The "Florida Swing" is upon us, when the PGA Tour season takes it up a notch. Fields become stronger and the coming Masters puts all that much more pressure on the game's best to get their swing sharp.
Not only is this the time of year when the eyes of the sports world really begin to follow pro golf, these four weeks are also the most publicly accessible stretch of courses the PGA Tour plays all year long.
Nowhere else on tour will you find four public golf courses right in a row — all in the same state. And once the pros have pulled out of town, your golf group can pull right in and enjoy near tour-quality conditions.
Your golf group could feasibly play all four on the same trip if you don't mind a little drive time between the two. Simply start in south Florida at Miami's Doral Resort, then head north to PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens. Then, zip across the state to Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club near Tampa, and finish up at Bay Hill Club & Lodge in Orlando.
If you're interested in following the pros' path, you won't need a sponsor's exemption to create your own Florida Swing.
PGA National's Champion course, Palm Beach Gardens
One of Florida's most impressive golf resorts for true players, PGA National Resort & Spa in Palm Beach Gardens boasts five championship golf courses. It's led by the Jack Nicklaus-designed Champion Course, host of the Honda Classic. The three-hole "Bear Trap," holes 15 through 17, is as fearsome a trio of holes as you'll find on tour. As a par-70 that stretches over 7,100 yards and with coastal breezes usually a factor, birdies always come at a premium.
PGA National's four other courses stand on their own, but they definitely serve up a few more confidence-building holes than the Champion. The Palmer Course at PGA National is a links-inspired design that boasts wide fairways and large greens. The Squire Course, on the other hand, is a thinking-man's tribute to Gene Sarazen that was designed by George and Tom Fazio.
Doral Resort's TPC Blue Monster, Miami
Tiger Woods is always a threat on the TPC Blue Monster at Doral Golf Resort & Spa.
For the rest of us, the Blue Monster might not be so kind. Thanks to recent green enhancements, they've never been slicker, although the rough can grow thick and deep. Loads of water features, including a devilish 18th, will ensure at least a few weak knees in your group.
If you like the idea of getting the Doral VIP treatment but without the pain of the Monster, the resort features four more options. Greg Norman's Great White Course was also overhauled in 2005 to include better-than-ever landscaping on top of its signature "coquina" crushed shells. Or play the newest of the Doral Resort five, the McLean Signature Course, designed by resident teaching pro Jim McLean.
Innisbrook Resort's Copperhead Course, Palm Harbor
The Transitions Championship is sandwiched between the PGA Tour's visits to Doral and Bay Hill, which generally results in lesser fields. However, the Copperhead Course at Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club is beloved by the pros. Paul Azinger once called it "the best course we play on tour."
Curtis Strange once said he could play the course every day for the rest of his life. "It has that much character," Strange said.
Stewart Cink even said the Copperhead's layout was good enough "it could host a U.S. Open."
Traditionally rated one of the tougher events during the season, the Copperhead will certainly test your mettle as you meander through the deep pines and rolling land more reminiscent of the Carolina sandhills than Florida. Highly ranked players generally fare well here, including 2010 winner Jim Furyk.
The Copperhead headlines the foursome of resort courses at Innisbrook Resort. "Second fiddle" is the recently renovated Island Course at Innisbrook, which is a mighty good runner-up to the Copperhead. It plays over 7,300 yards and hosts the NCAA championships and U.S. Open qualifiers, so don't tee it up expecting a cupcake resort course.
Bay Hill Club & Lodge, Orlando
Fans of the "King" will want to visit Arnold Palmer's winter abode and see his Bay Hill Club & Lodge in Orlando, host of the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard.
Since Arnie bought the club, Bay Hill's Championship course has become a PGA Tour staple and hosts an A-list field leading up to the Masters. Woods usually finds his A-game here, and Ernie Els triumphed last season. The course was recently enhanced with new, raised bunkers, flattened greens and a little more length for the pros, but a little less from the resort tees.
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