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Golf. Sleep. Golf. The best resorts in the Sunshine State

Brandon TuckerBy Brandon Tucker,
Managing Editor

Amelia IslandTALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Florida tourism got what they wanted from Santa this year: reports indicating visitors still came to the Sunshine state despite its lack of well, sunshine in 2004. Visit Florida reports a 4.1% increase of travelers from January to September, meaning even four hurricanes back-to-back, leaving essentially no part of the state unscathed, couldn't end our love affair with the beaches, Mickey, the swamps and golf.

And despite speculation the hurricanes will imprint a lasting scare into travelers, it's safe to say nothing short of snow in July will keep the masses away.

Florida's got plenty of resorts, but we're talking strictly the ""golf resort" here. A resort where golf isn't there ""just in case" or to boost room rates up a couple bucks. These are the places where the golfer goes for his oasis from theme parks, go-cart tracks and beach volleyball. For example, you will notice World Woods is not ranked here, because while the courses are two of the best in the state, there's no resort on property, it's simply a golf club (and a fine on at that). Whether it's on the Emerald Coast or in the Keys, these resorts start with golf and end with golf. And by the way, be sure to bring your Rewards card. At any of these glossy locales, you'll earn points in a hurry.

Gold Medal Florida Golf Resorts

Ritz-Carlton Resort Naples - For the total experience centering around golf, the Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort in Naples is tough to beat. The centerpiece is the lovely new Ritz-Carlton hotel opened in early 2002 and is nestled right up to the two 18-hole tracks of Tiburon Golf Club (designed in 1998 and 2002 by Greg Norman Golf Course Design) and the Rick Smith Academy.

Other resorts offer more dynamic and varied golf (Tiburon's Black and Gold courses are similar in appearance and playability), but the Ritz pulls in the highest possible marks for both accommodations and convenience/exclusivity with the clubhouse literally across the lawn from the hotel and almost no homes on either course. This is pure golf in the most stylish of surrounds. And by the way, be sure to bring your Rewards card. Here, you'll earn points in a hurry.

Westin Innisbrook Resort - After more than 30 years in the business, this serene Florida resort nestled in the broad pine covered hills north of Tampa remains passionate about golf. Interestingly, Innisbrook possesses neither the best accommodations nor particularly outstanding golf courses - four, wonderfully maintained courses, with the famous Copperhead Course as the headliner. Across the board Innisbrook defines consistency and an unfaltering commitment to golf, and a refreshing sense of simplicity in spite of its size.

PGA VillagePGA Village - Two Fazios and a Pete Dye at one resort make the PGA Village a no-brainer on our list. Located in Port St. Lucie, PGA Village is the essence of the vast golf resort reduced down to the bare essentials. Here you'll find the accommodations - time-share condos - unpretentious, but just outside the door it's like golf camp with a super-techno teaching academy and 54 holes of flashy, expressionistic golf.

Marriott Sawgrass Resort - Is there a more entertaining resort course in the United States than the Stadium Course at Sawgrass? The common thinking about resort courses is that they should be congenial to the widest range of player but golfers travel from everywhere to take their lumps at Pete Dye's revolutionary golf track. It's like an amusement park of fascinating golf features and there are few greater thrills than trying to navigate safe passage through its variety of apparatus. Its neighbor the Valley Course, also a highly engineered piece of theater, is no pushover either. Only the rather standard Marriott accommodations and short van ride to the TPC clubhouse holds back this resort.

Silver Medal Florida Golf Resorts

Amelia Island Plantation - The most beautiful resort in Florida is Amelia Island Plantation. Shrouded in forests of twisted scrub oak and pine, bordered by the Intracoastal Waterway to the west and the Atlantic Ocean on the east, 16 of its 54 holes touch some expanse of natural water. The Pete Dye, Bobby Weed, and Tom Fazio courses are as delightful as they are scenic, but the necessity of a shuttle to get to them and a golf cart to play them withholds the Plantation from achieving perfection.

Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress Resort - 45 holes of Jack Nicklaus golf, including the Scottish-style New Course, a 1988 Florida rendition of St. Andrews (you wonder if purists tried to get out on this course during the hurricanes to provide optimal simulation­otherwise the Florida weather is a bit contrasting), Grand Cypress is at once one of the most posh and interesting golf resorts in the state. It loses points for convenience since the courses are nearly a mile from the hotel (unless you stay in the Villas that border the courses), but overall the accommodations are outstanding and there's certainly a hearty golf "vibe" here.

TPC SawgrassPGA National - No shortage of PGA affiliated resorts in Florida, PGA National is the poster child for ""traditional" Florida golf. This campus in sunny Palm Beach Gardens offers five water-infested courses, laced heavily with bunkers and palms. Designs by luminaries such as Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, and Tom and George Fazio bless the property. The Champions course, a 1981 Fazio family design reworked by Team Nicklaus in 1990 and 2002, was the host of major championships for the Senior and PGA Tours, as well as the 1983 Ryder Cup. No one stays here for the luxury of the rooms but the golf is certainly abundant, and varied.

World Golf Village - Since it opened in 1998, World Golf Village has been trying to crack the state's top rank of resorts. The intensity of the golf atmosphere can't be beat - it's home of the World Golf Hall of Fame, the largest retail golf outlet in the country, and a plethora of other golf-related activities. It's overall score is buoyed by the convenient The Slammer & The Squire course, a svelte Bobby Weed layout that snakes around the lowlands surrounding the Hall of Fame, but The King & The Bear, a modern and wonderfully photogenic Nicklaus/Palmer collaboration, is approximately a two mile drive down the road (904 940-6100).

Sandestin Resort - Straddling a strip of land between the beaches of the Gulf of Mexico and Choctawhatchee Bay, Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort in Destin, with 72 holes of golf and small city of other amenities, is by far the largest resort in Northwest Florida. Tom Jackson, Rees Jones, and Robert Trent Jones, Jr. have all built gorgeous works incorporating various looks at the bay on the north side of the resort. Sandestin would rank higher if not for its overall cacophony of activities and significant distance between the otherwise thrilling golf courses.

Bronze Medal Golf Resorts

Ponte Vedra Inn - When the Lagoon Course is remodeled on par with the recently refurbished Ocean Course this sleepy little jewel just north of Sawgrass may vault into the first tier; the tradition and convenience of the golf cannot be beat.

Doral Golf Resort and Spa - For golf options Doral ranks among the best; for variety of golf it doesn't. A true "Florida" resort but also slightly outdated compared to the new breed of resort.

Walt Disney World Resort - The 99-holes of golf is great, with Tom Fazio's Osprey Ridge and Pete Dye's Eagle Pines ranking among the finer resort courses in Florida, but the dizzying atmosphere, stifling thrust of tourism, and relative scale (some would say inconvenience) of it all makes Disney World an adventure not everyone will find "pure". But you won't find a better babysitter than Mickey and friends when you want to sneak off for some golf.

Ocean Hammock Resort - Formerly Palm Coast Resort, Ocean Hammock is a quaint retreat between St. Augustine and Daytona Beach, with access to five golf courses designed by Nicklaus, Palmer (2), Gary Player, and Bill Amick. However they're all in different parts of town and were it not for the singular strength of Nicklaus' spectacular Ocean Hammock, the resort would not be a standout.

Brandon Tucker is the Managing Editor for Golf Advisor. To date, his golf travels have taken him to over two dozen countries and over 500 golf courses worldwide. While he's played some of the most prestigious courses in the world, Tucker's favorite way to play the game is on a great muni in under three hours. Follow Brandon on Twitter at @BrandonTucker.

 
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