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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.


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