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.
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.
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.
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.