels of players. This is a public club with a private feel. Hotel guests do get deals, but the public is welcome. Fees start from a $90 twilight rate on weekdays beginning in April. Special rates are offered for AAA members and Florida residents. Club and shoe rentals are available, and there’s a golf academy on site.
World Woods Golf Club – Pine Barrens
17590 Ponce de Leon Blvd., Brooksville, Florida
Located about 45 minutes north of Tampa, this Tom Fazio-designed Bermuda grass course with rolling hills has no adjacent hotel. There is a nine-hole short course and a three-hole warm-up course together with a 36-hole, two-acre putting green and one of the best driving ranges in the country. The greens are fast and true, but it’s also true that it’s not very near to anything. No water on course, cavernous waste bunkers. This course is par 71 and opened in 1993.
World Woods Golf Club – Rolling Oaks
17590 Ponce de Leon Blvd., Brooksville, Florida
Next-door to the Pine Barrens course at World Woods is another world-class layout with a very different topography due to different soil content. Big, old oak trees draped with Spanish moss and plenty of azaleas give it a distinctly Southern feel. Search rates and online tee times here.
Innisbrook Resort – Copperhead Course
36750 U.S. Highway 19 N, Palm Harbor, Tampa, Florida
Grand Golf Resorts of Florida is the group linking three of Florida’s best public golf resorts: Innisbrook, Reunion, and Hammock Beach. The Copperhead Course at Innisbrook is home to the PGA for the Transitions Championship. This is the course for nature lovers, with its trees, abundant wildlife, and lakes. This is also the course for long hitters, with fairways of 7,340 yards. Curtis Strange, 2002 Ryder Cup captain and two-time U.S. Open champion, is quoted on the website as saying, “If I could only play one course the rest of my life, it would be Copperhead.” Combine golf with a hotel stay from $249 per person.
Reunion Resort and Club – Tom Watson Course
7593 Gathering Drive, Orlando, Florida
There are three separate courses at Reunion, located six miles from Disney World, designed by Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson, and Jack Nicklaus. The Watson-designed course of 7,257 yards has more elevation at 45 feet from tee to green than Florida normally offers. Large greens and a variety of bunkers mean that this course focuses on strategy. A hole-by-hole tip sheet online is useful.
Hammock Beach Resort – Ocean Course
105 16th St., Palm Coast, Florida
Near St. Augustine, this resort offers 36 holes of golf designed by Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson. Nicklaus’ signature Ocean Course is one of Florida’s top 10 by many accounts, with six holes overlooking the Atlantic. It’s famous for “the bear claw,” as the last four holes at the edge of the ocean are known. The list of accolades is long and impressive. Or play the neighboring course, Conservatory, which is Florida’s longest and most difficult.
Doral Golf Resort & Spa – Blue Monster Course
4400 NW 87th Ave., Miami, Florida
Watch this space. Donald Trump bought the property and is meant to close the $150 million deal on June 1, 2012. Long fairways, deep Bermuda roughs, and a unique fountain-laden water hazard at the 18th hole on the Blue Monster have earned this course its name, which some say is also due to the challenge of building it in the swamps to begin with. Either way, it is a classic. There are four more Cadillac championship courses (three of them are included in the Trump deal) at the 650-acre Marriott resort, where it may pay to check on hotel with golf packages.
Arnold Palmer’s Bay Hill Club & Lodge
9000 Bay Hill Blvd., Orlando, Florida
Another of Orlando’s 18-hole gems to match the golf legend who shaped it, Arnold Palmer. The golden anniversary means all eyes are on his PGA invitational in March 2012. Golfweek Magazine has named this among its Best Resort Courses of 2012 and Best Courses You Can Play. Bay Hill is well-respected as Arnold Palmer’s winter home and consistently ranks among the best courses in all of Florida. The public can play here if staying at the Lodge.
Biltmore Golf Course
1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables, Florida
And now for something a little different with your golf, a touch of history and legend. This is one of South Florida’s oldest golf courses, designed in 1925 by Donald Ross. The canals once floated by gondolas to transport well-to-do hotel guests are still evident. The rolling, 18-hole, par-71 course was beautifully refurbished in 2007 and is a favorite of both Bill Clinton and Jeb Bush. Politician golfers aside, this course is still fun approaching age 90. There’s a performance golf academy, a pro shop, great casual dining, and a hotel with golf packages. Only 15 minutes from Miami International Airport, the resort hotel is a national historic landmark.