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Amelia Island to Key Biscayne: Great golf on Florida's islands

Tim McDonaldBy Tim McDonald,
Crandon Park Golf Course - Lakes
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Crandon Park Golf Course has seven saltwater lakes and views of Biscayne Bay. (Tim McDonald/WorldGolf.com)

Florida's island golf courses, in golf destinations like Marco Island and Key Biscayne, are reason enough to visit the Sunshine State for a golf vacation.

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. - There is just something about an island that draws certain types of people: surfers, beach bums and golfers, to name a few.

On island golf courses, you can just about be assured of great, watery views and let's face it, scenery is a big part of an enjoyable day on the links.

Florida, being almost an island itself, has more than its share of island golf courses. Here are a few of our favorites:

The Rookery at Marco Island, Naples

The Rookery at Marco is a terrific setting for a golf course, even when the developers decided to move in and build a big, upscale development. Imagine playing golf perched on the edge of 10,000 islands, a long tee shot away from where the first of those 10,000 - Marco Island - sits here on the southwest edge of Florida.

The vast expanse of the southwest part of the state makes itself known via the wide marsh views and the many swamp critters who haven't yet learned to pay resort fees: the place is crazy with hawks swooping around and it isn't unusual for their shadows to pass over as you traipse around the course. In the interconnected canals, you're liable to see anything that swims or crawls in this swampy part of the world.

The course does its setting justice, letting its surroundings speak for itself. The Rookery is a beautiful, low-key layout, with wild, native grasses like Fakahatchee and fountain grass set off by muelhi, which shows a purplish-pink flower in the fall, yellow "dune daisies" and the brilliant red of firecracker weed. The watery interior of the course is open, with sabal palms dotted throughout the terrain.

Crandon Park, Key Biscayne

Crandon Park is the kind of upscale municipal course that hosts the public from the Governor on down to the truck driver. You can play in the summer, which is essentially seven months long here, for $30 after 10 a.m. During the high season, it's $75 for residents.

It's a pristine island environment, with seven saltwater lakes and views of Biscayne Bay and the Miami skyline. The course is dotted with palms and mangrove, and other exotic, tropical growth, and has an assortment of exotic wildlife, like iguanas scuttling around the grounds and climbing trees and - get this - crocodiles.

This is one of the best deals in South Florida, when you combine price and the quality of the experience. Crandon Park can be a handful, especially if you play it from the back tees, with the near-constant wind that comes sweeping over the unprotected layout.

Golf Club of Amelia Island, Amelia Island

Everything about the Golf Club of Amelia Island screams "resort course," from the impeccable conditioning, to the well-dressed and manicured golfers, to the relative ease of the course itself, to the backdrop of the Ritz-Carlton, flags waving in the ocean breeze.

It is a beautiful course, very much in ritzy harmony with this well-heeled resort island, in the well-heeled community of Summer Beach. The fairways are a deep green, lush as lush can be. Little pockets of bright flowers are interspersed intermittently throughout the course, another resort amenity for resort guests to ogle. Fountains flow from the lakes and ponds.

But, the star of the show is completely natural: ancient gnarled oak trees, some of them so old they must have provided shade to the Timuquan Indians, much earlier residents of this island, to the north of and a little south of the Georgia border. The course also makes good use of the marshes that lie between the ocean and the Intracoastal Waterway.

Amelia Island Plantation, Amelia Island

The Amelia Island Plantation has two golf courses available to resort guests, and the one you want to play depends on, well, what you want.

If you're looking for scenery, you're looking for the Ocean Links course. It's a great course for the golfer - be he or she husband or wife - to drag around his non-golfing partner. Even the non-golfer will enjoy a stroll or cart-ride around the Ocean course, with its up-close-and-personal vistas of the wide Atlantic Ocean.

It's a strange, interesting little Pete Dye design, with a Bobby Weed makeover six years ago. First of all, it's barely 6,000 yards long and has six par-3s, the result of shuffling three nines, and it can be very tight and nasty. There is rarely any room for error on the par-70 layout.

The Oak Marsh course, on the other hand, is much longer, with your usual array of par-3s, 4s and 5s and a par of 72. Not that it's too shabby to look at, with its views of the Intracoastal Waterway; five holes play along it.

It features waste areas, better movement in the fairways and some formidable carries. Green fees are $130 for guests, a little pricey in my book, but I guess if you're staying at the posh plantation you don't mind shelling out that kind of money.

Longboat Key Club, Longboat Key

The Longboat Key Club sits so close to the Gulf of Mexico you can hear the grouper groaning and literally see the wind blowing patterns over the saltwater. If you fell off the balcony, you'd land on the beach. The sun sets in your picture window like a painting.

Guests have two courses to choose from.

The Islandside looks like one of those old-time Florida courses you used to see on postcards. You can picture Jackie Gleason teeing off here, martini in hand. Of course, that's back when you could actually see the Gulf of Mexico just to the west.

There are multi-story condo building there now, this being Florida, but there are still the palm and banyan trees framing the holes, and pink and white Oleanders blooming along the fairways and canals. Little, wooden bridges take you over the numerous, narrow canals, put there by dredges before the namby-pamby environmentalists got so pushy.

Water is on every hole, and the egrets and herons take full advantage, stalking the narrows like photogenic predators. One of the older courses in the Sarasota area, the 45-year old track sits on the south side of the key, which is a bird sanctuary.

Being a course of a certain age gives Islandside a mature, demure beauty. Sure, there are some rough spots - the green fringes could use a little work, the cart paths are not in great shape, the grass in some of the tee boxes needs trimming and some of the greens have some rough patches - but the old gal has settled into her age quite nicely.

The other course, Harbourside, has a more modern look and feel, with better views of Sarasota Bay, but the biggest difference is it plays about 10 strokes harder.

It has a more varied look than Islandside, with more of a marsh feel and different flora, other than the mostly banyan and palm tree-studded Islandside. At Harbourside, you'll see oak, sabal and fiddleleaf palm, fig, palmetto and your classic southern pine. Sarasota Bay is out there, too, though the marsh growth may block some of the better views.

Harbourside is an excellent golf course, especially May through December 14 when green fees are $78 and $58 after 12:30 pm.

Fleming Island, Orange Park

Fleming Island doesn't really look like an island as you drive south past Jacksonville down U.S. 17, and the Fleming Plantation doesn't showcase its plantation history like, say, some of the Carolina plantation courses.

But, the plantation's golf course is one of the cheaper, "upscale" courses along Jacksonville and the First Coast, home to the NFL Jaguars and more than 80 courses in this spread-out city, the largest in the U.S. when it comes to total land area.

The plantation dates back to the late 1700s when the Spanish gave the land to a slave owner named George Fleming, though it is thoroughly modern now, close to the booming Jacksonville suburb of Orange Park.

The course has received some lofty accolades, mostly relating to its green fees: It was named the fifth "best new affordable golf course in America" in 2003 by Golf Digest, and one of the top 50 courses in the country for under $50 by Golf magazine in 2004.

And, for that money, it is a good deal. It has decent length at 6,801 yards and two very different nines. The front nine is links-style only in the American sense, not the classic sense, and it's lined with some nice pines and palms. But, the back nine is far more interesting, showcasing the kind of terrain north Florida is known for - thick woods and marsh, with your classic, moss-draped oak trees, many of the greens being framed by thick forests. It's also tighter and shorter.

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Amelia Island Plantation - Ocean Links Course

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.

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