Shore thing on the Emerald Coast

DESTIN, Fla. – Folks here never have been shy about proclaiming the virtues of this Gulf Coast region. They know they have a good thing, and they don’t mind telling you.

Over the years, the area has been referred to in terms that suggested the transcendental (“Miracle Strip”) or hinted at the earthly revelry one would find here (“The Playground”). Even the local paper used to be known as the Playground News. The region has come to be known as the Emerald Coast, a tribute to the Gulf of Mexico’s shimmering, bluish-green waters. And it was more than 35 years ago that my parents fell hard for “the world’s most beautiful beaches” in Panama City, 50 miles east of here.

True, some might carp that it’s no longer the pristine coastal region it once was. Destin (motto: “the world’s luckiest fishing village”), for instance, is home to the Silver Sands Factory Stores (“the nation’s largest designer outlet center”).

But even the perceived slights (“Redneck Riviera”) can’t deny the area’s many assets.

The most prominent of those is the massive Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort, which straddles U.S. 98, stretching from the Gulf to Choctawhatchee Bay. The best place to get a perspective on the scale of this 2,400-acre property – 7.5 miles of waterfront, a marina, four golf courses and 1,500 rooms – is from the 21st-floor observation deck at the Luau I condominiums.

Intrawest, best known for developing winter resorts such as Copper Mountain and Steamboat, brought the ski-village model to Sandestin. It’s sprawling, yet efficiently self-contained. Guests can walk to the shops and restaurants at Baytowne Wharf and, if so inclined, drink for free for 90 minutes each night at John Wehner’s Village Door. “Free drinks, no cover. What’s the catch?” one visitor wondered aloud as he approached the Door one recent night. There is none.

Sandestin’s Links Course occupies some of the resort’s best bayside land, though two Jones brother designs – Burnt Pine (Rees) and Raven (Robert Trent Jr.) – are the most highly regarded layouts. Despite the proximity and the similar bloodlines, the courses – like the brothers – are quite different.

Burnt Pine feels more sculpted, its circular bunkering more formulaic. It’s at its best on the front nine, which cuts through tall pine stands before eventually working its way out to the bay. There, you’ll encounter No. 14, an utterly unparrable par 3 requiring a 200-yard carry over the marsh, with no bailout. Here’s how hard that hole is: The course record of 65 included 10 birdies and a triple bogey on 14.

The Raven, a former Champions Tour tournament site, reflects its designer’s obvious gift for creating memorable par 3s, six of which can be found here. (The Raven’s 19 holes include two par-3 16th holes – 16a and 16b – which are played on alternating days.) Its large bunkering is whimsical, and its fairways and greens tend to be sizable, but with uncomfortable hazards, most notably at the island-green sixth and the bite-off-all-you-want 18th.

On the far end of the Raven’s practice range last month, Cliff Bailey and Jeff Parks were setting up the latest Titleist Performance Institute outpost. Throwing dignity to the wind, I went all George Plimpton, allowing them to expose my many failings as a golfer.

They showed me video of my swing – a modern-day equivalent of the horror flicks that used to play at the now-defunct Showtown Twin Drive-In just down Highway 98 in Fort Walton Beach – then gauged my flexibility (not good) and balance (even worse).

“You know that thing Tiger does with his elbow here?” Parks asked me, holding up his right arm as if supporting a club at the top of a backswing. I nodded. “You can’t do that,” Parks said.

I am not Tiger Woods.

Instead, I am a project with a 20.1 fitness handicap (don’t ask; I couldn’t begin to explain it) and a new workout regimen spit out on the spot by the TPI program. Like a religious epiphany, in the space of a 75-minute session I changed my whole approach to exercise and improving my volatile golf game.

• • •

Where Sandestin overwhelms visitors with its sheer size and breadth of entertainment options, WaterColor Inn, located a half-hour’s drive east in Santa Rosa Beach, is all charm and Southern grace. It’s one of the country’s most celebrated boutique hotels, and why not? You practically could fall off the balcony of one of the 60 king-size rooms into a beachside chaise, then wind down the day eating locally harvested Apalachicola oysters and pan-seared scallops upstairs at Fish Out of Water.

Two other reasons to visit WaterColor: It offers access to two nearby tracks – Shark’s Tooth, a private Greg Norman design, and Camp Creek, Tom Fazio’s local tour de force. (The resort and both courses are owned by St. Joe Co.) Shark’s Tooth is part of an 800-acre residential community, though the homes don’t intrude on the layout. Both nines get better as they wind outward toward Lake Powell before returning to the clubhouse.

Nearby, Fazio moved more than 1 million cubic yards of dirt in building Camp Creek. Such wholesale earth moving might offend purists, but they would be mollified if given the chance to enjoy Fazio’s genius. Camp Creek feels much larger than its 7,159 yards, reflecting the facts that there are no homes on the property and giant pines buffer each hole, creating a sense of isolation. That feeling was exacerbated during my visit because there were only a few other players on the course. That will change. Camp Creek went private in 2006, but membership flat-lined, and the club reopened to the public March 1.

Fazio’s aggressive shaping is particularly notable in his supersized green complexes; they tend to be elevated, with abundant mounding. You’re just as likely to find yourself bumping a 7-iron onto the greens as flopping a sand wedge. At times, the large waste areas, rolling elevations and wispy vegetation make it feel almost like a desert-foothills layout.

One could quibble: The par 3s all require mid-irons, and Nos. 14 and 16 in particular look and feel a bit too similar. But Camp Creek illustrates why Fazio has had his pick of projects in recent years.

• • •

In the early 1970s, when my family first visited Panama City, just east of Santa Rosa Beach, U-shaped Thomas Drive – which swoops down along St. Andrews Bay, then back up along the Gulf of Mexico – had only two-story motels and sugary beaches. After a short visit, my folks vowed to retire there, though only my mother made it, affording me the chance to see the area transformed from hidden gem to tourist haven. These days there’s a wall of high-rise condos stretching up Thomas Drive and west onto Front Beach Road. Just outside of town, a new airport is scheduled to open in 2010.

A popular Panama City landing spot is Bay Point Marriott Golf Resort & Spa, once home to one of the country’s most difficult – some might say reviled – courses. True to its name, the old Lagoon Legend was a watery graveyard with the nation’s second-highest slope rating and nary a flat lie.

Jay Iskow, Bay Point’s director of golf, still gets the occasional letter from self-destructive souls who long for the days when they could shoot 115 on Lagoon Legend and lose a dozen pellets for good measure. What great fun that was!

One blogger who regularly visits Bay Point exhorts: “Bring back the Legend!” To which I say: Please, don’t.

Nicklaus Design arrived a few years ago to restore some sanity with a redesign that’s resort-friendly but still has some bite. Landing areas off the tees are generous, but the green complexes can be a tad inhospitable if approached from the wrong side of the fairway.

The Nicklaus and Meadows courses were jamming the day I played, thanks in part to a large Canadian contingent, and I joined with Tom and Marino, a pair of affable Canucks. (Is that a redundancy?)

Later, I drove over to an old haunt, Schooners, which, with typical Gulf Coast conviction, describes itself as the “last local beach club.” With spring break three weeks away, the beachside bar was subdued, and customers quietly feasted on seafood gumbo and grouper while watching the sunset over the Gulf.

Maybe it’s not the world’s most beautiful beach, but sitting there, it was easy to remember why my parents were so captivated by the Emerald Coast nearly four decades ago.

• • •

Spotlight: Emerald Coast

Where to stay

>> Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort

sandestin.com; 800-622-1038

>> WaterColor Inn & Resort

watercolorresort.com; 866-426-2656

Where to play

>> Bay Point (two courses)

baypointgolf.com; 850-235-6950

>> Camp Creek

campcreekgolfclub.com; 850-231-7600

>> Hombre

hombregolfclub.com; 850-234-3673

>> Kelly Plantation

kellyplantationgolf.com; 800-811-6757

>> Regatta Bay

regattabay.com; 850-337-8080

>> Sandestin (four courses)

sandestin.com; 800-622-1038

>> Shark’s Tooth

sharkstoothgolfclub.com; 850-249-3015

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