TAMPA, Fla. -- With my golf clubs fresh off the baggage carousel at Tampa International Airport, it was time to beeline north toward Brooksville.
There wasn't much time to waste. Over the course of four days I would play 36 holes a day, seeking out a diverse mix of the best golf in the Tampa area. Here, you can virtually name your price and get on a course, whether it's a tiny municipal or a world-class, PGA Tour-type venue. The best part? Either class of course comes at a great bargain when compared to other destinations.
Uncommon Florida golf north of Tampa in Brooksville
The Veterans Highway connects golfers from busy Tampa to the more remote Brooksville an hour away. Here, this community has a handful of golf courses set on some of the state's most unique topography. Brooksville Country Club is one of the most affordable unique courses in the state thanks to a quarry-laden back nine. Nearby, one of the area's top private residential communities is also beginning to open its gates to outside play, Black Diamond Ranch, which features both the Quarry Course and Ranch Course designed by Tom Fazio.
But the real show-stopper of the lot is World Woods Golf Club, home to not only one of the most impressive golf-only facilities (a massive, circular range, executive course, practice holes and massive short game green) but also two the east's most accessible and affordable Fazio designs, Pine Barrens and Rolling Oaks. Better yet for golfers, each is far different from one another. Pine Barrens plays along sandy waste areas creating a dramatic and intimidating appearance. Rolling Oaks, meanwhile, is a more traditional design with enormous oak trees and traditional bunkering and greens.
PGA Tour pedigree at the Innisbrook Resort
The road south from World Woods to Innisbrook, Highway 19, runs close to the coastline and isn't the quiet, unpopulated road like Veterans. Instead, surf shops, restaurants and bars line the road for miles until you turn into the Innisbrook Resort.
Suddenly the shops and lights are gone, replaced by mighty, overhanging trees and dimly lit, winding roads. A master-planned resort and community that dates back to the 1950s but was recently purchased and upgraded by Salamander Resorts, the Innisbrook Resort features small residences and spacious condo units hidden under tree cover, and resort staff that is as friendly as they come.
There are four 18-hole courses at Innisbrook, though it's the Copperhead that attracts such lofty words from PGA Tour stars. That's due to the rolling topography that's tough to find along Florida's coast and classical course architecture by Lawrence Packard, a resident here.
Among resort staff and members, however, the Copperhead isn't even the clear-cut winner for the best course at Innisbrook. The Island Course can play as equally demanding as the Copperhead from the tips and you could argue the island delivers more photo ops, thanks to holes like the par-5 second hole, or the sixth (named Cypress Tunnel), which features holes framed by cypress trees and small lakes with a smattering of birdlife gliding about.
Golf among phenoms at Saddlebrook Resort
Innisbrook may be the most high profile of the golf resorts around Tampa, but for tennis enthusiasts all over the world, Saddlebrook Resort is a household name. A most versatile property, Saddlebrook wears hats as a boarding school, residential community and luxury resort and spa.
On certain holes of the Saddlebrook Course, the faint sound of tennis rackets pummeling balls can be heard. In the restaurant, you'll likely see a group of teenagers, tennis bags beneath their chairs, wolfing down a big meal between school and training.
Run by Tom Dempsey, offerings include 36 holes, 45 tennis courts (featuring each of the major championship surfaces) and a star-studded list of former students and residents. Most recently, the resort is making an even bigger play to attract aspiring golf talent. The resort recently signed with the dynamic Australian teaching duo of Bann-Lynch and one of their students, resort ambassador K.J. Choi, to revamp their golf school, which hosts both a prep school as well as adult individual lessons, group schools and more.
Double dose of daily fees: Seminole Lake and Pebble Creek
Tampa has a plethora of 18-hole facilities that suit any budget. Many private clubs have turned semi-private in recent years but are still very affordable. I sifted through the many options and dug out two lesser-known, affordable courses to fill out my trip:
Near Saddlebrook is a friendly, local club named Pebble Creek Golf Club. Like Saddlebrook, the course is framed with mature cypress and mossy oaks that seem to instantly drop your heart rate, and the relaxing 6,400-yard layout is toughened with some sharp doglegs and encroaching trees beside fairways.
On the other side of the 13-mile Howard Frankland Bridge is Seminole Lake Country Club, a once-private turned semi-private club within a whiff of Long Bayou. The proximity to the Gulf of Mexico makes the course a natural habitat for bird life, which is abundant throughout the course as are water hazards. That's a reminder to stop by a beach at some point at Treasure Island a chip shot away.