Golf is a game of history. So every golfer should know that long before shepherds were knocking featheries around Scottish linksland, Ponce de Leon arrived in Florida with soldiers, pigs, a priest and new irons. He promptly knocked three balls into the water surrounding the TPC Sawgrass’ 17th green, flung his clubs into a thicket of pines and resumed searching for the Fountain of Youth. “It’ll be easier than finding my swing,” he said.
We’re kidding, of course. Any historian can tell you there’s no way Ponce got a tee time on such short notice at the TPC, a must-play on one of the richest golf coasts in the New World. Make that two of the richest, giving Florida a unique geographical dilemma. East or west—which is the better side for a spring golf fling?
Golf isn’t the only factor, of course. As de Leon could have attested, there’s a lot more to Florida than sand traps—and he didn’t even live to see attractions like Walt Disney World, Kennedy Space Center and Jackie Gleason’s Mausoleum that draw 80 million tourists a year to the state.
The inscription on Gleason’s gravesite is his trademark, “And Away We Go.” But to where? Florida has 1,197 miles of coastline, 1,000 golf courses and a half dozen distinct cultures.
Before our road trip, a word or two about Orlando: Never mind. Nothing against central Florida as a golf destination; you could drive to many fine resorts without putting more than 20 miles on your rental car. But if you really want to experience the variety that is Florida, you need to go coastal.
Whether you head toward the Atlantic Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico is a matter of taste. For an idea of the differences, consider who lives where. The east coast’s residents include Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman, Nick Price and once he’s through with his $40 million fixer-upper, Tiger Woods. The west has John Huston.
To put it another way, are you more into substance, like the varying, natural landscape? Or are you into style, like one of the world’s most amazing topographical features? We’re speaking, of course, of Donald Trump’s hair.
Atlantic Coast: ‘How Sweet It Is’
Trump’s mane can be spotted on the east coast, usually at his golf club in West Palm Beach, the northernmost spot of the cultural mishmash that is South Florida. It’s not hard to find frijoles negros (black beans), a real bagel shop and $14 martinis on the same block, thanks to untold thousands of immigrants from Cuba, South America, New Jersey and whatever planet produces the Beautiful People who traipse along Miami’s South Beach.
And golf architects. Actually, they have it tough in Florida, where their canvases usually are plots of flat pine brush. The highest point in Florida is only 345 feet above sea level, or roughly the height of the ice sculpture at Doral’s nightly buffet.
Doral is the granddaddy of Florida’s golf resorts, home of the Blue Monster and for a time, Gleason himself. The course has been redone so many times that “the Great One” wouldn’t recognize it, but history alone makes it worth playing.
Head north and you’ll hit Ft. Lauderdale and the Fairmont Turnberry Isle Resort & Club, a favorite vacation spot for celebrities, recently reopened after a $100 million renovation. Another hour north is PGA National Resort, which has hosted a Ryder Cup and two PGA Championships and is the current haven of the nomadic Honda Classic.
The quickest way up the coast is I-95; the scenic route is A1A. Jimmy Buffet named an album after this two-lane stretch, so you know it has certain native charms. Like mom-and-pop hotels, fluttering sea oats, surf shops and traffic.
Try to stay awake at the wheel driving along the central coast: There’s nothing to see for hours unless you get to Titusville and NASA has a rocket launch scheduled. For all its waterfront, Florida has few golf holes on the ocean. It seems almost any developer with a bulldozer can build a waterfront condo, but a par 3 almost requires an act of Congress. When it opened in 2000, the Nicklaus course at Ocean Hammock was the first seaside course built in Florida since 1930.
The historic district of St. Augustine, America’s oldest city, is a nice change from prefabricated tourist options that have made Florida the world’s leading exporter of mouse ears and alligator wrestlers. St. Augustine even combines history with golf at the World Golf Village, where you’ll never play like Sam Snead, but you can at least gaze at one of his hats.
You know all about the Sawgrass Marriott Resort. Before dying, every golfer has to try to hit the island green. Added bonus: You might spot Vijay Singh on the range hitting his 94th bucket of balls that day.
Other than golf, this is the area of Florida that tourism forgot. For decades Jacksonville was the punch line for redneck jokes. In truth, the downtown, with the St. John’s River flowing through it, is more scenic than 99 percent of the cities on earth. And restaurant options have expanded beyond Waffle House, although you’ll still find one at every exit on the final leg of our east coast journey.
The end is Amelia Island Plantation, an enclave outside Fernandina Beach. It’s the kind of sumptuous resort you have to see to appreciate, which means it would feel right at home on the opposite side of the state, or at least the southern part of it.
Gulf Coast: Circuses, mythical creatures and Ernie Els’ favorite layout
The Ritz-Carlton Naples is a luxurious place to start on the west coast, although you’re only cheating yourself if you don’t head into the Everglades and check out the Skunk Ape Research Headquarters. The Skunk Ape is Florida’s version of Bigfoot. Skeptics abound, but there’s no scientific evidence that Mickey Mouse is real either, and that hasn’t stopped the sale of millions of his T-shirts.
The way southwest Florida is growing, you might soon find the Skunk Ape sipping a latte at a Starbucks. Imagine a modern-day Oklahoma land rush, only most of the Sooners are retirees from the Midwest looking for arthritis-friendly weather.
Built in 1930, the Naples Beach Golf Club was the first golf course in the area, which remained relatively quiet (compared with South Florida) for decades. Until recently. A new course has not been built for every new resident in the past 20 years. It only seems that way.
But that doesn’t mean every city looks and feels the same, mainly because there are no real cities. Naples, Fort Myers, Sarasota and Bradenton have historic cores surrounded by miles of real-estate developments. Tourists come here for the beaches, not the attractions.
Circus pioneer John Ringling was one of the first. He bought a few islands and set an aristocratic tone that still rings around Sarasota. If you want to spend $450 for a pair of sunglasses, St. Armand’s Circle on Lido Key is a good spot. For a bit less, Longboat Key Club has 45 plush holes.
Leaving Sarasota, you can take I-275 and enjoy the view from the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. You’ll end up in St. Petersburg, which isn’t entirely comprised of retirees, but you will have no problem finding an Early Bird Special.
In the summer, you have enough sunlight after that meal for nine holes at the Innisbrook Resort, home of the Tampa Bay Championship. “The best golf course the PGA Tour plays in Florida,” Ernie Els says of the Copperhead layout.
This is where the look and feel of the Gulf Coast start to change, and you know you’re no longer in Sarasota when you see the Spongeorama in Tarpon Springs, near Innisbrook. For years Tarpon Springs’ main industry was fishing sponges from the Gulf, and Spongeorama pays homage to this timeless pursuit with a gift shop, exhibits and a film that explains why the wool sponge is the “Cadillac of Sponges.”
Heading north from Innisbrook, you’ll realize why you never hear much about the mid-central coast. The area makes Titusville look like Manhattan. It’s mostly marsh, rocky beaches and abandoned fishing trawlers blown ashore by the last hurricane.
You also won’t find golf resorts, but in an area where Florida starts to roll with elevation changes, you can stumble onto one of the state’s most distinctive courses. The clubhouse at World Woods, about 10 miles north of Brooksville, wouldn’t qualify as a cart barn at Sawgrass, but golfers come from all over to play Tom Fazio’s Pine Barrens layout.
From there the coast meets Florida’s last golf frontier. Panhandle residents don’t like it when their area is referred to as the “Redneck Riviera.” But the sugar-white beaches are as good as any in the Mediterranean. Who could blame all those folks from Alabama and Mississippi for coming down and enjoying them?
There’s plenty of golf, although the ultimate destination is the Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort, 72 holes between the Gulf and Choctawhatchee Bay. To which your buddies back home would say “Choctaw-what-chee?” The area doesn’t carry the cachet of Key Biscayne or Boca Raton, so if your goal is to impress, choose the east coast.
But if you want to taste as much of Florida as possible, choose the, umm… Pardon the copout, but it really is a matter of taste. If you’re into bag tags and celebrity spotting, go east. If you’re into hidden gems, superior beaches and glorious sunsets, go west. You won’t end up like Ponce de Leon. On his first trip to Florida, he came ashore on the east coast. His second voyage, which began on the west coast, was ended quickly by a poisoned arrow.
Ponce never found the Fountain of Youth, but he explored a peninsula that would become a fountain of golf. You’ll discover plenty of riches whichever coast you take. And if you’re really lucky, you might even spot the Skunk Ape.