While the PGA Tour plays on the famed Copperhead Course at Innisbrook Resort near Tampa, Fla., it's hardly the only quality play in the area.
Innisbrook, however, is my top choice for golf in the region, but it has a lot of competition. I just think it's the best combination of shotmaking, conditioning and the dramatic finish known as the Snake Pit. But if you continue north of Tampa to the Brooksville area, you hit the jackpot with World Woods and Black Diamond Ranch, in particular, and if you head south or west of Tampa, there are few other great choices.
Here, then, are the top 10 places the public can play golf in the Tampa Bay area. Some on the list are actually private but do offer limited public or resort play. (For the record, I've omitted the excellent Streamsong Resort from contention, which is a little too far from Tampa in my opinion at about 70 minutes from Tampa International Airport.)
1. Innisbrook Resort, Palm Harbor
Simply put, the recently refreshed Copperhead Course, one of the favorites among PGA Tour players, puts Innisbrook at the top of the list. Home of the Valspar Championship, Copperhead is the best of the four golf offerings in this resort community; and while the other three aren't quite in the same league, they're excellent tests of golf, especially the Island Course.
2. World Woods Golf Club, Brooksville
It would be hard to find two courses that complement each other any better, much less two of them both designed by Tom Fazio. Sandy Pine Barrens, reminiscent somewhat of Pine Valley in New Jersey, is perennially ranked among the top 100 in the country, but locals might even prefer Rolling Oaks, the more traditional of the two layouts. (Rolling Oaks was ranked higher than Pine Barrens on Golf Advisor.) The landscape is beautiful, there are no homes, and the club has outstanding practice facilities, a par-3 course and a good value.
3. Black Diamond Ranch, Lecanto
Like World Woods, there's more than one golf course, and they're all terrific, starting with the famed Tom Fazio-designed Quarry Course, which has a stretch of holes on the back nine as spectacular as anything in Florida. The Ranch Course, which many locals actually prefer, and even the nine-hole Highlands Course are both very memorable, too. You have to stay there to play there unless you're with a member, but the packages aren't unreasonable, especially for groups.
4. The Ritz-Carlton Members Club Sarasota, Bradenton
Guests of the Ritz-Carlton Sarasota 19 miles away can be a member for a day at this highly exclusive club. Depending on the day, you might not see another golfer on this fantastic Fazio design, where conditioning is perfect and a forecaddie is part of the deal. The Ritz-Carlton Members Club Sarasota ends with a stretch of holes called the "Lion's Den," where if you can make par or better, you can earn a free shirt.
5. Lakewood National, Bradenton
The relatively new Lakewood National Course is a real gem in the area. Located between Bradenton and Sarasota, senior architect Brandon Johnson of Arnold Palmer design thought out each hole very carefully. The greens have a lot of slope in them and there are putts that are nearly impossible to get your ball down in two, but you can also use them to your advantage. Overall, it's a beautiful course that has five sets of tees that cater to every level. Right now, it's open to the public, but the plan is to eventually make it fully private.
6. Southern Hills Plantation, Brooksville
It's beautiful, but it's also Pete Dye, which means it's difficult. Still, many consider Southern Hills Plantation one of the top courses in this part of Florida, and it keeps good company with the others in the area, World Woods and Black Diamond Ranch.
7. Lake Jovita Golf & Country Club, Dade City
Just a few miles from Brooksville is Lake Jovita Golf & Country Club, a club that's gaining more and more recognition as a great value. With 36 holes of championship golf designed by Kurt Sandness (Tom Lehman helped out on the older South Course), and some of the highest points in Florida, you'll never get bored at Lake Jovita.
8. TPC Tampa Bay, Lutz
Designed by Bobby Weed and Chi Chi Rodriguez, this par-71 course is routed around natural wetlands, cypress heads, and numerous ponds and lagoons, making for a great Florida golf experience. TPC Tampa Bay was the home to the Outback Steakhouse Pro-Am for 21 years, so it's usually in pretty good shape. It's also not flashy like many TPC courses, but it's solid all the way around.
9. Kingsway Country Club, Lake Suzy
This 1970s layout was rebuilt and greatly improved when course architect Ron Garl rebuilt the course after Hurricane Charley in 2004. Boasting really good Tif-Eagle greens and seven sets of tees, Kingsway Country Club is great for golfers of every skill level. The club also features a large Old Florida-style clubhouse with a golf shop, elegant dining room, a large grill room and outside verandah.
10. Club Renaissance Sun City Center, Tampa
Just south of downtown Tampa, the Chip Powell-designed Club Renaissance is the crown jewel of the courses at Sun City Center. The front nine has an open links feel , while the back nine meanders through a large conservation area with most fairways lined with tall pines and mature oaks. The club is private but does allow some public play, often at a bargain.