Westin Innisbrook Resort
Copperhead course in Palm Harbor, Fla.
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updated 9/30/2005 5:25:09 PM ET 2005-09-30T21:25:09

Most people come to Florida for one of a handful of reasons: going to Disney World, playing golf and laying on the beach drinking beverages with umbrellas are probably the three biggest.

With September here and warm weather winding down, even in some parts of Florida, forget Disney World for a minute and let’s concentrate on the other two. In essence, Florida is one big beach and one big, hopping cauldron of golf courses. The peninsula has 1,197 statute miles of coastline and well over 1,000 golf courses.

You’ve heard of some of the more famous golf courses on or close to some of the more famous beaches. Doral in Miami, the TPC at Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra, the Panhandle courses on the Gulf of Mexico, particularly Destin.

But, there are many places not as well known that offer sparkling sand, both on the beach and in the bunkers. Here are some great, nearly hidden gems:

Fort DeSoto’s North Beach was named the best beach in the country – including Hawaii – in the latest rankings by "Dr. Beach," whose real name is Dr. Stephen Leatherman, and whose rankings appear every year.

As one who lived in Pinellas County on the west coast of the state for a number of years, I can testify to that lofty ranking. Fort DeSoto Park is 1,136 acres and involves five, interconnected islands. Giant snook patrol the clear waters near shore, and the area is known for its birding.

Dr. Beach describes the beach as "set in a natural wilderness, but still close to all the amenities of nearby St. Petersbug Beach."

The park has an 800-foot boat-launching facility with 11 floating docks, as well as a 238-site camping facility and two fishing piers. The fort itself displays a 12-inch mortar battery and two British, breech-loading, rapid-fire rifles of 1890, among other relics.

The best golf close to the beach is at the Westin Innisbrook resort, in nearby Palm Harbor, which has four courses, including Copperhead. Ernie Els called it "the best golf course the PGA Tour plays in Florida," a notion seconded by Stewart Cink. Curtis Strange said, "I could play this course for the rest of my life and enjoy it – it has that much character."

First of all, it isn’t a typically flat, Florida course even though it’s pretty far from the central highlands of the state, which also give you some atypical Florida highs and lows. Copperhead has up to 70 feet of elevation changes, and you might think for a fleeting instant you’re in the Carolinas. But, the April heat will quickly un-cloud your thoughts and make you remember you’re in Florida, and if that doesn’t do it, the Spanish moss-draped cypress trees and alligators sunning themselves beside the lakes and ponds will.

For more information, including booking, call (800) 383-4148.

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Caladesi Island State Park in Clearwater was ranked fourth by Dr. Beach. "At Caladesi, you’re in an urban area but you can look out at the beach and not see a single building," Dr. Beach wrote. "...The waters are nearly placid , because they’re protected by Honeymoon Island to the North. Wooden boardwalks take you across the sand dunes and past the palm trees so that you can explore some of the island’s trails or get a bite to eat at the snack bar on this offshore island which is only reachable by boat."

Before you take the ferry, try Lansbrook Golf Club, also in Palm Harbor, which is hosting the first Casladesi Open golf tournament. Lansbrook is one of the Tampa Bay area’s best daily-fee courses. Lane Marshall designed it in 1975 and Ron Garl updated the course in 1991 – note the 11th green, a replica of No. 16 at Augusta.

The course is 6,862 yards with water on 16 holes and plenty of wildlife. Green fees range from 25-to $59 with $19 replays.

For more information, including booking, call (800) 899-2812.

Cape Florida State Park in Key Biscayne is eighth on Dr. Beach’s list. It tends to get much less attention than the glitzy Miami beaches, but it’s only a 10-minute drive from downtown.

"With its clear, emerald-colored waters, gentle surf and fine, coral sand, it is the best swimming beach in the Southeast," Leatherman wrote. "A large sand shoal offshore knocks down the waves, and rip currents are nonexistent except perhaps during stormy weather ... the water drops off so gradually that the beach is safe for small children."

For golf, try the Crandon Park Golf Course, formerly known as the Links of Key Biscayne. The course, which overlooks Biscayne Bay, was designed in 1972 by Robert Van Hagge and Bruce Devlin, then renovated in 1993. It has the world’s largest tee, seven saltwater lakes and plenty of mangrove thickets. It has hosted the Senior PGA Tour event, and has been highly ranked by a number of national golf magazines.

Being so close to Miami, it isn’t exactly cheap: green fees are $78 for Florida residents and $148 for non-residents.

For more information, including booking, call (877) 767-5445.

The beaches of Fort Lauderdale don’t appear anywhere on Dr. Beach’s lists, but if you’re looking for a little nightlife to go with your sun-bathing and golf, you could do worse. Yes, it has a hokey history, made so by the movie "Where the Boys Are," but they’re doing some interesting things north of Miami.

They undertook a $26 million renovation of Fort Lauderdale beach some years ago, including a complete redesign of A1A, the famous coastal road, brick-paved pedestrian crosswalks, a beachfront promenade and a beach "wavewall," – a swirling beach wall that extends two miles along the central portion of Fort Lauderdale Beach. You can even take a water taxi into downtown Fort Lauderdale.

Sticking with the historical theme, play the Coral Ridge Country Club’s golf course. Designed by Robert Trent Jones, it is one of a handful of private, old-time Florida courses that transport you back to the 1950s, when you could build a core golf course and still make a little profit, where the experience was more to the point than selling real estate.

It’s a treat to play the course, enjoying Jones’ strategic bunker placements, his long tees and his undulating greens, which actually aren’t as severe as many future courses he would design. The course is 7,095 yards with a slope rating of 134, with water hazards and other obstacles to avoid. It has a terrific arrangement of par-3s.

But, even more, it’s a treat to relish the history of a course, a time and a place: this is where three-time major winner Julius Boros, a great friend of Jones, spent his last day on earth, on the 16th hole; they named a bridge after him, and his widow still lives on the course and plays every week in the ladies tournaments.

For more information, including booking, call (800) 678-6171.

Our golf bloggers spend a great deal of time traveling from course to course (what a life!). Here’s a selection of their top tips for travelers - where to stay, great restaurants, over-rated destinations, and more!

This article provided through Golf Publisher Syndications.

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