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Led by Stoneybrook, Bobcat Trail and Waterlefe, Sarasota, Florida sizzles with great golf courses

Joel ZuckermanBy Joel Zuckerman,
Stoneybrook Golf and Country Club
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The Arthur Hills-designed Stoneybrook Golf and Country Club is one of the most formidable courses in the Sarasota area. (Courtesy welcometosarasota.com)

Sarasota's golf courses may take a back seat to those in Orlando and Miami. But Stoneybrook and Waterlefe Golf and River Club are just two courses that make Sarasota worth your time on a Florida golf vacation.

Sarasota, Florida will likely never be known as a premiere golf destination. It's not the lack of good golf in the area. Far from it. It's just that this petite Gulf Coast city has far too many attractions to simply be pigeonholed as a golf getaway. The powdery beaches, the eclectic mix of restaurants, nightlife, shopping and cultural activities are just five of Sarasota's ongoing attractions. But there are some excellent public-access golf courses as well.

One of the toughest is Stoneybrook Golf and Country Club. This is a formidable Arthur Hills design in an area called Palmer Ranch. Playing 6,560 yards from the tips, length here is less of a factor than keeping the golf ball dry. There's water in play on every hole but one, and little of it incidental.

Fifteen holes require both a tee shot and approach steered towards terra firma, and several holes have water in play repeatedly. Beware the staunch ninth hole, 420 yards loaded with trouble. Also the tough 12th, a par five requiring more than 200 yards of water carry, usually playing into the breeze. Thankfully, there are more red stakes than white on the course, recently revamped with smooth-rolling Tifdwarf greens, so wayward shots will require the stroke but not the distance. Be thankful for small favors.

Bob Tway has eight PGA Tour wins including a PGA Championship, but has yet to make an indelible mark as a golf architect. That's destined to change if he continues to produce courses like Bobcat Trail Golf and Country Club, just south of Sarasota. Again, water is a major factor here, present on every hole but two.

Large, undulating greens provide additional challenge on this 6,750-yard course. There's a wide variety of par 4s on the property, ranging from less than 300 yards to more than 440 yards in length. Tee shots need to be shaped in both directions to avoid the strategically placed fairway bunkering.

Bobcat Trail's routing is strong as well; the course starts in a counter-clockwise direction and then becomes a figure eight down the homestretch. Not to worry though, a state of the art GPS System will keep players from getting disoriented.

The Waterlefe Golf and River Club has one of the most spectacular settings in the area. The course begins, winds back to and concludes on a particularly beautiful section of the Manatee River, replete with wide expanses of pristine marshes and pleasant coves. This Ted McAnlis design is found in Bradenton, a bit north of Sarasota. This 6900 yard dazzler has four holes that border the river, and the island green finale on the par-5 18th is practically worth the price of admission itself.

Other worthwhile courses include Arnold Palmer's Legacy Golf Club at Lakewood Ranch. This course is absolutely super-sized, situated on 5,500 acres of land, which includes a 165-acre lake. Heron Creek Golf and Country Club is a fine Arthur Hills design with that rarest of Florida features, a bit of elevation change. Also check out Serenoa, a petite water-park less than 6,300 yards from the tips, with narrow ribbons of fairway separating a seemingly endless series of lagoons and ponds.

For those with the requisite connections, a round at the all-male Gator Creek Golf Course is a must. It's a perfectly nice Joe Lee design, but the private club's membership is what truly makes the day memorable.

Hall of Fame baseball players Mike Schmidt and Carlton Fisk tee it up here occasionally, and you never can tell who might be tottering up an adjacent fairway. At any other club it would most likely be some retired executive, but at Gator, it could have well been football legend Otto Graham, a long-time member prior to his passing. Women and children are welcome just down the road at one of the area's classiest private golf courses known as Laurel Oak Country Club, a 36-hole, Gary Player design.

Joel Zuckerman is based in Savannah, Georgia and Park City, Utah. He is the author of five books, and his golf and travel stories have appeared in more than 100 publications around the world, including Sports Illustrated, Golfweek, Travel+Leisure Golf, Continental and Golf International.

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