Resort golf gets a makeover on Florida Gulf Coast

Innisbrook's Island Course

As co-founder of Black Entertainment Television, Sheila Johnson knows a thing or two about creating buzz and excitement. So after buying Innisbrook Resort & Golf Club in August 2007, she called a news conference to lay out her plans for what was, at the time, a property that was showing its age.

Standing before the media, Johnson picked up a walkie-talkie and ordered a construction crew already assembled on Innisbrook’s Island Course to fire up the bulldozers and begin renovations on the course where Phil Mickelson won the 1990 NCAA Championship.

Johnson’s message was clear: Innisbrook needed a makeover, and she wasn’t going to waste any time getting started. Since acquiring Innisbrook, she has spent liberally and well to revive the 900-acre resort.

Innisbrook, in Palm Harbor, was the northern starting point on a recent, weeklong exploration of resort golf along Florida’s Gulf Coast.

The fruits of Johnson’s nearly $30 million in renovations will be evident to fans at the PGA Tour’s Transitions Championship, being played this week on Innisbrook’s Copperhead Course.

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No. 13 at the Ritz-Carlton Members Club

Near the 12th hole, Johnson’s company, Salamander Hospitality, built the 20,000- square-foot Indaba Spa, filling a gaping void on the resort’s list of amenities. Just across Mill Ridge Road from Copperhead’s 14th hole, the Osprey Clubhouse has been greatly expanded, and now serves as a central gathering place, with an indoor/outdoor restaurant near the first hole of the South Course. Not far from the Copperhead Clubhouse, three meeting halls also have been spruced up, putting Innisbrook back in play for vital group business. Coming soon: a top-to-bottom renovation of the resort’s 620 rooms.

“We’re not only continuing to get business that’s coming back into the market, we’re stealing business (from competitors),” says Lloyd Williams, Innisbrook’s managing director, noting that group sales were up 22 percent through February.

Innisbrook’s biggest draw, however, always will be its four courses, particularly Copperhead, which is a favorite of PGA Tour players. Its appeal is quickly evident on the first hole, a downhill par 5. The rolling terrain and tall pines that frame the holes are more reminiscent of North Carolina than a coastal Florida course.

The nearly unreachable par-5 fifth requires a blind second shot, an anomaly in these parts. The par-71 layout has five par 3s, the shortest being 195 yards. If you’re looking for a 25-under birdiefest like those seen on the Tour’s West Coast Swing, you’ve come to the wrong place.

But Innisbrook regulars, including director of golf Rodney Green, will tell you flat-out that the Island is the toughest course on property. Jeff McKinley, a dentist seeking refuge from the Ohio winter, summarized the obstacles on the first tee.

“Can’t go left. Water there,” he said. “Can’t go right. Water there.”

Well, it is called the Island Course. It’s somewhat more forgiving than McKinley suggested but still a grind, though in a charming way. As is the case on Copperhead, the nearness of greens to tees creates an intimacy not often found at mega-resort courses. And architect Larry Packard, who designed all four courses and still lives on property, seems to have a whimsical side.

The lone cypress that gives No. 4 its name rises from the middle of the front bunker, splitting the green in two. If one were to line up 100 modern course architects, it’s likely that 99 of the killjoys would recommend chopping down the tree. But Packard, now 98 years old, wisely has allowed it to stand, turning a straightforward mid-iron shot into a memorable adventure.

Though Packard had unusually good land on which to work, Tom Fazio had to put his vivid imagination to work on what used to be a flat meadow at the Ritz-Carlton Members Golf Club, about an hour’s drive to the south in Bradenton. The course is part of the Ritz-Carlton Sarasota, which sits 14 miles to the west, on Sarasota Bay.

Fazio had to craft 315 acres worthy of the – ho-hum – AAA Five Diamond Ritz Sarasota. He moved 1.9 million cubic yards of dirt, so much that the 12th tee now is the highest point in Manatee County. From there all you’ll see are golf holes; no homes are on the site or planned for it. All of that earthmoving created more than a dozen water hazards alongside the holes, their presence made more threatening by the constant breezes.

Fazio’s long track record suggests he is deft enough to fit his vision to the job at hand. But the Ritz Members Club is the sort of unconstrained artistry on which he built his reputation.

While the PGA Tour’s Florida Swing will direct the focus of most golf fans elsewhere in the state, the Marco Island Marriott, located two hours south of the Ritz Sarasota, its corporate cousin, figures to draw the attention of the rest of the sports world. The NFL Players Association convened two weeks of meetings there March 11 as a labor showdown with NFL owners loomed.

When the NFLPA travels, it does so in style, so its attraction to Marco Island is understandable. From 2004 to ’07, the property underwent a $225 million renovation, the largest capital investment to an existing hotel in Marriott’s history. With 727 tricked-out rooms, a 24,000-square-foot spa and nearly 10 acres of private beachfront, the setting is more than cushy enough for a few hundred millionaire athletes.

The renovations included calling in Bob Cupp to spruce up The Rookery, the Marriott’s golf course located nine miles to the northeast, off State Road 951. As the name suggests, the course is populated by various species of birds, including bald eagles.

In true Florida tradition, water is in play on 15 holes, becoming more of a factor as the round progresses. That includes an island green on the par-5 15th, the pretty little par-3 16th over water and an all-carry approach to the 18th.

For guests who feel a bit overmatched, The Rookery has an honest-to-goodness, 14-acre teaching academy that originally was built for a Nick Faldo school. That may make it a better place to start, rather than finish, a Gulf Coast golf trip.

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