While many of the venues that host PGA Tour events are private, here's a tidbit that might surprise: Of the four courses on the Florida Swing, all four are open to the public.
Yep, that means you can play through the Bear Trap at PGA National, site of the Honda Classic, or test your skills on the new and improved TPC Blue Monster at Doral, where owner Donald Trump hopes to land a U.S. Open some day. If you stay at Bay Hill in Orlando you might even run into the tournament host, Arnold Palmer. Or check out the beautiful Copperhead Course at Innisbrook, one of the favorites among PGA Tour players.
They're not cheap to play, of course, but you can get on, whether by booking a tee time or at least staying at the resort. Here's a look:
The Honda Classic, PGA National
Where can you find five championship golf courses, all in PGA Tour-quality shape, all at the same place? The answer: PGA National Resort & Spa in Palm Beach Gardens. The Champion Course, which has played host to the Ryder Cup, PGA Championship and the Senior PGA Championship, is the host course for the first stop on the Florida Swing, the Honda Classic.
The course is renowned for its famous Bear Trap, holes 15-17 that perilously make their way through a series of lakes and water hazards with no bailout in site. Catch on a calm day, and with a little skill, you have a chance to make it through unscathed. But even the best players in the world tremble through these holes when the wind's ablowin' and the tournament is on the line. All that said, this is a wonderful Jack Nicklaus-designed Florida golf course that's very memorable.
Best part is you'll like the other courses, too. They include the linksy Palmer Course, the traditionally designed (George and Tom) Fazio Course (formerly The Haig) and the Squire, which pays tribute to Gene Sarazan.
Also, the 379-room resort has undergone a $65 million renovation, which means updated rooms, a fabulous lobby bar and terrific restaurants. My favorite part, aside from the golf, is the 40,000-square-foot spa, which offers its outdoor mineral pools, dubbed the Waters of the World.
WGC-Cadillac, Trump National Doral Miami
My Golf Advisor colleague Jason Scott Deegan says the word "opulent" doesn't begin to describe the new Trump National Doral Miami, where they play the World Golf Championships-Cadillac Championship. Pretty much everything is new and spiffy.
The Donald bought the old worn-out resort when it was in bankruptcy in 2012 and vowed to make it U.S. Open worthy and then some. Basically, the 809-acre resort got more than a facelift; it's a complete makeover, including the famed Blue Monster Course, which is now more than 7,500 yards.
The pros will get their first look at the course -- which was extensively altered by architect Gil Hanse -- in competition this March. You can be sure that it will have its old bite and then some, including the 18th, one of the toughest finishing par 4s in the world. Tiger Woods has won there three times, by the way. The course, which used to have six holes with water hazards, now has 14.
Like PGA National, though, there are four other courses at Doral, including the McLean Signature Course, designed by resident teaching pro Jim McClean, and Greg Norman's Great White Course, which was redone in 2005. As part of the recent renovations, the resort also got a new lighted driving range and TaylorMade Performance Lab.
Valspar Championship, Innisbrook Resort
It might surprise many casual golfers to learn that the Copperhead Course at Innisbrook Resort near Tampa is one of the favorites among PGA Tour players, especially those who live in Florida. Paul Azinger, who resides in nearby Bradenton, said it was "the best course we play on tour," and Stewart Cink said it's good enough to host a U.S. Open.
Designed by Larry and Roger Packard, the course opened in 1974 and has hosted numerous pro events, including the Valspar Championship every mid-March. Playing more than 7,300 yards, the par 71 doesn't have a Bear Trap but rather a Snake Pit, which is the finishing stretch on the Copperhead Course.
Again, the beauty of Innisbrook is that there's more golf at this resort.
The recently renovated Island Course plays more than 7,300 yards and has hosted both NCAA Championships and U.S. Open Qualifiers, while the North Course and South Course, although shorter, still have plenty of fangs.
Arnold Palmer Invitational, Bay Hill
If you're an Arnold Palmer fan, have ever drank an Arnold Palmer or just like to walk in the footsteps of a legend, you've got to figure out a way to play out at Bay Hill Club & Lodge in Orlando.
Host of the Arnold Palmer Invitational Presented by Mastercard, the surest way to play the course is to stay at the intimate hotel there. The best part about this whole experience is that you might catch a glimpse of Mr. Palmer at the club. And not that I'm encouraging you to bother him at lunch or on the range, but he's always been fairly approachable.
The course, designed by Palmer and Dick Wilson in 1961, may not be one of the country's best, but it's well above average with several memorable holes. The sixth is one of the best par 5s anywhere, racing around a lake that dares long hitters to cut off as much as they can off the tee shot and approach, making it one of the greatest risk-reward holes in the world. And the finishing hole, with water to cover on the second shot, is pretty memorable as well. Just ask Tiger, who has secured several of his ridiculous eight wins there with long, clinching putts.