MIAMI BEACH, Fla. - The unofficial national dish of the country of Colombia is called bandeja paisa or bandeja montanera, depending on who you ask. Whatever you call it, it's a one-plate buffet of sorts. Typically: rice, red beans, a fried egg, avocado, an arepa, steak or ground beef, two different kinds of sausage (including morcilla, a blood sausage), a crispy strip of chicharron, a few fried plantains. Homemade hot sauce goes well dripped on all of it.
This was the glorious list of items I sampled between rounds at Normandy Shores and Miami Beach Golf Clubs on my recent, horizons-expanding golf trip around Florida's largest county: Miami-Dade. I was in the tiny, counter-seating-only Mi Colombia Cafeteria y Restaurante, which has been serving Colombian cuisine for more than 30 years in the Atlantic Heights section of Miami Beach. Here, so close to homes and condos that sell for seven- and eight-figure sums, a $14 small mountain of food reinforced the sense that for all the images of wealth and glamor Miami conjures (and, let's be honest, is glad to supply for those seeking it), there are truly several Miamis, able to be enjoyed by both the jet set and the old Chevrolet set. And though the area certainly isn't a first-choice Florida golf destination, there is a case to be made for exploring the many Miamis.
Miami for big spenders
If you have a sizable budget, there are plenty of upper-class stay and play opportunities. Close to Miami International Airport, Trump National Doral is a known quantity, even since the PGA Tour pulled up stakes for Mexico City. But it's not the only place for the golfer to indulge in the area.
I started my Miami journey at the newly-christened JW Marriott Miami Turnberry Resort & Spa, near Turnberry Isle. The resort does considerable group business (about 60% of its room nights), but it is also a good spot for couples and families to hang out for a long weekend or so. The way the resort is laid out, in four separate towers, gives the nearly 700-room property a more boutique feel. The guestrooms are upscale but not pretentious. On-site dining is highlighted by BOURBON STEAK by Michael Mina, a flashy, see-and-be-seen Miami steakhouse and prime people-watching spot. CORSAIR Kitchen & Bar is a chic brasserie-style eatery with a bar that is popular with golfers and a brunch service that makes many guests' Sundays.
Shopaholics will appreciate that the massive Aventura Mall is across the street; its upscale list of stores including the country's second-busiest Apple Store. A resort shuttle makes a circuit both here and to the beach.
Re-flagged from Marriott's Autograph collection last December, the JW Marriott is finishing up a $200 million expansion and refinement project that includes a new 300-room hotel tower, a new 80,000 square foot conference center, and a several-acre water park for the exclusive use of resort guests and members. The latter two of these have prompted a couple edits to the resort's two golf courses, the Soffer and Miller layouts ($295 peak rate).
Turnberry Isle Country Club's two par-70 courses share a contiguous 300-acre parcel with some gentle movement interspersed with several lakes, lagoons and canals, though outright forced carries are relatively minimal. The courses are wall-to-wall Paspalum, and the fairways and greens are kept nicely tight and firm, giving golfers several short-game options around the greens.
The Soffer Course is longer and tougher, with a bit of a Florida-tropical feel: palms, palmettos and lush hedges provide separation and ambiance, but thankfully the vegetation between holes is thin enough that it's usually possible to find and play an errant shot. More likely, such a shot will end up in an adjacent fairway. This is a good thing, but make sure to be alert to the sound of "Fore!" from adjoining holes.
(N.B.: The Soffer Course will be closed from April through the rest of 2019, as the greens will be re-grassed from Paspalum to TifEagle Bermuda. Resort officials say this will enable them to be maintained at faster speeds.)
The Miller Course offers a little more room to breathe, in part because it plays several hundred yards shorter than the Soffer, putting far less pressure on players' longer clubs. That said, the stretch of holes 3 through 7, which arcs clockwise around the property's biggest lake, comprises the club's most demanding stretch of golf. Once you make it through, though, you'll find some good birdie opportunities, including the lovely drivable par-4 12th.
Another high-end stay-and-play option in and around Miami is The Biltmore, fresh off a multi-million dollar renovation of its own (all guest rooms and public spaces refreshed). In addition to its highfalutin French restaurant Palme d'Or, it has the best brunch I've ever enjoyed. The golf is superb, too - Brian Silva restored the 1926 Donald Ross-designed course ($180-$280) to Golden Age splendor.
Golfers wanting the showy Miami experience can set up shop on Miami Beach, with its array of high-end hotels, restaurants and vaunted nightlife. Restoration of the district's striking Art Deco buildings continues apace.
Golf in this area is good, too, with Normandy Shores Golf Club and Miami Beach Golf Club being the two nearby choices (TIP: "nearby" is important in Miami - traffic can be brutal). Both courses are owned by the City of Miami Beach, and were reworked by Arthur Hills and Steve Forrest in 2008 and 2002, respectively.
Normandy Shores ($125) occupies the smaller tract, on a the northernmost of the two man-made Normandy Isles islands. Because its two out-and-back nines are oriented east-west, you'll tend to have lots of upwind and downwind shots. Though the course is on the shortish side, the 16 ponds that dot the property may prompt you to hit less than driver on a few holes, making it play longer than it looks. The elevated greens can get firm and fast in the ever-present wind, making Normandy Shores a nice tactical test.
Four miles south, Miami Beach Golf Club ($225) is the bigger test of golf. With slightly more movement over the north-south routing, Miami Beach typically confronts players with more crosswind shots than Normandy Shores. The greens are slightly larger but you may find them more elusive than expected; they're mostly elevated, with fronting mounds and bunkers that can make it hard to see the putting surface from the landing area. The uncertainty this breeds makes approach shots tricky. The closing four holes loop around the southernmost part of the property back to the clubhouse, with the short par-4 16th and all-carry par-3 17th serving as the crescendo of the round before an oddly toned-down 18th.
Miami-Dade County has its own "super-muni," as well: the oddly-named but fun to play Crandon Golf at Key Biscayne. The Robert von Hagge/Bruce Devlin design is as thoroughly a 1970s golf course as you can find. Hundred-yard runway tees point golfers toward meandering fairways, past amoeba-shaped bunkers toward bean- and pistachio-shaped greens. Coconut palms separate several holes. The lush tropical South Florida landscape and absence of housing makes for a peaceful round where cameos by iguanas and a dozen or more species of birds are likely.
If there's a drawback to the scene at Crandon, it's that the federally-protected mangroves separate the western edges of the course from miles-long views across Biscayne Bay to downtown Miami and the hotel- and restaurant-rich Coconut Grove district. Instead, there are fleeting glimpses: a breathtaking break in the trees left of the par-3 eighth tee, a small gap along the 18th fairway. Nevertheless, it is a must-play for any Miami golf tourist, and the best course I played on my recent visit. It and Biltmore are top-10 Florida courses in my experience.
(TIP: April visitors can take advantage of $60 rates after 2 pm, which is an absolute steal. Watching the sun set over Biscayne Bay while coming up the 18th hole is an enchanting golf moment.)
Miami for all
For all the beach bods, late-night bottle service and overpriced cocktails that one can encounter on Miami Beach, if you cross the water to the mainland, there's plenty to enjoy as well. Golfers looking to keep green fees below $125 should focus in on two local gems that don't get a lot of press: Miami Shores Country Club and Miami Springs Golf & Country Club.
Traveling well doesn't just mean simply escaping home for a few days. Especially when visiting a city like Miami, I think the traveler has something of an obligation to gain some understanding of what makes it the way it is. Eating, drinking and playing golf like a local for a few days is appealing because it heightens the escapist opportunity that travel presents. Miami Shores and Miami Springs are the golf equivalent of the great hole-in-the-wall restaurants foodies seek out on their travels (and brag about to their less in-the-know friends when they return).
Miami Shores is a Red Lawrence design that dates to the late 1930s, with a couple modifications to the course along the way that added some quirk to the routing. But it has everything a wandering golfer could want. It's not too long, it's pretty open off the tee and the small, pushed-up greens fall off to the sides, providing plenty of short-game intrigue. Scoring matters much more than power at Miami Shores, as exemplified by current course record-holder Greg Kopf, a former touring pro who has carded all four 62s the course has ever yielded, most recently about a year ago at the age of 57.
Overall, "the Shores" is a subtle golf course with a couple big "gotcha!" moments, starting with the short, scary par-3 second hole and ending with the gradual reveal of the 18th green as you crest a hill in the fairway. That's right - this may be coastal South Florida, but there are some gliding elevation changes that make Miami Shores feel more like New England than the edge of the Caribbean. Winter rates peak at $109 for out-of-towners, but deals can be found online, all the way down to $59 twilight rates.
The course is only half the story at Miami Shores, though. It is one of those places where the vibe brightens the rest of the experience. It starts with the staff, helmed by Director of Golf Chris Baetzel, whose slap-on-the-back friendly demeanor filters down to everyone at the course, from the pro shop staff to the starter. He is one of very few people I've met who can pull off LoudMouth Golf pants. He loves the Shores, and it shows.
Then there's Miami Springs ($50), a course with an almost dizzying amount of history and significance. Here are the highlights:
- It hosted the first 31 Miami Opens from 1925 to 1955, won by figures like Gene Sarazen, Tommy Armour, Sam Snead, Byron Nelson and Jackie Burke, Jr.
- The front nine was laid out by local architect "Tub" Martin and much of the current back nine was designed by William Langford and Theodore Moreau. It includes a spectacular, completely manufactured Volcano par-3 16th, worth the green fee alone.
- Speaking of which, green fees top out at $50. Residents of Miami Springs can play the course for free in the afternoons if they walk.
- All juniors play for free at all times, by decree of General Manager Paul O'Dell and head pro Jeff Vance.
- Jackie Robinson helped integrate the course, whose clientele is one of the most diverse I have seen (and has been so for decades).
- Superintendent Lori Bland, who has spearheaded a monumental turnaround in course maintenance over the last five years, is one of just 28 female golf course superintendents in the United States.
Bottom line: if you want to see how golf can be a public good, go to Miami Springs.
(TIP: You can work on your swing late into the evening at both Miami Shores and Miami Springs. Their driving ranges are lighted and close at 9:00 pm.)
I stopped by two other affordable Miami golf facilities during my trip; The Senator Course at Shula's Golf Club and the Country Club of Miami. The course at Shula's ($70) is very straightforward with nicely-kept greens, the front nine weaving through a pleasant "Old Miami" neighborhood. Bear in mind that the low-lying back nine tends to be wet, so cart-path-only is common.
Next door to Shula's is the Miami Lakes Hotel & Golf, which really impressed me at a very affordable price point with its recently renovated accommodations. The bed in my room was the best I slept in all trip, and the shower was exquisite. It's a solid option for golfers seeking to play the more affordable courses in the area.
The Country Club of Miami's two Robert Trent Jones, Sr.-designed courses ($48) have seen better days (the club was originally private), but are rounding into better shape than recent past Golf Advisor reviews have indicated. I played the shorter, sporty East Course, which double-loops through a mature neighborhood. True to the style, it's straightforward, cheap-and-cheerful golf, with a drivable par 4 at the eighth hole being the most dramatic moment. The West Course is longer but similar in feel. Country Club of Miami does have a potentially game-changing asset in the form of a few acres carved out for a nine-hole pitch-and-putt routing. Unfortunately, this area is a bit run-down, but with some TLC it could be a great community amenity, complimentary to the nascent golf clinics the county has started hosting at the facility.
Like my bandeja paisa, Miami is about a half-dozen places in one chaotic, bustling expanse. It's not merely South Beach, Key Biscayne or a high-rise, high-rent haven for rich travelers. The budget-oriented golfer can have fun discovering the many different Miamis, too, and might just learn something along the way.