As a result of my grandmother owning a condo in Clearwater, I’ve made an almost yearly pilgrimage to the Tampa area, a relatively easy place to get to from anywhere along the east-coast, whether by plane, train, automobile. Like much of Florida, I would argue, its reputation of late has taken too great of a hit in some circles. Sure, a lot of the city (the outskirts in particular) is a bit bland, an air conditioned, carpeted, beige-stuccoed, fenced in cookie cutter heaven for the blue-hair, M.A.G.A, cushy 401k brigade. Yet, to simply paint the area in this single-swipe fashion is to do it a grave disservice; spend an evening in Ybor-City, or in downtown Dunedin, or even in downtown Tampa near the waterfront (not to mention a few of the world-renowned establishments along the Dale Mabry hwy), and you’ll find unique, vibrant, kitchy pockets of community that are nearly as much fun as anything you’ll find in Charleston, or Miami, or Jacksonville. And, most importantly for this medium, if you are willing to drive a little, then the selection of golf courses around is pretty varied and strong—and will be even more so once the Cabot folks are done with the revitalization of World Woods.
Note: I haven’t yet played Steve Smyers’ Old Memorial, nor Concession, nor the newly revamped Belleair. And I am taking liberties with my definition of the Tampa Area to include anything that can reasonably be driven to and back without leaving in the dark and coming back in it.
1. Streamsong (Red)
Neck and neck with Cabot Links for the most demanding of the “dream resort” courses (I know Streamsong isn’t technically a part of the network, but it is in spirit, and I don’t have a better way to describe the bunch). Through 8 holes, it might also be the best. After that, though, as the routing winds along the far end of the property, traversing a relatively flat plain, I find it gets a bit brutish and sloggy, until it returns to the more dramatic portion at the 14th. Although slightly away from Tampa, a day trip can easily be made, especially if you are staying in the eastern end of Tampa, in St-Petes, or in Bradenton—if you don’t wish to stay overnight at the resort.
2. Streamsong (Blue)
Not much separates Doak’s effort from Coore and Crenshaw’s, through which it interweaves, a comment that can be interpreted in a number of ways. Once again, it begins strongly, fades a little towards the middle, and finishes on a high note. As is typical with Doak, I find the greens to be a little over done in spots – the first time I played the 7th, right after it opened, my ball landed in the middle of the green, took a slope, and tumbled about fifty feet leftward into the hazard.
3. World Woods (Pine Barrens)
Considering the course is mostly dirt at the time of publication, I probably should have benched both it and its sister course, but I figured I’d rank them to show just how highly I think of Fazio’s original work here. Frankly, I believe that Mr. Fazio, or at least his firm, deserved the opportunity to re-imagine their product, but it is what it is – the architects doing the work are first rate and, in truth, I think it’s a pretty fool-proof job. Having played it upwards of 40 times over the last fifteen years, I can thus safely say that this not the kind of course you get tired of, and is one whose intricacies and subtle features reveal themselves even more brightly over repeated plays.
4. Streamsong (Black)
I’m still not sure exactly where I stand on Gil Hanse’s effort after merely a single play—this is certainly a course that reveals itself after multiple plays, to multiple hole locations, in multiple winds. There are some really strong holes and some hair-raising features, such as the par 4, 2nd, the massive bunker fronting the par 3, 4th, the punchbowl par 4, 8th, and the heroic 18th. I am just not sure how much I love the core concept of the place. Too many times, it feels as if you are merely hitting tee shots to wide expanses of grass without rhyme nor reason (such as on 1, 3, 8, 9, 12, 18).
5. Black Diamond Ranch (Quarry)
Although it’s fallen a little out of favor, and on harder economic times apparently, this longtime top 100 Tom Fazio design is still a great spot for a game. It’s one of the courses that helped shape his stature in the game. The holes in and around the quarry get all of the praise, but those away from it are solid as well. It’s not as manicured and shaped as you’d likely expect from a Fazio design, with the sandy, rolling land allowed to be the main feature. Long a private, residential club, stay-and-play packages are now available.
6. Palma Ceia
A rock-solid Donald Ross intercity course on a tight and rather nondescript piece of land that has been restored nicely. The club, itself, is absolutely first rate, as were the conditions when I played it last. To use a saying from soccer: has there ever been a greater floor-raiser than Mr. Ross (i.e. the ability to take mediocre parts and turn them into a cohesive whole through strategy and development)?
7. Pelican Golf Club
Much like Palma Ceia, this is Donald Ross making something from not a whole lot, with the help of a very daring and intelligent renovation. It’s tough to get on, but if you can, you’ll find first-rate conditioning, acres of short grass, and really bold complexes thanks to Beau Welling’s work. With Fred Ridley on its board, the club strives for an Augusta-esque ambiance.
8. Mission Inn (El Campeon)
Chock-full of old-school charm. This is bygone Florida, located a ways but not unmanageably north-east of Tampa, near where Coore and Crenshaw’s Sugarloaf Mountain used to be (if it was still in operation it’d be ranked 6th on this list). Simply put, El-Campeon is tons of fun and totally unique: sometimes it works brilliantly and other times a little less so, but I dig it.
9. World Woods (Rolling Oaks)
Like its sister course, it is currently under surgery and will come out on the other side sporting a brand new face. What won’t change, however, is the really nice piece of land it’s routed across, dotted by stately oaks and featuring a ton of elevation (I wonder where they got the name from?). I really enjoyed Fazio’s original effort here, especially the middle portion.
10. Southern Hills Plantation
Pretty standard late-era Pete Dye, and all of his staples are present. For 300$ USD (according to when I last checked) there are better values, certainly, but it’s a good cart-ball track that’s always in very good shape.
Once host to a number of PGA Tour events, this Donald Ross course has taken a beating at the gruesome hands of chance and change, yet there are still some really strong moments. The first three holes, especially, are noteworthy and challenging. The value can’t be beat, and that incomparable charm of walking in the footsteps of the greats from yesteryear is still perceptible, albeit slightly weathered and overgrown.
12. Innisbrook (Copperhead)
The quintessential “championship” layout, which is likely why it is so well thought of by PGA Tour players. Playing over a surprisingly rolling piece of land and always in pristine shape, this Larry Packard design is an extremely fair, exacting, and largely interesting test of ball striking, though a rather single-dimensional and, over time, repetitive one. The shaping and bunkering also scream “1970s”.
A true tale of two nines. The front is a rather pedestrian, stock parkland effort, winding back and forth across some nondescript land to the north of the city, where the geography almost turns into something more akin to central Texas than Florida. The back nine, however, is one of the more unique nines I’ve played. Dipping in and out and skirting around the rim of a former stone quarry, there are some holes that function really well and others less so, but it’s memorable and different, which jives with our vibe here.
14. Fox Hollow
Rather the opposite of Brooksville C.C., Fox Hollow is a prototypical RTJ/ Florida effort through a housing development. It’s nothing you haven’t played before, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some really strong holes among the 18—with the 3rd, 4th, 10th, and the last couple coming to mind. Among the public courses in the area, I’ve always found the conditioning here to be as good as anything, and the price is quite right. A really great “shake off the winter rust”, trip-opening kind of selection.
15. Bayou Club
A fairly stock early Tom Fazio effort, replete with all of his signature tropes from that era: long, tough par 4s; small, rather severe greens; and a less manicured aesthetic than we’ve come to expect from him. Conditioning when I last played was an issue, but it’s a solid effort nonetheless, considering the nonedescript land it is built upon.