In Miami, 36 holes of muni magic

Miami Beach GC (hole No. 16, foreground; hole No. 17, background)

Miami Beach GC (hole No. 16, foreground; hole No. 17, background)

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. – The Miami area is well known for its luxury golf resorts, including stalwarts such as Doral, Turnberry Isle and the legendary Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables. But the region also has become a bustling scene for public golf, as evidenced by my recent 36-hole day spent on two of the area’s finest municipal tracks: Crandon Golf Course Key Biscayne and Miami Beach Golf Club.

Both courses were packed with golfers, delays between shots weren’t uncommon and I had a hectic 30-minute dash through downtown Miami to get from one to the other in lunch-hour traffic. But I have had few more enjoyable days of golf.

Crandon, located on a barrier island southeast of Miami, is part of a municipal park owned by Miami-Dade County, and once there in its protected natural surroundings, it’s hard to believe you’re just 10 minutes away from downtown Miami.

After eating breakfast in the charming village of Key Biscayne, I teed it up with a pair of friendly Crandon regulars, Alan Raphael and Ed Geller. Our games were similar, I relied heavily on their expertise and we had an absolute blast – despite a wind that gusted to 20-25 mph much of the morning.

Crandon can be brutally difficult in such conditions, with the Bruce Devlin and Robert Von Hagge design considered by some to be the third-most-difficult muni in the U.S., behind only Bethpage Black and Torrey Pines. I bowed to Raphael and Geller’s strong suggestion to play the 6,425-yard middle tees rather than the 6,865-yard blues. The 7,354-yard back tees – with a 76.5 rating and 151 slope – were quickly ruled out as insanity.

“You want to have fun, right?” Raphael asked. Thankfully, I listened. Trust me, plenty of challenges remained because of several forced carries over saltwater lakes and secluded fingers of the bay.

Home to the Champions Tour’s Royal Caribbean Classic from 1987 to 2004, Crandon is famous for its Biscayne Bay views, lush tropical foliage and wildlife, including American crocodiles, waterfowl and large iguanas. I can personally vouch for the raccoons, as one climbed into our cart and calmly searched for a treat as we stood on the nearby tee box.

A few of the highlights: the par-3 third, with a tee shot across a lagoon and through a chute of trees; the 453-yard par-4 seventh, a long dogleg left with a forced carry and spectacular bay views; and the 18th, with the bay and downtown Miami on the right and more water encroaching on the fairway’s left side.

My afternoon round at another muni, Miami Beach GC, although in dramatically different environs, was just as pleasurable.

Set on Alton Road, across from Jackie Gleason’s former residence in the heart of its namesake city, the former Bayshore Golf Course was given a complete overhaul by Arthur Hills in 2002 – a renovation that has held up quite splendidly. As part of the makeover, a striking canary-yellow clubhouse also was constructed, patterned after the Art Deco style prevalent along South Beach’s Collins Avenue just blocks away.

This is high-end municipal golf at its finest, a glitzy facility worthy of its swanky setting. Big-money games and celebrity appearances (Matt Damon, Lawrence Taylor, Michael Jordan and Dan Marino among them) are not out of the norm, and the course itself is a fitting stage, blanketed in a lush blue-green carpet of Seashore Papsalum and surrounded by luxury condos and hotels.

At 6,813 yards from the tips, the length is not overwhelming, but water is in play on 14 holes, starting with the daunting No. 1, a dogleg-right 594-yard par 5 that requires precision with the first two shots of the day. There was little let-up thereafter, especially on the back nine. Be especially wary of Nos. 10 and 14, a pair of relatively short par 5s that have water encroaching on both sides.

When the wind is blowing off the nearby Atlantic, as it often does, things quickly get even tougher. The signature par-3 17th, with a tee shot of 183 yards over water and a horseshoe-shaped bunker that wraps around the green, provides you with one last chance to be a hero – or lose another golf ball.

As mentioned, there is a history of golf hustlers at Miami Beach GC – and Bayshore before that – but few money games can compete with the one related to me by my playing partner, Sean Kirk, a long-hitting mortgage-bond trader who lives a short stroll from the course and plays regularly there.

A few years earlier, having recently taken up the game, he was playing at Miami Beach with a colleague. They had made a bet that any birdie would be worth $100, when Kirk jokingly asked his buddy what eagles were worth. “Ten thousand,” came the reply, and although both chuckled, the wager had been made – not a huge worry since the odds were long for a pair of players with handicap indexes in the mid-20s.

Sure enough, on the short par-4 second, a dogleg left that measured 323 yards from the white tees, Kirk hit the drive of his life – “Trust me,” he says now, “I’ve tried to reach it a hundred times since and haven’t come close” – cutting the corner and landing his tee shot on the left side of the green, leaving him with a straight putt of 35 feet or so for eagle.

“I’m not much of a putter, but it looked good the moment I hit it,” said Kirk, who, after the ball fell into the hole, swears he never had a doubt his colleague would pay up.

“A trader’s word is his bond,” he said with a grin. “There was a check for 10 grand on my desk Monday morning.”

South Florida swank, indeed.

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