Golf on the Emerald Coast: A Destin Primer
By Derek Duncan,
DESTIN, FL (July 5, 2002) -- It's called the Emerald Coast because at certain times of the day the Gulf of Mexico waters just off the Panhandle shores shimmer a pure, amazing green color.
The contrast between the calm, jeweled Gulf water and the pure white "sugar" sand beaches can be startling and is the reason why this is one of the truly beautiful and appreciated havens to those who know it. Thousands of families visit this corner of Florida between Panama City Beach and Pensacola each spring and summer to indulge in the powdery sand and consistently ideal weather.
"We've now got as many golf holes here as Hilton Head does," says Emerald Coast Convention & Visitor Bureau President and CEO Darrel Jones. "There's as much variety in the kinds of courses as well, if not more.
"We've got more than 1,000 holes to play and new courses keep popping up every year. Ten years ago we weren't even close to that number."
Although the Emerald Coast's golf courses are spread out over a larger geographic area than some other golf driven markets in the South, the caliber of play is certainly worth acknowledging. And as Jones says, the number keeps growing as some of golf's leading names in architecture are seeking to work the still largely untapped potential of the region.
One of the most anticipated courses to open recently (May, 2001) is the Tom Fazio-designed Camp Creek Golf Club, located just east of Destin near Seagrove Beach. The 7,151-yard course is billed as a "water and sand experience," which may seem terrifying to the high handicap player, but it sounds more threatening than it really is. Most of the drama at Camp Creek is of the visual sort, where the rugged-appearing landscape, strewn with native dunes and sand washes, is less severe than it appears. Though it's name has yet to reach most A-lists, the behind-the-scenes rumblings seem to indicate Camp Creek is prime to take center stage in Panhandle golf.
Or as Fazio says, "This course is not only one of the finest in Florida, but also one of the finest in the nation."
To those who have been visiting Destin for a few years Regatta Bay, a Robert Walker design from 1998, is often cited as the best course in the region. For one, it was one of the original "upscale" courses in Okaloosa County, and it's use of bunkering - a highly defined style busy with capes and fingers - and water hazards makes an immediate impression.
Be warned: though Regatta Bay maxes out at only 6,864 yards from the tips, this is not a course for the meek. The frequent carries over hazards and wetlands, combined with fairways lined by dense underbrush and trees, can wreak havoc on the high handicapper's score. Choose your tees wisely.
The conditions and facilities at Regatta Bay are nonetheless first rate, but even more hailed are those just down Highway 98 at Kelly Plantation, the epitome of the modern "Country Club for a Day" golf course and recipient of 4 ½ stars from Golf Digest's latest "Places to Play" rankings.
Also built in 1998, this Fred Couples and Gene Bates course is milder in appearance than some of its contemporaries and thus is typically less relentless for the high marker. What it doesn't sacrifice is views of the Choctawhatchee Bay, and the par three third and par four fourth play as close to it as any other holes in the area.
Of the fourth hole, Director of Golf Steve Wright says, "That hole is just lost in the beauty of the Bay. With the Bay as the backdrop of the entire hole, the view is spectacular, and it's not uncommon to see porpoise jumping out there."
The rest of the course is no bridesmaid either, and the stretch of holes coming home beginning at the 12th rival the finish of any in Destin.
One of the "old", and favored courses in the area is Shalimar Pointe, located on the western shore of Choctawhatchee Bay, just over the Fort Walton bridge. Joe Finger and Ken Dye redesigned the original 1969 layout in 1986 and though it's sometimes overlooked in the major Destin rota, Shalimar Pointe continues to hold its own against a more youthful field.
Beautiful and quite naturally conceived in places, Shalimar Pointe achieves as fine an integration of golf holes, native sandy soil, and bayside vegetation as any regional course, save for perhaps Camp Creek. It's also manageable for all, playing at a modest 6,765 championship yards with green fees frequently under $50. Links Magazine has singled out the 11th and 17th holes as among the strongest in the Panhandle.
The big daddy of the area is Sandestin Resort, a mega-complex straddling 2,400 acres between the Gulf and the Choctawhatchee Bay several miles east of Destin. With four 18-hole courses in its lineup, Sandestin rivals that of any resort in the South. It doesn't lag behind in quality, either.
The two marquee courses, Burnt Pine and The Raven, are respectively designed by brothers Rees and Robert Trent Jones, Jr. Both courses vie for top honors in the Panhandle region, with Burnt Pine, a 1994 creation, utilizing a better and more scenic piece of property while exhibiting some very tell-tale Rees Jones contouring and mounding. The Raven opened in 2000 and offers a wider array of heroic shots and is highlighted by large format bunkering in the MacKenzie mode.
Tom Jackson designed the resort's original courses, The Links in 1973 and Baytowne in 1986. Solid if less spectacular than those from the Jones brothers, these courses, especially The Links, are widely appreciated by Sandestin guests for their playability, convenience, and attractiveness.
Where To StayAs expected in an area trying to market itself to travelers and vacationers throughout the United States, Destin offers a full complement of hotels and time-share condominiums in which to stay. There are more than 18,000 beach rooms in the area that average from $59 to $111 per night for hotel rooms (depending on season) and $749 to over $1,000 for weekly two-bedroom condominium leases. Call the Emerald Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau at 1-800-322-3319 for more information and listings.
Where To EatWith more than 400 restaurants in the greater Destin area there's no shortage of food options. Seafood is the main ingredient in these parts and rightfully so - access to the wealth of fish in the Gulf makes Destin one of the country's most advantageous saltwater dining destinations. As Darrel Jones says, "There are over 400 restaurants along this stretch of Highway (98), most with anywhere from 10 to 50 tables, and probably 75 percent of them are seafood oriented. You do the math."
Some of the better ones include the Back Porch and either of the twoThe Crab Traps, both situated on the beach and perfectly suited for the laid back and family occasion. For a unique meal or late-night beverage, experience-seekers must make the trip east to Grayton Beach to check out The Red Bar, a cultural landmark known for it's wildly eclectic décor and invigorating food and music.
Highway 98 passes through the heart of Destin and one trip on it will reveal no shortage of dining or entertainment options.
Other Courses To ConsiderBluewater Bay Resort (850-897-3241), on the north shore of Choctawhatchee Bay, features 36 holes by Tom Fazio and Jerry Pate and is a good example of Fazio's pre Wade Hampton/Shadow Creek work. Some "old school" architect's work can also be seen at Joe Lee's Seascape Resort (850-654-7888) and Robert Cupp's Emerald Bay (850-837-5197). Finally, Earl Stone weighs in with 27 holes at Indian Bayou (850-837-6191).
Camp Creek Golf Club
Regatta Bay Golf & Country Club
Kelly Plantation Golf Club
Shalimar Pointe Golf & Country Club
Sandestin Resort-Burnt Pine
Sandestin Resort-The Raven