A 'home run' golf vacation with the Tigers!

By Michael Patrick Shiels, Contributor

LAKELAND, FL, - Each winter, Hall of Fame baseball announcer Ernie Harwell would take to the microphone behind home plate and his melodious voice announcing the season's first spring training game would break through Michigan's icy airwaves like a blowtorch: "For lo, the winter is over and gone, the flowers appear on the earth, the time of the singing of birds has come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land."

Ernie had plenty of reason to crow the verse from the Bible's Song of Solomon each year - he was in sunny Lakeland, Florida. And if you visit Central Florida this winter, like the seventh-inning stretch song says, you "might not care if you ever get back!" Golf and the Grapefruit League make a brilliant double play!

Did the Red Sox and Yankees World Series renew your interest in America's past time? The Detroit Lions are downright un-watch-able; you couldn't watch the Red Wings if you wanted to; and the recent malice at The Palace might have dampened your ardor for the Pistons. The good news is, the Detroit Tigers, who have been making some strong off-season free-agent signings, have announced their 2005 Spring Training schedule, and a combined baseball/golf trip to Lakeland, Florida makes a fine winter getaway for you and your pals or your family.

The Tigers throw the first pitch of their pre-season Grapefruit League schedule on March 2 at Joker Marchant Stadium, and between that date and the beginning of April, the Tigers will play the Yankees three times in Lakeland and take the field against the brand new Washington Nationals. Tickets run between $7 and $16, and you can see the entire schedule of almost daily games at www.DetroitTigers.com or phone (313) 962-4000.

The Tigers have been training in Lakeland for 69 years, and I dare say that the players, coaches, and the fans that go to see them have surely enjoyed the warm weather, small town atmosphere, and golf courses in the Lakeland area. Among Sunshine State cities, Lakeland is not Miami or Daytona Beach, and it is safely outside the bustling tourist hub that is the Orlando area.

While Lakeland and the Polk County area around it may not call to mind the glamour and party reputation of those high-profile destinations, neither do they call to mind the crowds, traffic, neon blight, long lines, and over-priced green fees those Florida favorites are saddled with. In fact, Central Florida is like an old-fashioned midsummer afternoon at the ballpark - laidback, friendly, time well spent.

Lakeland is in the geographic center of Florida, right smack in-between Orlando and Tampa, and both airports are about an hour's drive away. The downtown area is small and authentically southern, with period architecture and blossoming gardens.

You can walk along and find parks, fountains, shops and nightlife. The anchor hotel is The Terrace, which is upscale and old-fashioned in that it serves as the town's social hub. The Terrace manages to provide the finest dining and offer a buzzing atmosphere at the same time - the kind of hip eatery where one can imagine a business deal being done at a table next to a marriage proposal being offered. (Or a scorecard being recounted and reviewed at the bar, if you must.) www.terracehotel.com (863) 603-5420.

But my favorite lodging discovery in the Lakeland area, especially for golfers, was that there are more than 5,000 furnished luxury vacation homes for rent, most featuring full kitchens, from two to seven bedrooms, washer & dryer, and private, screened-in swimming pools. And many of these homes available are on the golf course!

Sound expensive? Well, the smashing four-bedroom house I stayed in, with a living room and family room, right on Southern Dunes Golf Club's sixth hole, rents for $170 per-night. That means four golf buddies can stay, each with their own room, for less than $45 per-person, per night. Stock your own refrigerator, play cards until all hours of the morning, or even entertain guests with a party!

Needless to say, the rental homes are perfect for traveling families who might also want to visit Disney World and return home in the evening to grill steaks beside their own swimming pool! www.sunsational.org or phone
(800) 828-POLK.

Now, the golf.yes, the golf. Make no mistake, Orlando and Tampa do have snazzy, well-known resorts and golf courses. But they can be expensive and crowded well-known resorts and golf courses. You might be more interested in.relaxing. Each of the golf courses below are enjoyable,, affordable and within the Lakeland area:

Southern Dunes Golf Club, Haines City. Rental homes right on the golf course, which is lush and green with over 180 thoughtful, decorative deep-brown colored sand bunkers. That number of bunkers would normally be penal, but the Steve Smyers-designed layout offers lots of room and wide fairways to play on in between the rows of nicely set back houses (a necessary Florida evil.)

Southern Dunes has as much elevation as you'll find in Central Florida, (and as much as you really need on any golf course) so the hillside holes are imaginative and enjoyable. It's close to Disney, too - and easy to find. Southern Dunes is an inside-the-park home run. www.SouthernDunes.com
(800) 632-6400.

Highlands Reserve Golf Club, Davenport. A light touch in terms of toughness makes Highlands Reserve a pleasant walk and lots of fun for families. 6,649-yards at its longest, this course will flatter father's handicap. There are very nice stretches of quiet holes without homes and a handy practice range. Highlands Reserve is walk-able and worthwhile - a seeing-eye base hit. www.highlandsreserve-golf.com (877) 508-4653.

Ridgewood Lakes Golf and Country Club, Davenport. This 18-hole facility is very near Southern Dunes if you're looking for a 36-hole combo. Former Michigan PGA professional Brian Boeling, who developed Tanglewood in Novi, is general manager of Ridgewood Lakes, which has undergone renovation due to hurricane damage. The course is flat but has plenty of water hazards to hold your attention. Ridgewood Lakes is a run scoring base hit. www.ridgewoodlakesgolf.com (800) 684-8800.

The Club at Eaglebrooke, Lakeland. Golf course architect Ron Garl's company is headquartered in Lakeland and of the 85 Florida tracks he's designed Eaglebrook is probably his home course. Some tinkering is still being done to a couple of holes but Eaglebrook is a big time operation and a golf course with loads of variety. Gator-filled lakes and creeks demand courage and accuracy, but the landing areas are not severe or penal. Eaglebrooke is a hot smash up the middle. www.eaglebrook.com (863) 701-0101.

Cleveland Heights Golf Course, Lakeland. 27 holes right in the neighborhood, Run by the City of Lakeland Parks and Recreation Department, is a truly local experience.and home of the Futures Tour - the LPGA's deevelopmental circuit. Once you get past the busyness of the first tee area, The Heights becomes a municipal course with a heart. Walkable, quiet and old-fashioned, with large old trees and ponds, the user-friendly course would make a good morning round before catching the Tiger game at the ball park. The Heights is a lazy, high fly ball - and what would baseball be without those? (863) 682-3277.

For a complete overview of the Lakeland/Polk County area and the other golf courses and activities available, log on to www.Sunsational.org.

The verdict

Polk County's golf courses are varied and worthwhile, but without the glamorous reputation their neighbors to the east in Orlando enjoy. The result is that the prices are more moderate and the experience more laid-back as opposed to expensive Orlando golf factories such as Grand Cypress and Falcon's Fire. There are plenty of courses near enough to Joker Marchant Stadium to allow for golf and baseball in the same day.

Stay and play

You can stay in downtown Lakeland at the upscale Terrace Hotel for a big league stay, www.terracehotel.com (863) 603-5420, or there are plenty of local Holiday Inn-type motels, but you can live the life of a golf course homeowner by renting an on-course house. www.sunsational.org or phone (863) 534-2507.

Dining out

Downtown Lakeland has plenty of options, including the gourmet Terrace Hotel dining room. Around the corner, Harry's offers lots of atmosphere New Orleans-style, with red beans and rice and jambalaya on the menu. Lakeland also has the golf trip staple restaurant: Hooters. Cypress Gardens, the time-honored Florida tourist attraction, reopened at Thanksgiving, revitalized and renovated after being dark for a year. Evening entertainment, dining and shows are available. www.CypressGardens.com

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