Golf in Tampa-St. Petersburg, Florida: A beginner's guide

Ladies and gentlemen golfers, start your GPS.

If you play golf in the Tampa/St. Petersburg area, you're rewarded with amazing land diversity encompassing everything from abandoned rock quarries to pine-dotted, North Carolina-style terrain, and quintessential palm and palmetto-studded terrain.

For those who've never visited the area, however, it's sometimes befuddling to get around as you navigate long bridges over bays and state and county roads that lead to smaller towns with great golf courses.

From a logistics standpoint, Tampa is appealing because its award-winning, amenity-rich airport, Tampa International, is situated near downtown with easy access to St. Petersburg via Interstate 275 and Clearwater via the Veterans Expressway (Florida Toll 589). Moreover, Interstate 4, which runs east and west, affords a quick route to prime golf areas such as Wesley Chapel and Dade City.

There are two principal bridges that cross Tampa Bay to major cities west of Tampa: Howard Frankland Bridge, an eight-lane, 3-mile stretch of highway connects Tampa with central Pinellas County and St. Petersburg and Courtney Campbell Causeway, which is part of State Road 60, is a direct link to Clearwater.

The main thoroughfare to play golf in popular areas northwest of Tampa, such as Brooksville, Palm Harbor and Crystal River, are US 98 and US 19, which merge with each other.

To access Bradenton and Sarasota, the Sunshine Skyway Bridge is a four-lane, cable-stayed concrete bridge over Tampa Bay that links Pinellas County to Manatee County.

When most in-the-know golfers say they're "playing Tampa," what they're referring to is a region stretching to Brooksville, about 45 minutes north of downtown and to Bradenton/Sarasota, about 50 minutes south of Tampa.

Tampa golf

Downtown Tampa, located six miles east of Tampa International Airport via Fl-589 and I-275/I-4, has off-the-course entertainment options such A Ybor City Latin Quarter and Channelside, as well as a convenient golf course menu.

Popular plays in the downtown area are Babe Zaharias Golf Course, Terrace Hill Golf Club and Rogers Park Golf Course.

About a 25-minute drive north of downtown via FL-289 (a toll road) is TPC Tampa Bay, a scenic, challenging design by Bobby Weed with Chi Chi Rodriguez as player consultant.

Northwest of Tampa

You can reach this golf-happy area encompassing Brooksville, Crystal River, Inverness and Dunnellon by taking US 19/US 98 or I-75 North and FL 50. The approximately one-hour drive will reward you with a wealth of superb play opportunities.

Heading the list of options is World Woods Golf Club in Brooksville, home to two outstanding Tom Fazio-designed layouts, Pine Barrens and Rolling Oaks. Brooksville is also home to Hernando Oaks Golf & Country Club, a Scott Pate design, and Brooksville Country Club, a Bobby Weed course with several quarry holes.

Other high-profile courses in the region include the Plantation Inn & Golf Resort and Seven Rivers in Crystal River, Juliette Falls in Dunnellon and Inverness Golf & Country Club in Inverness.

Highway US 19 is also the easiest way to travel to Innisbrook Resort in Palm Harbor, a 20-minute drive north of Clearwater. Innisbrook boasts two of the area's more tournament-tested layouts, the Copperhead Course and Island Course.

Northeast of Tampa

Easily accessible via Interstate-4 East then I-75 North, this area is home to Saddlebrook Resort, the Busch Gardens theme park and the University of South Florida.

Take the 25-minute drive to this rapidly growing suburban area, and you can play courses such as the Saddlebrook Course and Palmer Course at Saddlebrook Resort, The Claw at USF, Heritage Isles and Quail Hollow.

A 30-minute drive northwest of Wesley Chapel, via Interstate 75 North and Fl-52, is Dade City, where the big draw is the Lake Jovita South Course, designed by Tom Lehman and Kurt Sandness and North Course, known for its amazing un-Florida like elevation changes.

Across Tampa Bay

If you take the Howard Frankland Bridge or the Courtney Campbell Causeway westward, courses such as Bardmoor Golf Club, a venerable redesign by Gary Koch and Seminole Lake Country Club, framed by Long Bayou, head the list of must-play golf courses in the St. Petersburg area.

Farther south across the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, the Sarasota-Bradenton area is peppered with excellent layouts such as University Park, a Ron Garl design; Bobcat Trail, a collaboration by Bob Tway and Lee Singletary; and River Wilderness, a naturally beautiful course fashioned by Ted McAnlis.

Ed Schmidt, publisher of The Golf Travel Guru Blog, is the author of two books on Florida golf and more than 2,500 articles and columns on golf resorts, courses and destinations around the world. Follow Ed on Twitter at @golftravelguy.
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Golf in Tampa-St. Petersburg, Florida: A beginner's guide