PALM HARBOR, Fla. -- It's almost March, which means it's time for the Florida Swing on the PGA Tour -- four tournaments in the Sunshine State, starting with the Honda Classic on the Champion Course at PGA National in late February, followed by the WGC-Cadillac Championship on the Blue Monster at Trump National Doral, the Valspar Championship on the Copperhead at Innisbrook Resort and finally the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill.
Any time you get to play one of these venues right before tournament time, it's a special treat. Why? Because the course is being prepped for the tourney, and with very few exceptions, that's when it's at its very best.
That was the case during my recent journey to the Tampa Bay area, which started with Innisbrook Resort, home of the Valspar Championship. In fact, it's probably never looked better than it will for this year's event, March 10-13, when Jordan Spieth returns to defend his title. Not only is the course prepped for the tournament, but this year it's brighter than ever thanks to a restoration last summer.
I got to play the course with three of the resort's golf professionals: Innisbrook Director of Golf Bobby Barnes and Head Professional Kyaw Htet, as well as Copperhead Head Professional Kevin Andrew Corry. All three of these guys had more game than me (no surprise there), although I did manage to birdie the 18th and not lose any side bets. Best of all, they took me through the changes of the course, which included a new stair-step bunker on 18, the re-positioning of several other bunkers, restored greens, new turf, a new irrigation system and new drainage.
Rain, a warm December and colder-than-normal January didn't exactly foster great grow-in conditions (especially for the cool-season overseed). But three weeks out from the tournament, the course looked almost tournament ready as workers were busy building corporate tents and bleachers around the holes.
"The course is looking great," Correy said. "A couple of greens that we were having trouble with are coming in nicely (no. 3 and no. 16) after some TLC."
The rough, by the way, was very healthy, as I found out often, missing the majority of my fairways. It's a shot-maker's course, which is why the PGA Tour pros are so fond of it.
And that last stretch -- the Snakepit holes of 16-18, are indeed difficult. The 16th, in particular, with a daunting tee shot around water to the right of a sliver of fairway, is always interesting to watch on Sunday. I was lucky to walk away with a bogey there.
More golf at Innisbrook
Innisbrook's Copperhead might be the most famous of its courses, but it's just one of four at the resort. We also got to play the Island Course and South Course, but we didn't play the North Course, which was playing host to an American Junior Golf Association event.
All of the courses are designed by Larry Packard, who lived at this resort community for 40 years and died in 2015 at the age of 101. Too bad he didn't get to see the Copperhead restoration completed. He undoubtedly would have been pleased.
But his other courses are nothing to sneeze at either. The nearly 7,200-yard Island Course has lots of water on it and a fair bit of elevation change, most notably on the 10th hole, which plays over a pond and straight uphill. The dogleg-left, par-4 18th has water all along the left side, which you must carry on the approach.
And the South Course, deemed the most women/senior and junior friendly of the four layouts, is only 6,400 yards from the tips, but it isn't exactly easy from that distance. Still, the interior holes are more open, almost links-like, giving the course great variety and plenty of room to hit the ball.
Innisbrook, by the way, not only plays host to the Valspar Championship, but is also the site of this year's Golf Channel Am Tour National Championships, Sept. 13-16 and Sept. 19-22 (seniors). The event will be played on the Copperhead, Island and North courses as well as nearby Fox Hollow Golf Club.
Innisbrook: A Salamander Golf & Spa Resort
Innisbrook isn't your typical high-end golf resort. There's no hotel to speak of, the pool and water park are part of a larger residential community, and the rooms are part of 1,000-unit condominium community, which the majority of owners put into a rental pool.
That's really good news for families and groups, because the condos are large and comfortable, offering one or more bedrooms with full kitchens (grocery services available), dining rooms and great views of the courses and nature trails. In other words, you can cook at home or dine at the resort's restaurants, led by the excellent Packard's Steakhouse, named for the courses' architect.
There have been improvements the last few years as well, implemented by the 900-acre resort's owner, Sheila Johnson, whose Virginia-based Salamander Resorts acquired the property in 2007. Modifications have included a renovation of the Island Course, clubhouse and spa renovation as well as the building of a new check-in/lobby area for guests at the Osprey Clubhouse, where you will also find the excellent Market Salamander Grille.
Probably the best way to enjoy Innisbrook is through a golf package. Click here for more information.
Also, you'll want to venture outside the resort while you're there. The old Greek village of Tarpon Springs isn't far away. This natural-sponge capital is littered with plenty of authentic Greek restaurants and shops.
More great golf in the area
My trip to the Tampa area didn't end with Innisbrook, and yours shouldn't either if you've got the time to branch out a little.
Just north of Tampa is some of the best golf in Florida, led by one of the best 36-hole combinations you'll find anywhere -- World Woods Golf Club near Brooksville. First off, there are two Tom Fazio-designed golf courses there, so you know it has to be decent. But these aren't your typical Fazio courses. The Pine Barrens Course is cut out of the natural terrain with plenty of rugged bunkers, waste areas, pines and a look that's somewhat reminiscent of the famed private club in New Jersey, Pine Valley.
The second course is inspired a little by Augusta National, although there are more oak trees on the Rolling Oaks Course than pines. Still, great conditioning, rolling fairways, a little bit of elevation change and sharp bunkers cut into undulating greens give this course a more traditional feel. And while visitors from out of state are always looking to play the nationally ranked Pine Barrens Course, locals and even the staff seem to prefer Rolling Oaks.
There's also a nine-hole, par-3 course, putting course and some of best practice facilities you'll find anywhere in the country. And while there aren't accommodations at the club, it'd be worth it to stay at a local hotel and try to get in all 36 holes.
You would think World Woods would be a hard act to follow, but my next stop on this golf trip didn't disappoint. It would be Fazio again at Black Diamond Ranch, a private facility that's open to resort guests who book stay-and-play packages. There are 45 holes at Black Diamond Ranch, located near Lecanto just northwest of Brooksville, and all three courses there (including the nine-hole Highlands Course) are simply magnificent.
Black Diamond's Quarry Course is the one that gets the most notoriety, primarily because of the wow factor of the quarry holes on the back nine. Laid out around an old limestone quarry, the views are stunning and potentially difficult, but the rest of this 6,956-yard, par-72 course doesn't disappoint either. This is the course you have to play if you've just got one round at Black Diamond Ranch, but like World Woods, it isn't necessarily the favorite of the locals.
Why? Because the Highlands Course and Ranch Course might be a little more playable and enjoyable. They're more subtle, to be sure, but they have characteristics all their own. The Highlands, as the name implies, has some elevated tees. And the Ranch Course has a nice flow to it.
And finally, I finished my trip at Lake Jovita Golf & Country Club in Dade City. Lake Jovita, which is right next to St. Leo University, is a semi-private facility that alternates its two courses each day between members and outside play. The original South Course, designed by Tom Lehman and Kurt Sandness, has a little more notoriety and character perhaps, but like the two previous golf destinations, you can't go wrong with either course.
In fact, I might have liked the newer North Course better, because there was more room to drive the ball, and I liked the big greens complexes and bunkering. Still, the South Course ends both nines with terrific holes around a lake, making for a great backdrop behind the club magnificent stately clubhouse. Best of all, Lake Jovita is one of the best bargains in the state with green fees well below their competitors' prices.