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Pensacola has high-flying jet aces, great beaches and surprisingly good golf

Tim McDonaldBy Tim McDonald,
Tiger Point GC - East Course - 3rd hole
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The East Course at Tiger Point is a tad more than 7,000 yards from the back tees. (Courtesy of Tiger Point G.C.)

Pensacola is known for many things other than golf courses, but with gems like Lost Key Golf Club, Tiger Point and Perdido Bay (not to mention Portofino Island Resort Spa), there's enough quality and quantity to keep you busy for a week or more.

PENSACOLA, Fla. -- As a native of Florida, I'm a little ashamed to say it's been many years since I've spent any appreciable time in Pensacola.

Driving around at my leisure here, I had forgotten about all the water around the place. The sheer volume of water stuns you: These are some of the best views and some of the whitest-sand beaches in a state known for watery views and great beaches.

They've been busy while I was away. The downtown is thriving again, with renovated, historic buildings -- theaters, stores, bars and restaurants are jumping. I'm not sure if it fits one of its many nicknames any more -- the "Redneck Riviera," which sort of informally encompasses that wide curve of Panhandle from Pensacola to Mobile, Ala.

The Pensacola metro area has grown to around half a million people, and of course that swells to about 10 gazillion during spring break. They get a lot of fishermen here as well, owing to another nickname, the "red snapper capital of the world."

Pensacola, which claims to be the first European settlement in the U.S., is mostly known to outsiders as being a big seaport and home to a big U.S. Navy Base and the spectacular Blue Angels.

It's all of the above and more. By "more," I'm talking about golf. Pensacola has never been known as a Florida golf hot spot, but it has enough quality and quantity to easily support a week's road trip, with some great seafood to boot.

Must-play Pensacola golf courses

Lost Key Golf Club is one of those rare resort courses that throws a relatively high degree of difficulty at you but manages to entice you back for more.

"I can't tell you the number of times resort guests have complained to me that the course beat them up," Assistant Professional Roger Willoughby said. "Then they say, 'You got any tee times tomorrow?'"

That's because of several factors, the no. 1 reason being the sheer beauty of the place. The course is laid down gently on Perdido Key, between downtown Pensacola and Gulf Shores, Ala. It's a narrow, barrier island with sand dunes as white as the reflecting clouds, and it has retained that wild, barrier island feel, even as high-rise condos have risen on the increasingly developed island.

Tiger Point Golf Club is an excellent design by hometown hero Jerry Pate that has wide, expansive views of Santa Rosa Sound.

The course was a 36-hole facility before it was hit fore and aft by successive hurricanes, Ivan and Dennis. Together, they knocked out the back nine of the West course; that was unfortunate because that nine was exceedingly scenic. There are currently four or five plans to re-build the destroyed nine, according to course officials.

What's left ain't bad: The front nine of the East Course also plays along the Santa Rosa Sound, as well as some of the back. Tiger Point is a tad more than 7,000 yards from the back tees, and there are a number of very clever and demanding holes.

• Golf architect Bill Bergin came around in 2000 and revamped Perdido Bay Golf Club, which opened in 1963 from a Bill Amick design. Before Bergin got ahold of it, Perdido Bay was known as a heavily treed, parkland course.

After Bergin and his bulldozers finished, the course looked completely different. With help from Hurricanes Ivan and Dennis, Perdido Bay now sports a wide-open look; it's almost a links-like feel.

Bergin also changed some of the green contours, making them more interesting. Many of the greens are relatively tame, but there are some complicated, multi-tiered jobs with some fairly radical slope and undulation to give you a fun day with the flat stick.

Another benefit from the renovation: Perdido Bay has water on 14 holes, though most of it is lateral with only a handful of forced carries, but it opens up the views to all the water. The result is a very picturesque golf course, very Floridian from the visual aspect. The tee box at no. 9, for example, is stuck out in one of the small lakes.

Solid seconds

The Club at Hidden Creek was designed by Ron Garl, a popular, well-known Florida architect, who laid out 6,862 yards from the back tees. It's a very playable course, as evidenced by its fairway mounding and slope rating of 129. There are no forced carries and most of the water is lateral.

• The back nine at Marcus Pointe Golf Club is where the course really gets rolling, literally and figuratively. The layout has some unusually dramatic elevation changes for Florida, particularly here in the flat Panhandle.

Scenic Hills Country Club was the site of the 1969 U.S. Women's Open, the only course in Florida to host a U.S. Open event.

Pensacola Country Club was awarded renovation of the year in 2007 from Golf Inc. after fixing extensive damage from Hurricane Ivan. The course overlooks Pensacola Bay.

Pensacola resorts

Portofino Island Resort Spa looms above the waters surrounding Pensacola Beach, with far away, dazzling views of the Gulf of Mexico and Santa Rosa Sound.

It's a huge, $250 million resort spread out over 28 acres, bordering the Gulf Islands National Seashore nature preserve. The resort has 300 luxury accommodations, including two- and three-bedroom "sky homes." All have beautiful views, wrap-around verandas, floor-to-ceiling views of the Sound and Gulf, domed entryways, arched ceilings and whirlpool baths.

The resort has all sorts of amenities including my favorite - free movies - and each of the five towers has its own underground parking garage.

There is an eight-mile stretch of open beach, away from the crowded development at the other end of the island. There are also eight pools and spas, including a heated, Olympic-size pool overlooking the bay.

The resort has its own "outdoors adventure" company that offers kayaking, fishing, surfing, sailing, dolphin excursions and banana boat rides.

If you're looking to bring a large group, Meyer Real Estate is the largest provider of accommodations on the Gulf Coast, from Perdido Key to Orange Beach, Gulf Shores and Dauphin Island in Alabama.

They rent out individually owned beach houses from two to 11 bedrooms and coastal condos from one to four bedrooms, in more than 180 buildings. The company specializes in hosting large groups of golfers.

There are four offices for check-in at Perdido Key, Orange Beach, Gulf Shores and Dauphin Island, the office at Gulf Shores being open 24 hours a day.

Dining out

Not surprisingly, Pensacola has a number of excellent seafood restaurants. H20 at the Hilton Pensacola Beach Gulf Front (12 Via De Luna Dr.; tel. (850) 916-2999) has an excellent sushi bar and the Fish House sits along the water at Seville Harbor marina in downtown Pensacola, specializing in Grits a Ya Ya, which is smoked gouda cheese grits topped with grilled shrimp. Order it. Don't question me, just eat it.

McGuire's Irish Pub (600 E. Gregory St.; tel. ((850) 433-6789) in downtown Pensacola is located in the original 1927 firehouse and specializes in prime steaks. Don't try to steal any of the several hundreds of thousands of dollars in single bills they have hanging there.

Try Lillian's Pizza (14514 Perdido Key Dr.; tel. (850) 492-1031) on Perdido Key, as well as the Flora-Bama Lounge (17401 Perdido Key Dr.; tel. (850) 492-0611), for a little bit of that Redneck Riviera flavor.

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Perdido Bay Golf CourseLost Key Golf Club

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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