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LONG WEEKEND: Sunshine Safaris

Ever since Walt Disney recast thousands of acres of central Florida wetlands and orange groves, goofy tour groups galore have been spending fun-filled weeks standing in long, broiling lines. Golfers are more discerning: Identify the quality golf and a superior accommodation, then settle in for a stretch of pure enjoyment. The Sunshine State is the perfect place for this kind of trip: great places to stay and play and fresh-squeezed OJ everywhere. With apologies to Miami and Doral as well as Tampa and World Woods, which are no less worthy of a visit, here are three standout spots.

Despite the occasional midwinter chill, northeast Florida is prime golfing ground, headlined by the Stadium course at the Tournament Players Club at Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach. Home to the PGA Tour's unofficial fifth major, the Players Championship, this seminal Pete Dye torture-test target track is every bit as pilgrimage-worthy as Pebble Beach. The only way to get a tee time here or at the adjacent Valley course is to book a room at the Sawgrass Marriott Resort & Beach Club (800-457-4653), which overlooks the Stadium's thirteenth and has pleasant rooms and two good restaurants. Dye likes to scare the bejeezus out of golfers on the tee, but at the Stadium as elsewhere there is usually more room in the fairway than is apparent. It's the approaches, often to greens subdivided by humps and depressions, that demand precision—and nowhere in golf is that precision needed more than at the infamous island-green par-three seventeenth, 132 yards of nervous-giggle-inducing hell. Stadium savants often overlook the Valley—big mistake. Almost as fun as its sister but not quite as strenuous, this would be the main attraction most anywhere else.

A few miles south of the TPC is one of the better tracks in the Jacksonville area, Cimarrone Golf Club (904-287-2000). For about $60, you get a wild ride through marshy wetlands. Scheduled to reopen in February after a $4 million renovation, the Mediterranean-flavored Lodge & Club at Ponte Vedra Beach (800-243-4304) offers twenty-four sumptuous suites overlooking the ocean, a fitness center and access to the two courses at the Ponte Vedra Inn & Club down the street—the Ocean, which was to host the 1939 Ryder Cup until World War II intervened, and the Spanish moss-dripping Lagoon. The Lodge also has a bang-up continental restaurant, The Innlet, available solely to its guests.

South of Jacksonville is St. Augustine, North America's oldest city and home to the World Golf Village and World Golf Hall of Fame (904-940-4000). Not only is this Hall of Fame a modern, interactive museum with an IMAX theater, but the WGV also has two eighteens to tackle. The King & Bear—designed, of course, by the pairing of Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus—feels more competitive than collaborative. The Slammer & Squire (built by Bobby Weed with input from Gene Sarazen and Sam Snead) is more consistent, thoughtful and fun. Farther south still is Nicklaus's Grand Haven course at Palm Coast Golf Resort (800-368-2644), which is accessible only to resort guests (unlike Palm Coast's much-admired Ocean Hammock). This is a solid layout from start to finish: challenging, strategic and sometimes memorable.

Whether or not you stay in St. Augustine, make time for a stroll through its historic district, followed by dinner at the Cuban-Spanish Columbia Restaurant (904-824-3341), which makes wonderful paella and sangria. Dwight's Bistro (904-241-4496) in Jacksonville Beach (an area dotted with honky-tonks on the sand—think long-necked Buds and Jimmy Buffett anthems) and the spicy Floribbean cuisine at Plantain's (904-249-1037) in the Sea Turtle Inn in Atlantic Beach are both locally renowned.

Yes, it is possible to avoid the throngs and find some darn good golf in Orlando. In fact, Walt Disney World Resort (407-939-4653) offers ninety-nine holes of quality play (see T&L Golf, November/December 2001), as well as lodging in every price range. A quieter oasis is the Grand Cypress Resort (800-835-7377); its forty-five Nicklaus-designed holes, available only to resort guests, are first-class. The New course is Nicklaus's homage to St. Andrews, and those who have played in the game's birthplace will have a few déjÀ vu moments, despite the Bermuda grass and absence of cold wind and rain.

Another fine choice is Arnold Palmer's Bay Hill Club & Lodge (888-422-9445), a.k.a. Arnie's winter home. The sixty-five rooms in this intimate inn aren't especially luxe, but the atmosphere is that of a storied private club, which Bay Hill is. Best of all, guests get a crack at its Championship eighteen, annual host of the Bay Hill Invitational, and there's always the possibility of seeing the King on the range, playing cards in the men's locker room or teeing it up in the daily members' scramble. The course itself is one of the state's best: Sometimes it requires strength, sometimes smarts, but focus is needed all the way around.

Elsewhere around the fantastical world of the Magic Kingdom, the golf is the real deal. Greg Norman designed both the National and International courses at ChampionsGate (407-787-4653) just off I-4 past Disney World. The former is tight and compact; the latter, our preference, is long and open with a links feel. If the course bollixes up your game, there's a David Leadbetter Golf Academy on hand to fix it. Falcon's Fire Golf Club (877-878-3473) is a nice Rees Jones country-club-for-a-day, if one can penetrate the forest of T-shirt shops, fast-food joints and discount marts constituting Kissimmee's main drag to find it.

Orlando's outskirts feature some interesting layouts, too. To the southwest, in Haines City, is Southern Dunes Golf & Country Club (800-632-6400). Built on open, rolling terrain, it's a handful if the wind is blowing. To the north, in Eustis, is P. B. Dye's Black Bear Golf Club (352-357-4732), of which the same things can be said. To the southwest, Orange County National Golf Center and Lodge (888-727-3672) boasts the traditional Panther Lake and the linksy Crooked Cat (which together will host the 2003 PGA Tour Q-school finals), the world's biggest range (forty-two acres), and a Phil Ritson Golf Institute.

For nighttime diversions, kick it up a notch from the city's basic flavors with dinner at Emeril's Restaurant Orlando (407-224-2424) at CityWalk. Because of the chef's celebrity and the quality of the nouveau New Orleans food, call for a table at least six weeks in advance for weekdays, fourteen for weekends. Don't yell "Bam!" into the phone.

For those who live golf and wish to eat that way, too, head for Sam Snead's Tavern (407-295-9999) not far from MetroWest Golf Club (407-299-1099, a tough Robert Trent Jones design that sports the highest point in Orlando). Snead's has a broad range of fine fare and Slammin' Sammy memorabilia; you might also spy some of the Golf Channel's on-air talent at the hopping bar. A strip of popular restaurants has sprung up on Sand Lake Road near I-4 and International Drive: Timpano Italian Chophouse (407-248-0429), Samba Room (407-226-0550), Morton's (407-248-3485), Ruth's Chris Steak House (407-226-3900) and Roy's (407-352-4844). For music, House of Blues (407-934-2583) in Downtown Disney often features well-known headliners, while beboppers should check out CityJazz at CityWalk (407-224-2189).

There are two recreational activities in this quiet, posh Gulf Coast enclave: sitting on the beach listening to the sound of interest compounding, and golf. Quality public choices, however, are surprisingly limited. So booking a comfy room at the new Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort (800-241-3333) is a no-brainer. Spend the weekend enjoying white-glove Ritz service and two dandy Greg Norman designs at the sporty, fun and tough Tiburón Golf Club, where waste areas of crushed coquina shells and marshland define the fairways. When time permits, take the shuttle to the resort's beachfront hotel and enjoy a few hours in its world-class spa.

Also worthy is the elegant Edgewater Beach Hotel & Club (800-821-0196) near Old Naples. Guests here can enjoy ocean views, equally classy surroundings and service, as well as gaining entrée to Rees Jones's wonderful Naples Grande Golf Club. Although three miles inland, Naples Grande is filled with water hazards, not to mention nests of bunkers and tropical undergrowth. Jones somehow managed to add to the mix a babbling brook, two cliffside greens, a number of raised tees and other more subtle elevation changes that give the course a Carolina feel. Raymond Floyd's Raptor Bay Golf Club (877-924-7529) at the Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort & Spa (239-444-1234) in Bonita Springs, just north of Naples, is another attractive option.

The sidewalks roll up early in Naples. Zoe's (941-403-0083) on Fifth Avenue South has an American luxury-cuisine menu—beluga caviar, quail and the like—and live music on weekends; across the street, McCabe's Irish Pub & Grill (941-403-7170) offers Guinness on draft and hearty pub fare. Ridgway Bar & Grill (941-262-5500) on Thirteenth Avenue South or Maxwell's on the Bay (941-263-1662), which sports pleasing water views, are also worth a shot.

—James Y. Bartlett


TPC AT SAWGRASS (Stadium), Ponte Vedra Beach; 800-457-4653.
Yardage/Slope: 6,954/149.
Greens Fees: $140-$275.
Architect: Pete Dye, 1980.
T&L Golf Rating: *****

BAY HILL CLUB (Championship), Orlando; 888-422-9445.
Yardage/Slope: 7,239/139.
Greens Fee: Complimentary with golf package.
Architects: Dick Wilson, 1961; revised by Arnold Palmer and Ed Seay.
T&L Golf Rating: ****

NAPLES GRANDE GOLF CLUB, Naples; 800-821-0196.
Yardage/Slope: 7,078/143.
Greens Fees: $75-$175.
Architect: Rees Jones, 2000.
T&L Golf Rating: ****

GRAND CYPRESS GOLF CLUB (New), Orlando; 800-835-7377.
Yardage/Slope: 6,693/122.
Greens Fees: $115-$175.
Architect: Jack Nicklaus, 1988.
T&L Golf Rating: *** 1/2

TIBURÓN GOLF CLUB (Gold), Naples; 888-387-8417.
Yardage/Slope: 7,288/137.
Greens Fees: $80-$215.
Architect: Greg Norman, 2000.
T&L Golf Rating: *** 1/2

TPC AT SAWGRASS (Valley), Ponte Vedra Beach; 800-457-4653.
Yardage/Slope: 6,864/130.
Greens Fees: $110-$170.
Architects: Pete Dye, Jerry Pate, Bobby Weed, 1987.
T&L Golf Rating: *** 1/2


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