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Play Away: Florida Golf-Fest

There's an apocryphal tale about a stubborn British lord who owns the land beneath the U.S. embassy in London. No amount of American largesse can convince him to sell. Deal after multimillion-dollar deal is offered, to no avail. Finally, the U.S. ambassador asks the titled gentleman what on earth he would take for the land. The wily codger furrows his brow. He stiffens his upper lip. At last he replies: "I'll take Florida."

He will have to queue up behind the droves of American golfers who rate the peninsula their top winter playground—and with good reason. With nearly 1,400 golf courses—more than any other state—Florida's allure owes much to the sport. More than sixty million rounds a year are played here, a state in which golf is a $6 billion industry. Here are a few choice places to contribute your share to the Sunshine State's economy.

Often kitschy, never boring, Miami—and its golf—has finally gone deluxe. The Four Seasons Hotel Miami (305-381-3381), which opened in October, resides in the tallest structure (seventy stories) south of Atlanta. When The Ritz-Carlton, South Beach (800-241-3333) opens in December it will mark the luxury hotel chain's third property in the Miami area. Yes, the pastel motels and J.Lo look-alikes are still in force, but the city is refining its act.

Golf-wise, Miami's grandest makeover has been the transformation earlier this year of the previously dreary Bayshore Golf Course in Miami Beach into a first-class test renamed the Miami Beach Golf Club. Treated to a more than $10 million rescue by Arthur Hills and Steve Forrest, the city-owned layout, a few blocks north of the Art Deco district, is an urban-golf oasis. After recontouring the fairways, reshaping the ten lakes, installing more than eighty bunkers, and building new greens and tees at every hole, Hills and crew seeded the spread with two strains of paspalum, an eco-friendly salt-tolerant grass that's perfectly adapted to the tropics. The virtually new course is now nearly as captivating as the city that surrounds it.

Eight miles west, Doral Golf Resort & Spa (800-713-6725) has changed considerably from the go-go getaway that New York real estate tycoon Alfred Kaskel and his wife, Doris (hence the name, Dor-Al), built on 2,400 acres of swampland in Miami in 1960. And yet . . . the horseshoe arrangement of low-rise lodges set below the smoked-glass windows of the clubhouse is still there. So is a fountain from the 1964 New York World's Fair, bubbling in a lake beside the practice putting green of the ninety-hole golf mecca. And, of course, you will want to play the Blue course, a.k.a. the Blue Monster, site of the PGA Tour's Ford Championship. One of Florida's first manufactured layouts, the Blue—designed by Dick Wilson and severely toughened up by Ray Floyd in 1996—is marked by sculpted lagoons, broad fairways defined by well-placed bunkers and large, subtly contoured greens. The par-four eighteenth, its long, skewed green cantilevered into a lake, is one of the sport's most daunting finishing holes. The course is a major-league test from the tips at 7,125 yards, but eminently playable for risk-averse enthusiasts from the forward tees.

Doral's other courses include the Great White, which Greg Norman completely reworked three years ago into a stark, desert-like spread, with holes framed by acres of tightly packed coquina sand, 2,400 mature palms and a gaggle of pot bunkers. The Red course, renovated in 2001, is the friendliest of the five. The Jim McLean Golf School at Doral is one of the best, as is the 148,000-square-foot Spa at Doral. The resort completed a $75 million makeover last year to bring its decor and facilities into the twenty-first century, and yet . . . you can still sniff the snap-brim '60s as you watch jets roar into the blue from nearby Miami International Airport.

Linked to Miami's mainland by the Rickenbacker Causeway, Key Biscayne is home to Crandon Park, one of Florida's best munis. Host of a Champions Tour event, Crandon was laid out by Robert von Hagge and Bruce Devlin in 1972 and touched up twenty-one years later in the wake of Hurricane Andrew. The course today, a stone's throw from the sea, is a beautifully landscaped track routed through a forest of mangroves, with numerous saltwater lagoons in play. The par-five eighteenth, with Biscayne Bay off to the right and the glistening Miami skyline in the distance, is truly memorable.

As culinary fusion capitals go, Miami is at or near the top. Go ethnic in Little Havana, trendy in Coconut Grove or line up for a table at Joe's Stone Crab (305-673-0365), a South Beach institution that boils the claws of these delectable crustaceans and serves them chilled with a mustard dressing on the side. For elegant continental dining, Restaurant St. Michel (305-446-6572), in the hotel of the same name in Coral Gables, is a good bet, as is the town's Palme d'Or (305-445-1926), located in the Biltmore Hotel.

Forty-five minutes east of Orlando, Daytona Beach is more famous as a spring-break capital, an auto-racing haven and a spot to cruise your vintage cherry-red GTO on the sand. But this carefree beach town has been put on the golf map by several new developments.

When it opened in 2000, the semiprivate Ocean Hammock was promoted as Florida's first new oceanfront course since 1929, when Seminole made its auspicious debut. Located between St. Augustine, the nation's oldest city, and Daytona Beach, Ocean Hammock was built around the time its designer, Jack Nicklaus, was collaborating with his old rival Arnold Palmer on The King & The Bear at nearby World Golf Village. Because that course was (and is) more King than Bear, Nicklaus escaped often to work on Ocean Hammock's fabulous parcel of sandy hammocks within sight and sound of the pounding surf. After digging a series of interior lakes and using the fill to raise the land along the shore for his prototype links, Nicklaus crafted a brilliant strategic test through scrub-covered dunes, oaks and pines. Green shapes, bunker depths and hole orientations were varied to create different looks on a 7,201-yard course that tests shot-making skills to the max. The par-four ninth, with rolling dunes framing the right side of the hole, is the real deal. Think Royal Troon with better weather.

To play the course, your best bet is to stay at the Lodge at Ocean Hammock (800-654-6538), a $25 million hostelry that opened this spring. All twenty rooms feature private balconies with ocean and golf-course views. A beautifully appointed lodge, it could pass for a getaway in the British West Indies.

Another lodging option is the Palm Coast Golf Resort (800-654-6538), built by ITT in the early 1980s. Guests there can play Ocean Hammock and four other courses, ranging from the decent (Palm Harbor) to the well above average (Matanzas Woods, Pine Lakes and Cypress Knoll). Both Matanzas and Pine Lakes are brawny Arnold Palmer-Ed Seay creations with room to bang the driver. But the sleeper is Cypress Knoll, a fairly short (6,591 yards) but enticing Gary Player design with open-entry greens and narrow fairways.

Rees Jones faced an interesting dilemma when he was asked, in 1990, to create a daily-fee facility that would offer a formidable challenge for the game's most talented female players yet could also be enjoyed by golfers of all abilities. The "Open Doctor" succeeded on both counts. The original course at Daytona Beach's LPGA International, now called the Champions, was specifically designed from the middle tees (the ideal spot for the average campaigner) and hosted the LPGA's Titleholders Championship for five years. It remains a versatile test that offers, according to Jones, "great variety in length, a diversity of shot options and putting-surface contours that reward accurate approaches." Strategic mounding and more than a hundred bunkers will get your attention on this links-style gem, no matter what set of tees you choose.


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