Florida golf: Play the Sarasota/Bradenton area on three budgets

SARASOTA, Fla. -- The beach alone is enough to bring you here. But add quality golf, and the Sarasota/Bradenton area of Florida is one the best golf destinations in the country, especially during the winter, early spring and late fall.

A little more laid back, perhaps, than the southeast coast of Florida, Sarasota is the perfect relaxation spot, and Lido Beach, for example, is a great place to chill and enjoy the scenery and the rays.

As is the case with most destinations, the golf and accommodations rate from high end to budget, but even on the lower end, it's worth it to make the easy trip the Sarasota area.

Premium Sarasota/Bradenton golf

First off, if money is no object, fly directly into Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport. It's a little pricier to fly in there, but you avoid the causeway traffic coming down from Tampa or St. Petersburg if you fly into TPA. It's just more convenient.

Then, the plan would be to stay at the Ritz-Carlton Sarasota, check out the beach club and play the wonderfully designed and serene Ritz-Carlton Members Club-Sarasota , about 20 minutes away in Bradenton.

It's hard to go wrong at the Ritz-Carlton. Get upgraded to Club Level, and you never have to eat at a restaurant really, with breakfast, lunch and constant snacks, drinks and refreshments throughout the day. But at the Ritz-Carlton Sarasota, you're definitely going to want to dine at Jack Dusty. From great starters like Jack's ceviche to entrees like blackened grouper etouffee to perfectly aged beef, you can't go wrong. Plus, it's right on the water, especially if you dine outside.

The rooms, service, rest of the dining and spa are all what you'd expect from the Ritz-Carlton five-star hotel experience, plus the beach club a couple of miles away on Lido Beach might be one of 10 best beach spots in the world. Pure white sand, clear blue water and not terribly crowded is a perfect combination.

The golf is about 15 miles away, but well worth the drive. As soon you get there, you're treated like an exclusive member, from the greeting at the gate to the name on your locker to excellent forecaddies who help you navigate this outstanding Tom Fazio-designed course. If you just played this course alone and stayed two or three days at the Ritz-Carlton, it would be a perfect golf vacation, but feel free to add in a couple of the courses below to really round out it out.

Sarasota golf on a mid-level budget

If you're not staying at the Ritz-Carlton, you might want to consider The Resort at Longboat Key, which has two distinctly different golf courses and offers accommodations and other fun things to do right on the water. Golf packages in the offseason are pretty affordable, but can be pretty pricey over the winter and early spring. Golf includes the 27-hole Harbourside Course , part of which was renovated by Ron Garl in 2005, and the Links on Longboat , which has water on every hole and views of the Gulf of Mexico.

For standalone golf, though, you'll want to check out Sarasota National in Venice, a Troon Golf facility just south of Sarasota. Designed by Gordon G. Lewis, the course has five sets of tees and few forced carries through its link-like setup, but from the tips, at 7,344 yards, it's all the golf you want at a moderate price. Sarasota National also offers reasonable stay-and-play packages with the Venice Fairfield Inn & Suites.

Twenty-seven-hole University Park Country Club in Bradenton is also a great mid-range selection. With a large inviting clubhouse, great conditions and plenty of Florida, this challenging Ron Garl design won't leave you bored. The original holes are tighter than the new holes (19-27), but it's overall fairly challenging. Excellent practice facilities and golf instruction are also available.

Other good choices include Waterlefe Golf & River Club and Legacy Golf Club at Lakewood Ranch , both in Bradenton.

Designed by Ted McAnlis, Waterlefe is a course that requires precision and solid ball striking since there is water on every hole and often out of bounds on the other side. Still, it's excellently conditioned, beautiful and preserves the natural environment with a collection of memorable holes that run along a scenic section of the Manatee River.

Legacy is an Arnold Palmer signature golf course that features some elevated tees and wide fairways and excellent conditions.

Green fees for the above course range from around $60-$100 in season, but usually much less in the summer.

Sarasota golf on a budget

Even if you're staying at the Ritz-Carlton or Longboat Key Resort, you may want to check out the 45-hole Bobby Jones Golf Club , which has significant historical context. Named for the legendary Robert Tyre Jones Jr., who personally dedicated the facility on Feb. 13, 1927, the original 18 holes were designed in 1925 by Donald Ross. Nine additional holes were constructed in 1952 and another nine were added in 1967. The John H. Gillespie Executive Course was completed in 1977. By the way, the record on the British Course is 62 set by local pro Paul Azinger in 1980.

But while the Bobby Jones Golf Club is probably a must-play -- or at least a must-see -- one of the best bargains in the area is the family owned Tatum Ridge Golf Links , which can be played for $50 or less most times of the year. Especially playable for seniors, women and juniors from the forward tees, this well-kept course is also a nice challenge for better players from the tips at around 6,800 yards.

McAnlis, who has crafted several golf courses in the area, gave Tatum Ridge sort of a Scottish links look at times. There are plenty of water hazards and trees to go with the smattering of bunkers, but you can definitely play around them.

As for accommodations, staying at a hotel or resort in Sarasota near the beach is most ideal, but also generally more expensive. More reasonable accommodations can be found in the Bradenton area a little farther away from the coast.

Mike Bailey is a senior staff writer based in Houston. Focusing primarily on golf in the United States, Canada, the Caribbean and Latin America with an occasional trip to Europe and beyond, he contributes course reviews, travel stories and features as well as the occasional equipment review. An award-winning writer and past president of Texas Golf Writers Association, he has more than 25 years in the golf industry. Before accepting his current position in 2008, he was on staff at PGA Magazine, The Golfweek Group and AvidGolfer Magazine. Follow Mike on Twitter at @MikeBaileyGA and Instagram at @MikeStefanBailey.
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Ritz-Carlton Members Club-Sarasota is a high-end private club in most every respect except one: there is limited outside play. Guests at the Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota won't want to miss one of Tom Fazio's best and most playable designs.
Sarasota National Golf Club in Venice, Fla. has undergone several ownership changes since it opened in 2008, but it has never looked better. Originally planned as a private golf course, Sarasota National is currently operating as a daily fee, so get out there and enjoy it.
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Florida golf: Play the Sarasota/Bradenton area on three budgets
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