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Play Away: Florida Golf-Fest

But the LPGA International wasn't finished. In 1998, this city-owned complex debuted the Legends, an Arthur Hills design that's more demanding than the Jones spread, with numerous forced carries called for over marshes and water hazards. Its landing areas are narrow, and its greens smaller and more undulating than those on the Champions.

After your round, take a walk on the area's legendary twenty-three-mile-long beach. Or for a slightly faster thrill, sign up for the Richard Petty Driving Experience at Daytona International Speedway and you'll be strapped into the passenger seat of a six-hundred-horsepower stock car and driven around the track at speeds up to 150 m.p.h.

At the south end of Daytona Beach is Ponce Inlet, a port of call for sixteenth-century pirates. Miss Genevieve's Lighthouse Landing (386-761-9271), billed as the East Coast's oldest restaurant, has picnic tables on a deck shaded by live oaks, excellent fried shrimp and a raw bar ("We shuck 'em, you suck 'em"). A bit more upscale—i.e., shoes required—is Inlet Harbor Marina & Restaurant (386-767-5590), where the seafood is first-rate and the nightly entertainment is lively.

In Ormond Beach, Billy's Tap Room & Grill (386-672-1910) recreates the feel of an old English pub (high-backed booths, congenial atmosphere, choice steaks). The area's finest dining, also in Ormond Beach, is La Crepe en Haut (386-673-1999), with flawless French fare served by a tuxedoed staff.

For years, Florida's gulf coast has suffered from a minor inferiority complex, at least in the eyes of those who patronize the east coast. Sugar-sand beaches, but no waves. A laid-back atmosphere, but no vibrant scenes À la Miami. But much of that is changing in today's new, trendy Tampa—and a slew of exciting new and established courses on the outskirts of the city are giving the region's golfers a healthy ego boost.

Set among rolling pine-covered hills, the Westin Innisbrook Golf Resort (800-456-2000) is an 1,100-acre retreat featuring 610 suites, a first-class golf school and seventy-two holes of golf. The headliner is the Copperhead, a challenging spread that hosts the PGA Tour's Chrysler Championship. With holes carved through tall pines on surprisingly rolling terrain, the course could have been airlifted from the North Carolina Sandhills. Unless you're a card-carrying Tour member, you will not defang the Copperhead from the tips at 7,295 yards (par seventy-one). The Island course, hemmed in by cypress swamps, moss-draped oaks and citrus groves, is just as hilly as the Copperhead but not quite as long. But with its strategically placed bunkers and risk-reward options, it's a great test. Both courses were laid out in the early 1970s by E. Lawrence Packard, an underrated designer who espoused gently sculpted landforms and freeform teeing areas. Innisbrook's other two tracks, the reworked Highlands North and South, while not quite as daunting, still deliver an aesthetically pleasing round. Water comes into play on eleven holes of the North's tight layout, placing a premium on club selection—and having a full supply of balls.

After golf, head to nearby Tarpon Springs and stroll Dodecanese Boulevard to savor the town's Greek heritage. Sponge diving attracted Greek divers here in the early 1900s, and today several boats at the nearby Sponge Docks are listed in the National Register of Historic Places. For authentic Greek fare, drop by Pappas' Riverside Restaurant (727-937-5101).

It was once a long drive to tiny Brooksville, forty-five miles north of Tampa, but the opening of the Suncoast Parkway two years ago has brought World Woods Golf Club—and two of the finest courses Tom Fazio ever built—within an easy hour of the airport. Pine Barrens, modeled after the great Pine Valley, uses visual intimidation—turfed areas awash in sandy wastelands—to unnerve players. In fact, there's room to drive the ball, though the boldly contoured greens are well defended by gnarly grass and deep bunkers. Opened ten years ago to instant acclaim, Pine Barrens is a playable work of art and strategic tour de force rolled into one.

But if you ask the World Woods staff which course they prefer, most will say Rolling Oaks, Fazio's paean to Augusta National. Stately and refined, it unfolds on rolling terrain marked by massive live oaks and limestone outcrops. The fairways here are a bit narrower than on Pine Barrens, the rough a tad thicker, the greens more subtle. It may lack the dazzling look of Pine Barrens, but Rolling Oaks is a parkland course supreme. The only fly in the ointment at World Woods is course condition; it can be iffy.

In between rounds, you can rest up at the Park Inn in Homosassa, only twelve miles from World Woods, but the Plantation Inn & Golf Resort (800-632-6262) in Crystal River, twenty minutes distant, is a better choice. In addition to a sporty course of its own, the 145-room inn, set on King's Bay, offers solid fare in its Savannah Room. More rustic dining is found at Charlie's Fish House (352-795-3949), also in Crystal River, where the grouper is always fresh.

Elsewhere in the Tampa area are three other golf notables. The semiprivate El Diablo, a ninety-minute drive from Tampa, showcases the work of Jim Fazio. Gently sculpted fairways framed by burly oaks, loblolly pines and steep-faced bunkers mark this five-year-old layout. Its staggered tees, each a beautifully landscaped, self-contained entity, are exceptional. So is the challenge from the tips at 7,045 yards.

Twenty miles north of the city is the Tournament Players Club of Tampa Bay, a Champions Tour venue marked by prominent stadium mounding that skirts wetlands and cypress trees. And forty-five minutes from Tampa, in Dade City, is Lake Jovita, a semiprivate club, with three bedroom villas, that opened in 1999. One of the hilliest courses in the state, Lake Jovita drops nearly a hundred feet from tee to green at the dizzying par-five eleventh. The dramatic terrain might not feel like Florida—but the splendid golfing most definitely will.


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