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Copperhead Golf Course the dominant play at Innisbrook resort near Tampa, Florida

Tim McDonaldBy Tim McDonald,
The Copperhead Course - Elevations
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The Copperhead course at innisbrook has excellent elevation changes for Florida. (Tim McDonald/WorldGolf.com)

The Copperhead Golf Course at the Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club near Tampa, Fla., is one of the finest golf resort courses in the country, with no homes to mar the views and a natural routing that unfolds gracefully through terrain that might make you think of Carolina golf.

PALM HARBOR, Fla. - On most of the world's golf courses, you select the tees from which you will play based on your ability or how far you hit your driver.

Pros and low handicappers play the back tees, mid-handicappers play the middle tees, and so on.

The beauty - or curse - of the Copperhead course at the Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club is that no matter which tees you choose, you're going to have your work cut out for you.

"It's just penal. I mean, it just hoses you, man," said mid-handicapper Pat Farrell, who played the course in October. "It's as equally difficult from the forward tees as the back."

That's mainly because the Copperhead, the most highly-acclaimed of the four courses here at the resort, puts more of a premium than most courses on shot-making after you hit your drive.

You won't be hitting driver-wedge, driver-wedge, driver-wedge here, a design trait that has made the layout home of the PGA Tour's PODS Championship and a favorite of many of the touring pros.

"If I could only play one course the rest of my life, it would be Copperhead," Curtis Strange has said. "It has that much character."

The new resort owner, Salamander Hospitality, has been pouring money into the resort's other marquee course, the Island, in an effort to bring it up to the caliber of the Copperhead. The Island is a fine, picturesque course and a joy to play in its own right, but money can seldom buy character. The Copperhead will always be the superior course.

It doesn't look nasty at first glance. It doesn't have the homes around it that take away from the Island's ambience. Copperhead is beautifully laid out and the routing unfolds gracefully through terrain that might make you think of the Carolinas, with elevated tees and greens; at one point the course, so close to the Gulf of Mexico, reaches 70 feet, unheard of in this part of a relatively flat state.

But, it's easy to find trouble. If you're off with your driver, you'll end up in some difficult rough. Even when it's cut down, when the pros aren't playing, the stuff can be grueling.

And when you reach the green, the fun isn't over. This is one of those courses where you have to pick the right section of green and hit to it, or you'll be doing the three-putt dance all day.

Another beauty of the course is that you should ignore the handicap rating of the holes. The supposedly easy holes, according to your scorecard, can be just as difficult as the supposedly harder holes. You don't necessarily get any breathers here.

"Each hole is birdie-able," Farrell said. "But, you can also make bogey or double-bogey. Like when I'm out here a lot, I'll par a different hole every day. It's hard to get up and down if you don't put the ball in play. That's true of most courses, but especially here."

The Copperhead course at Innisbrook: The Verdict

Officials here tweak the course every so often to keep it interesting for the pros. They added church pew bunkers along the right fairway at No. 18 several years ago, for example.

There are some ongoing beautification projects at the Copperhead, but mostly the money is going into the Island course. That's fine. They don't need to change much at the Copperhead.

It remains one of the best courses in Florida and one of the best resort courses anywhere. Of course, green fees reflect that: Expect to pay in the $250 neighborhood if you don't get one of the resort's several packages.

Tampa Bay golf resorts

Innisbrook is one of those all-inclusive golf resorts where you'll never have to start your car engine or carry your clubs, unless you want to practice your bad swing in the privacy of your golf villa; they'll whisk you and your clubs to whichever course you happen to be playing that day and all you have to do is show up for your tee time.

It's a big resort, on more than 900 acres between Highway 19 and the Gulf of Mexico, with the beaches a short, though congested, drive away. The resort has 600 guests suites in 28 lodges scattered around the grounds, with six swimming pools, including the monster Loch Ness, which reportedly cost $3.4 million to build.

There is a fitness center, of course, a wildlife preserve, 60 acres of lakes - including some mighty fat largemouth bass - as well as jogging and cycling trails. If you tire of golf, there are 11 tennis courts and three indoor racquetball courts. For you business types, there is 65,00 square feet of "flexible meeting and banquet space."

There are also four restaurants, including the excellent Packard's, and three bars.

The resort is home to the Innisbrook Golf Institute.

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The Copperhead Course - FairwayThe Copperhead Course - Larry Packard Design

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.

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