Flocking to Florida becoming an annual rite of spring

By Michael Patrick Shiels, Contributor

DETROIT -- T.S. Eliot wrote, "April is the cruelest month." Those who live in Michigan and play golf in the greater Midwest can relate to the lament in their own special way. When March goes out like a lamb, it often presents some lovely warm temperatures. Car windows go down, shorts come on, and squishy golf courses introduce "spring rates."

Then, like a sneak attack, come the April snow showers that freeze out an opening day baseball game or finally kill off that Christmas poinsettia. Do broken-hearted Michigan golfers give up? Certainly not, because when the rolling fairways of golf resorts such as Crystal Mountain, Shanty Creek and Boyne are covered with snow and skiers, Michigan's militia of golfers don't exactly hibernate -- they migrate! Snowbirds soar due south, straight down I-75, until their hats float. Stopping short of a swim to Cuba means a stay in the Sunshine State, whether it is for the season, a weeklong golf trip, or a weekend getaway.

"My parents always took us to Florida. There was never any question about Arizona or any place else. Florida was it for us, and so it is where I take my kids now," says Scott Smiddy, a Detroit-area weekend golfer who said he'd recently played golf in St. Augustine and visited the World Golf Village and Golf Hall of Fame there.

"Michigan golfers have always liked Florida because we can drive there," says Elaine Crosby, an LPGA player who splits her time between Jackson and Naples. "It's the location."

It's all relative, but a three-hour flight in the same time zone also makes Florida accessible for those who invest in a second home or a condo, and for those looking for an escape, there are plenty of resorts and courses that make Michigan-residents to feel at home.

Feel Like a Pro

Those golfers who want to get a little out of their comfort zones can do so by challenging the very same courses that PGA Tour players compete on during their "Florida Swing," held each year in March. The Doral Resort and Spa, near Miami International Airport, has hosted the Tour since Billy Casper won on the Blue Monster course there in 1962. Since then, the likes of Doug Sanders, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Greg Norman, Nick Faldo, and Ernie Els have won there.

After Craig Parry holed a 176-yard 6-iron for eagle to beat Scott Verplank on the first playoff hole in the 2004 event, what amateur or golf fans wouldn't delight in dropping a ball on that same spot and trying to replicate the feat on the Blue Monster's par-four, 18th hole? The hole, which is flanked on the left by a pond and on the right by palm trees, has regained its claim as the Tour's toughest since Doral lengthened it to 443 yards.

"It's a tough hole. You've just got to hit a real good drive. If you don't, you won't reach the green with your second shot. The second shot you really have to take the water out of play and fly to the right half of the green," said Parry.

Guests in Doral's 696 snazzy resort rooms and suites needn't play slay the Dick Wilson-designed, 7125-yard Blue Monster on every day of their stay. Doral, a self-contained destination, has spread five 18-hole courses over 650 acres. Wilson's Red and Gold, redesigned by Raymond Floyd, Jerry Pate's Silver and Greg Norman-designed Great White courses are loaded with variety.

Other accessible Florida PGA Tour venues open to the public include, Inverrary Golf and Country Club and the Tournament Players Club at Heron Bay, both Fort Lauderdale-area courses are among the venues that have hosted the Honda Classic, which was founded in 1972 as the Jackie Gleason Classic. Arnold Palmer's Bay Hill Invitational has been held at the King's wintertime home, the Bay Hill Club and Lodge, in Orlando since 1979. The Tournament Players Club at Sawgrass, just outside Jacksonville, is the fearsome Pete Dye-designed course best known for giving the Tour players a scare each year at with its 132-yard, island green 17th hole during the Players Championship. The PGA Tour returns to Florida in October for the Walt Disney World Classic, played on the Magic Kingdom's Palm and Magnolia courses. Champions Tour events are held at Crandon Park Golf Club in Key Biscayne off of Miami, Twin Eagles GC in Naples, the Tournament Players Club of Tampa Bay, and The Moors, near Pensacola.

While there are plenty of upscale courses and resorts to choose from -- Inverrary Golf and Country Club, the Tournament Players Club at Heron Bay, the Bay Hill Club and Lodge, and the TPC at Saw grass -- there is one very affordable golf facility in the Orlando area -- Orange County National Golf Center and Lodge.

Orange County National is hidden from the bright lights of Orlando and sits on the dark side of Disney. Make no mistake: those who come to stay and play at Orange County National come for the golf, because there are none of the distractions that come with most other Florida golf resorts. No spa, a very limited restaurant, no nightlife, and 50 simple hotel rooms are what you can expect at Orange County National. The good news is, you can also expect 36 solid, interesting holes of golf in good condition. Plus the staff that understands you are there to play golf from dawn to dusk.

Consider Orange County National a great place for a hardcore golf retreat, safely away from the tourist traps and International Drive clutter and distractions of Orlando.

If you prefer a spoonful of sugar with your medicine in the Orlando area, then the new Ritz Carlton Golf Club provides the exact opposite of OCN. Just off of the Beeline Expressway between the airport and I-4, the striking Ritz Carlton and JW Marriott Hotels rise from the flatness of central Florida, offering over 1500 guest rooms and lording over a hard and fast, 7127-yard Greg Norman design. Both hotels are affiliated with the golf course and the entire 500-acre resort is called Grande Lakes Orlando.

The Grande Lakes experience begins with an elaborate and refined 11,000-square-foot clubhouse with a Mediterranean-style courtyard and fountain. The restaurant and bar inside are the epitome of luxury, and yet the staff will allow you to dine in my socks while the locker room attendant polished my golf shoes.

Blending together the luxury of Grande Lakes and the remoteness of Orange County National is The Lodge at Ocean Hammock Golf Club, on the Atlantic Ocean in Palm Coast. Palm Coast is a largely residential, sleepy golf development area about 30 miles north of Daytona Beach. The 18-hole, Jack Nicklaus-signature layout is notable because eight of its holes overlook - to some degree - the Atlantic Ocean.

The best combination of the wide variety of Florida golf resorts is the Turnberry Isle Resort and Club in Aventura, just north of Miami. Turnberry is restful and exciting, simple and luxurious, active and laid back. Both golf courses at Turnberry were designed by Robert Trent Jones and each are pleasant and playable.

Aesthetically, Turnberry is tops. The resort bursts with colorful flowers, bushes, grassy areas and trees, and the Spanish-style architecture of the off-white buildings with burnt red roofs is appealing eye candy. The Grand Pool and the Ocean Club make time spent worthwhile and soothing, and there are plenty of nooks and crannies and restaurants for the many celebrities - Liz Taylor, Elton John, Paul McCartney, Sammy Sosa - to quietly occupy.

The operators of each and every one of these courses and clubs acknowledged that Michigan golfers make up a significant percentage of their guests and do all they can to encourage Michigan visitors to make themselves at home in Florida.

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