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Planning a buddies trip? The Snake Pit at Innisbrook Resort

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Innisbrook

Recently, I was elected by my group of buddies to plan a golf trip for my brother’s 30th birthday. It’s a thankless job with little reward and maximum risk. If it goes wrong, it’s your fault. If it goes right, well, let’s not get carried away…

I polled the guys on what destination they wanted as a humble and democratic leader. The destination had to be in Florida, somewhat affordable, have fun things to do besides golf, with accommodations capable of housing all of us, a great 19th hole for watching the games that weekend, and, the real kicker, it had to be a PGA Tour stop.

Ridiculously lofty demands, I know. Lucky for them, I had an ace in the hole — the Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club.

The Innisbrook Resort near Tampa is one of those places that can sometimes get lost in the shuffle. With resorts like Sawgrass, Doral, Streamsong, and a slew of others filling the landscape of Florida golf destinations, standing out in the crowd is no easy task. Even Innisbrook’s Tour stop — the Valspar Championship — is somewhat overshadowed thanks to being sandwiched between two titans of the game: The Donald (as in Trump) and The King (as in Arnie).

And yet, Innisbrook was the only logical choice to appease the audacious trip-planning stipulations of my buddies. The enormous two-bedroom villa was plenty of space for our group, and it’s location on the hole No. 14 of the Copperhead course was handy for a bit of glow golf under the moonlight. The bar at Market Salamander was also a great spot to enjoy a few beverages while watching college football and exchanging mildly (read: wildly) exaggerated stories around the outdoor firepit. But what really made Innisbrook the obvious choice for our group had nothing to do with golf, accommodations, or where we watched the big game…

It was all about Ribfest.

Just across the bay, and through an incredible stroke of luck, the annual St. Petersburg Ribfest was being held the very same weekend. If there’s any bit of sage wisdom I can pass along to someone planning a buddies golf trip, it’s to check and see if there is a festival or local event taking place nearby. Trust me when I say it will improve any golf trip by epic proportions — and your buddies might… they just might… commend your wisdom.

Although an abundance of mouth-watering barbeque goodness temporarily convinced us otherwise, golf was still the real reason we made the trip to Innisbrook. That part of the adventure began on the Island course — the lesser known, yet equally impressive layout designed by Larry Packard. The Island started out with a bang, an intimidating stretch of holes right of out the gate, before going tame on the back nine. The par-3 4th hole was particularly memorable, with a single cypress tree standing in a bunker directly in the line of play.

Innisbrook1

The Island made for a great tune-up, but it was the next day’s match on Copperhead that brought us to Innisbrook. Like its sister course, the Copperhead featured a great deal of elevation change — at least relatively speaking for Central Florida — as well as a few blind shots, which always add some excitement to the play. For this reason, I’d suggest picking up a yardage book so you know what lies ahead in these places. Driving the ball is key at the Copperhead, but the course plays very fair and was never unjustly penal, though the greenside rough was no walk in the park. My favorite hole was No. 5 — a beast of a par-5 that plays up and over a ridge, and thanks to the wind, was every bit of 650 yards.

Innisbrook2

It’s a thrill anytime you can tee it up where the pros do, and in this way Copperhead did not disappoint, though my scorecard would disagree. The closing stretch of holes, known as the Snake Pit, gets much of the attention when the Tour rolls to town. But, like the Island course, I preferred the front side to the back. Of course this is highly subjective, but I came away from Innisbrook pondering how great it would be to play a composite course using the front nines of both the Island and Copperhead.

Innisbrook3

For those planning a Florida golf trip, Innisbrook makes a solid choice for home base. In addition to the great golf on property, there are several noteworthy courses around the Tampa area, with Orlando and Streamsong within reach for those looking to branch out for a day. The traveler who also wants the vibe of a city may find Innisbrook’s sleepy atmosphere and location in relation to Tampa a little wanting, but in terms of a true golf resort destination, it’s hard to beat.

Standing out in the crowded Florida golf market is no easy task, but anytime Innisbrook registers on my golf travel radar, I’m always really glad it did.

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D.J. Jones is a lifelong golfer and plays to a 6 handicap when he’s not too busy pursuing his other great passion – travel. Tag along with his golf and travel adventures on his blog, The World of Deej.

5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. TPgolf

    Jan 5, 2015 at 8:18 am

    All of these are great but I must also recommend Lake Jovita country club. Two courses both a must play when your in the Tampa Bay area. Its not uncommon to see tour players there as they have a few resident pga tour players.

  2. Red

    Jan 1, 2015 at 10:40 am

    I live in SW Florida and my wife and I are fortunate enough to stay at Innisbrook now and then. We prefer the Island course and have been told by staff there that the PGA event would be best played on the Island, but that course has little room for the gallery. That said, we love Innisbrook!!!

  3. Square

    Dec 31, 2014 at 6:55 pm

    I’ve played Innisbrook many times. It’s nice, but there are better courses in the area, Southern Hills Plantation, World Woods, TPC of Tampa Bay. If you want a buddy’s trip, it’s a good place for a resort but the course, meh…..I still don’t know why the pros say they love it so much.

    • Bert

      Jan 27, 2015 at 6:05 pm

      Can’t go wrong at Southern Hills in Brooksville. Had a great time there.

  4. JohnW.

    Dec 31, 2014 at 11:54 am

    Great write up. This place has been on my radar for some time, I cannot wait to go.

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Courses

You’ve never played anything like Sweetens Cove

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What do you say about a 3,300-yard, nine-hole course in rural Tennessee with a prefabricated shed for a clubhouse, a port-a-john for a locker room, and a practice green the size of a coffee table? For starters, it’s the most enjoyable golf experience I’ve had in years.

Sweetens Cove isn’t the kind of course where you can say, “Well, it’s like a little bit of this course and that one put together.” It will never be called “a classic so-and-so design.” I’ve played everything from munis to tour stops all the way to the Old Course, and I can promise you it’s not like anything else you’ve ever played.

Picture a world-class, challenging, and ridiculously fun golf course. Now strip off the 15,000-square-foot clubhouse, the pro shop, the driving range, the short game area, and even the superfluous nine holes you can’t remember anyway. Now, go ahead and shave another 300 yards off the tips. That may sound sacrilegious, but once you’ve distilled the experience into only what is necessary, you’re left with something that takes you back to when you first fell in love with golf. Maybe even something that takes you back to the birth of golf itself.

A view of the sixth green at Sweetens Cove looking back toward the tee box. Photo Credit: Rob Collins

Rob Collins is the man behind the course’s creation. When he started the project, it was May 2011 and golf was in a full recession. Courses were closing their doors, companies were struggling to make ends meet, and Rob was betting everything he had on his brand new company (King Collins Golf Course Design, a partnership with Tad King) and their first project of turning a forgettable muni called Sequatchie Valley G&CC into something memorable.

I was inspired by my favorite courses in Great Britain and Ireland along with Pinehurst No. 2 and Tobacco Road, to name a few domestic courses that provided inspiration,” Rob said.  “Additionally, the 1932 version of Augusta National was a huge inspiration for the architecture. The overall goal was to create a great strategic course that places a premium on approach and recovery shots. Hazards, angles, and green contours all work in concert with one another, laying the foundation for a course where there are no weak or indifferent shots during one’s round.” 

Happily, Rob and Tad’s endeavor fared much better than many of their contemporaries’ projects in the wake of the 2008 recession, though it did have many twists and turns along the way. Chief among them was in 2013, roughly a year after construction was completed, when the ownership group disbanded and left the course for dead.

I was desperate to do anything that I could to get the course open,” Rob said.  “The course was my baby, and I believed that what we had created out there was architecturally significant and deserved to see the light of day. As it turned out, my client [the original ownership] approached me and asked if I would like to take the course over on a long-term lease. I said yes to that proposition and set about trying to find a partner for the venture. I was introduced to Ari Techner through the former superintendent at Lookout Mountain, Mark Stovall. Ari and I hit it off and partnered in a venture to take over operations of the course.  Since that time, our partnership has expanded and includes Patrick Boyd as General Manager as well as a few others.” 

Once securing new ownership, Sweetens Cove took off on a consistent upward trajectory that even has it ranked above some major championship venues in certain publications.

The pot bunker to the left of Sweetens Cove’s fifth green, appropriately nicknamed “The Devil’s A**hole.” Photo credit: Kevin Livingood

Admittedly, arriving at Sweetens Cove for the first time can be a disorienting experience for the recovering country clubber. Meandering through a town of 3,000 people in the East Tennessee foothills, you find a wooden sign marking the entrance that guides you to a gravel parking lot with no marked spaces. Stumbling out of the car, you find a curious hunter green shed for a clubhouse that might lead you to question all the buzz you’ve seen on social media. The walk from your car to the clubhouse, though, provides the perfect perch to gaze out on the King Collins creation… and you start to realize that maybe there’s really something to this place.

When you embark on your journey, you encounter absolutely no resemblance to the mechanical, formulaic assembly of a typical, rubber-stamped golf course design. Instead, you’ll find massive waste areas, perfectly placed pot bunkers, and a movement to the land that captures the imagination. The greens are equally receptive to flop shots and bump-and-runs, but they demand a precise execution of either choice.

The bermudagrass fairways are relatively firm and generously-sized, but uneven lies are a common occurrence. Should you find yourself outside those fairways, prepare to take your medicine. Waiting for you there are those waste areas, as well as tall fescue and even clover and thistle in some areas. While some may scoff at such a notion, this is a microcosm of Sweetens Cove’s ethos. It’s a palace for the golfing purist: a minimalist, essential experience that harkens back to when golf geniuses like Old Tom Morris knew exactly where (and where not) to focus their energy. If something adds to the golfing experience, Sweetens Cove has it in spades. If it doesn’t add to the golfing experience, the folks at Sweetens Cove don’t bother.

Sweetens Cove course layout designed by Tom Young at Ballpark Blueprints. Image property of Ballpark Blueprints, Ltd.

The opening hole (pictured to the far left of the above image) is a par-5 of 563 yards. It’s a three-shot hole for most mortals, but your best chance of getting home in two is to start by carrying the bunker on the left about 270 yards off the tee. Be very careful about how you approach the green. It’s guarded by a gnarly pot bunker bordered by vertical railroad ties. The green on this hole is a foreshadowing of what’s to come on the next eight with bounding ridges and multiple potential pin locations that each provide a totally different perspective.

The greenside bunker at Sweetens Cove’s first hole, nicknamed “The Mitre” after its resemblance to the Pope’s hat. Photo credit: Kevin Livingood

The second hole is a par-4 of 375 yards, and the star of the show is the nastiest little pot bunker. It’s placed squarely in the middle of the fairway about 260 yards from the tee. If you miss it, you’re likely fine, but if you don’t… well, good luck. The smart play is hybrid off the tee to stay short of the bunker, leaving yourself a short iron into the green.

No. 3 is a par-5 of 582 yards. Feel free to let fly with the driver off the tee, but beware how you approach the green. The green is perched high above the fairway and guarded by a massive tree in front and a waste area to the left. If the pin is located on the left side of the green, you’re in for a surprise when you walk up to the flag. The ideal landing area isn’t much larger than a couple hundred square feet.

No. 4, King, is the only hole with a name. It’s a 169-yard par-3 according to the card, but the green is 90 yards long. The shot can play anywhere from 120-200 yards depending on pin location and the direction of the swirling winds. And did I mention the tee shot is blind from the tips?

View of the fourth hole, King, from the tee box. Photo credit: Rob Collins

No. 5 is a 293-yard par-4. For longer hitters, it’s reachable from the tee with the right wind, but be careful where you miss. Short right of the green is all waste area that is relatively escapable, though your second shot will likely be to a blind pin. Short left is another nasty pot bunker.

No. 6 is a massive 456-yard par-4 with a sweeping dogleg left that tempts you to hit a hard draw. What you are likely to find out after the fact is that a good portion of the fairway slopes to the left and into a water hazard that runs the length of the hole. This will be one of the hardest holes on the course for most golfers. The only way to miss this green and still be in play is to be short and/or right of it, but getting up and down from there will definitely test your nerves, skill, and imagination.

No. 7 is a 328-yard par-4. It’s all about what club you select off the tee. Driver straight at the flag (which must carry a bunker on the right) is aggressive but likely safe. A driver left will leave you with that dreaded 60-yard bunker shot, and driver right could be behind a tree. Be smart and hit a hybrid. If you miss the green left or right, you may waste a shot or two going back and forth due to the steep drop off on either side.

No. 8 was my personal nemesis. It’s a 387-yard par-4 that, in retrospect, places an emphasis on an accurately planned tee shot (notice a theme here?). By that I mean at the tee, you need to evaluate where the pin is and pick the club and line that will give you the best angle — while keeping in mind the location of the bunkers and trees that could impact your intended path.

The eighth green at Sweetens Cove. Photo credit: Rob Collins

No. 9 is an uphill, 148-yard par-3 with a massive waste area in front, another bunker beyond, and a back-right to front-left sloping green. Matt Cardis’ photo below from his @golfinyourstate Instagram account is taken from the No. 9 tee box.

A course with virtually no excess is a challenging proposition. Everything has to be in exactly the right place, as there’s nothing to divert your attention away from anything that doesn’t meet expectations. Sweetens Cove is definitely up to the task, forcing you to constantly zoom in and out mentally to evaluate the macro and micro of every single shot. There are no less than three shots that can be played from any given situation on the course, but you had better commit to the strategy you’ve chosen and execute or you will pay the price.

The entire journey is spent on the razor-thin edge between heroism and disappointment. Sure, there are elements of this designer and that designer; of links golf and American golf, but Sweetens Cove is truly a golf course without a parallel. It’s a place that serves as a refreshing counter-culture to the vast majority of 21st-century golf courses and, frankly, to the American lifestyle in general. In a world with so much excess, Sweetens Cove will remind you that if all you had left was just a fantastic golf course, all would still be very much right with the world.

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The Winds of Change At Shinnecock Hills

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Two-hundred and seventy-six. That’s the number of strokes it took for Retief Goosen to secure his second U.S. Open Title in 2004, but the number of strokes is the last thing anyone would remember from that year’s toughest test in golf. Take this article from ESPN’s David Kraft and Peter Lawrence-Riddell summing up the final round of Goosen’s triumph:

“The seventh green at Shinnecock Hills was so hard to play for the first two groups Sunday morning that USGA officials decided to water it between every pairing for the final round of the U.S. Open.”

Just as with the 1974 “Massacre at Winged Foot,” the 2004 U.S. Open will forever be remembered as the day the USGA dropped the ball. The USGA claimed that the seventh had been “inadvertently rolled” on Saturday. Walter Driver, chairman of the USGA Championship Committee at the time, told reporters on Saturday, “I found out after play was completed today that, for some reason, a different person on the grounds staff rolled that green today despite the orders that we had given not to roll the green.” Even a typically mild-mannered Jerry Kelly had harsh words, according to the same ESPN piece, “They lied [Saturday],” said Jerry Kelly, who finished with an 81 after shooting 71 Saturday. “Talked to the superintendent. Superintendent said, ‘Hey, I’m not getting in the middle of this. They told me to roll it.’”

Whether the grounds crew was told to roll the seventh green or not, it gave up three triple bogies in the first two groups, so the USGA watered it between each group for the rest of the day. As the 2018 U.S. Open returns to Shinnecock for the first time since that fateful day, the USGA looks to redeem itself this year. With some subtle changes, maybe they can.

In 2004, Shinnecock played 6,996 yards at par 70. In the past 14 years, there have been no major renovations to the course, but once the decision was made to bring the Open back to one of the founding clubs of the USGA, the American Governing body was determined to ensure Shinnecock was presented with its best foot forward. According to a Golfweek report from October of 2017, the following changes have been made to accommodate not only the tournament but the redemption of a reputation:

  • There are 17 new back tees that will stretch the course from the previous 6,996 yards to a total length of 7,445 yards.
  • The par-4 14th hole has been extended 76 yards and will now play 519 yards. The par-5 16th will now play 616 yards.
  • While the fairways will still be more generous than most U.S. Opens, they have been narrowed by Shinnecock’s standard. They will play between 28-32 yards on average.
  • The greens have not been recontoured, but on the greens with the “most severe contouring,” an extended collar of rough has been added between the edge of the greens and the greenside bunkers.

With the course is still expected to play at a par of 70, it will likely be a tougher test than 2017’s expose at Erin Hills, even if there is little wind. In 2004, all eyes were on the par-3 seventh on Sunday. From the time the first minute of Live From The U.S. Open airs on TV, all eyes will be on the same hole: 189 yards with a raised green that runs away from the players and to the right… but so much more.

As there always is with the U.S. Open, the course will be a character in the story more so than any other championship. Hale Irwin won his first of three majors (all U.S. Opens) at the “Massacre at Winged” with a score of seven over par, and 32 years after that championship Peter McCleery of ESPN was still writing about it. And with Shinnecock hosting the U.S. Open the year after Brooks Koepka swept the field with a 16-under par victory at a helpless Erin Hills, who knows what will happen as the horses are released from the gates on Sunday of this year’s U.S. Open?

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Turf Dreams: The Metropolitan Golf Club

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It was a new early morning, and we headed out to face another great golfing adventure. This time we were visiting the Metropolitan Golf Club. Right after we parked our car, we walked through the beautiful clubhouse that highlights the rich history of the course, which only adds to the build-up.

(C) Jacob Sjöman. jacob@sjomanart.com

Over the years, the Metropolitan Golf Club has hosted seven Australian Opens, as well as the Australian PGA Championship, the Australian Masters, and the Victorian Open, to name a few. It’s widely recognized as one of the finest championship courses in all of Australia.

(C) Jacob Sjöman. jacob@sjomanart.com

Designed by engineer member J.B. MacKenzie, the farmland was transformed by the establishment of magnificent plantations of Australian native trees and shrubs, which is one of the things that struck us about this course along with its incredible turf and beautifully shaped bunkers.

The maintenance team is doing an excellent job here for sure, cutting the greens precisely to the bunker edge with hand-mowers to create flawless results. The fairways are also a true dream. They’re pure couch grass, and their pairing with fast bentgrass greens is a winning concept.

My favorite hole is the one pictured above. Just look at those shapes. I want to play it over and over again.

(C) Jacob Sjöman. jacob@sjomanart.com

If you’ve ever complained about bad lies on a fairway, you will most definitely remain silent on this course… because I won’t believe you! As you can imagine, the members are very proud of their club and speak highly of it to all who visit. And rightfully so!

If you would like to play the Metropolitan Golf Club, get in touch through its website to apply. If you’re not headed to Australia in the near future, you can see the course in action during the World Cup of Golf in November 2018.

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