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Miami Golf is Much More than Doral

By: Steve Habel


When golfers head to South Florida for the winter, the first place that comes to mind for action on the links is the venerable Doral Resort & Spa, home of the CA Championship (a World Golf Championship event) each March. A round at Doral is cool and a great experience, but after completing a recent trip down south I found there is plenty of great golf to be had in and around "The Magic City," even if you don't get a chance to play Doral.

Teeing it up on Doral's famed Blue Monster will run you more than $300 from December through mid-April - the region's high season. So we set out to find three rounds on different courses for less than it costs for a single loop at Doral.

We didn't quite achieve that. But we managed to play three memorable tracks in areas around Miami for about $420 and, in the process, toured some of South Florida's landmark courses and learned a lot about the history of the game in the area. Here's a peek at them.

Ross's Course at The Biltmore Refreshed by Silva

First stop: the lushly landscaped Biltmore golf course. Designed by the legendary Donald Ross and surrounding Coral Gables' famed Biltmore Hotel, the original course opened for play in 1925 and has welcomed golfers such as Walter Hagen, Tiger Woods and Gene Sarazen over its 84 years of existence.

The Biltmore has been a favorite of world leaders, celebrities and sports stars since the 1920s and the golf course, thanks to a meticulous restoration finished in 2008 by architect Brian Silva, again allows the property to take its place among Florida's top destination resorts.

"This is the only historic landmark hotel in the state of Florida," said Dennis Doucette, the Biltmore Hotel's general manager. "Everything we've done here is related to bringing back the historic nature of the property. What Brian brought back was the Donald Ross authenticity. The golf course now has the same historical integrity the hotel property has."

The Biltmore Golf Course served the Miami area for decades as a stellar municipal track as well as a draw for "the beautiful people." The course fell into disrepair late in the 20th Century, and Silva - who is known for his work on other Ross restorations, eschewing an imitation of the original, adapted the layout for the modern game.

It turns out the neglect was a blessing. The course was not planted with a forest of intrusive trees, and some of the most spectacular fairway bunkering Ross ever created was merely grassed over. The restoration of those bunkers was straightforward and critical to Silva's restoration plans. "When you combine them with 18 fully refurbished greens complexes and state-of-the-art turf conditions," Silva said, "the Biltmore has never looked or played so well.

"The course was terribly run down when I first visited, but the bones were still in place," Silva continued. "The fairway bunkers were a real find - and the berms that Ross created behind them were still there."

Those berms are extraordinarily high, meaning the fairway bunkers Silva and his team refurbished provide for very deep and menacing hazards. The fact that this is Florida and most everything is flat and without fall, the rises and bunkers also provide dramatic relief on the landscape.

"The fairway bunkers pull you through this golf course in a way that's outstanding," Silva said. "Ross designed the fairways to subtly twist and turn around the bunkers, even on the straightaway holes."

The fairway bunkers are the key to some of the Biltmore's best holes, and the challenge begins the first time you put a peg in the ground. On the par-5 first it is these bunkers - and not lines of trees - that guide the golfer down a twisting, turning, double-dogleg corridor to the green, which is a classic in the finest sense.

The fourth hole shows again how Ross's random-style bunkering not only draws the golfer through but provides strategic hazards to players who hit it 300 yards and those who hit 150. Place your ball somewhere in between and in the short grass to have a chance to score.

The beautiful par-3 12th plays along the Coral Gables Waterway, a canal built in the 1920s to provide hotel guests access to Biscayne Bay via gondolas manned by actual Venetians. "The 12th features a sort of appendage that juts out and creates a single very intriguing pin placement," Silva said.

A half-dozen other greens at Biltmore have this same peculiar lobe feature. The one at 12 juts out back-left and is almost rectangular in shape. "You see a lot of these on Ross plans, but very few were built or survive to the modern day," Silva said. "It's just another example of what had been preserved here, mainly through benign neglect."

Rare in this day and age, the Biltmore is a core golf course with no interior housing. The expansive site - a full 140 acres, quite a large piece of real estate given the Biltmore's proximity to Miami - aided Silva's ability to reinstate the fairway widths to their original dimensions and create more strategic options. The holes, flanked by myriad palm, live oak and banyan trees, are impacted nonetheless by the ever-present wind. Silva also rerouted the cart paths to the outside perimeter of the fairway bunkers, broadening the field of play and creating more strategic options.

The open-entry greens, which had shrunk and lost much of their character, were enlarged to original dimensions. Slightly above fairway level with subtle undulations, the putting surfaces are framed by rolling mounds and gentle swales. Steep drop-offs at a few holes will penalize careless shots.

The real challenge of the Biltmore course is its par-4s. They range from drive-and-pitch gems on the front side (holes No. 3, 4, 5 and 7) to the dangerous 450-yard 17th, which calls for a solid drive followed by an unerring approach over water to a bulk-headed green. The lengthy par-4 plays across the aforementioned canal to a plateau green of unusual height and dimensions. Thanks to the renovations, the hole is once again home to the putting surface Ross designed, an epic green fully 50 yards long and perched at water's edge.

Several free-span bridges were installed prior to the layout's reopening last November to enable players to more easily traverse the course. They also provide passage for the large iguanas that sun themselves on the banks of the canal, aptly capturing the relaxed atmosphere at this South Florida getaway.

In its heyday, the Biltmore played host to royalty, from both Europe and Hollywood. The swimming pool is considered the largest hotel pool in the Continental U.S. and is one of the most beautiful in the world.

Today, the Biltmore GC is operated not by the city, but by the hotel itself. Infinitely playable no matter what your skill level, the 18-hole, 6,742- yard, par-71 layout never fails to please - now more than ever.

You'll pay up to $202 to play the renovated course at the Biltmore (hey, that ate up a big chunk of our bankroll), but it's well worth it. For more information or a tee time, visit http://www.biltmorehotel.com/golf/index.asp.  

More History at the Country Club of Miami

For our second round in the Miami area, we ventured north and a little west toward the Dade County line to the Country Club of Miami. Back when this track was built in 1961, it rivaled the Biltmore as the local place to play. A Robert Trent Jones design, the club was founded with Arnold Palmer as its first professional.

In the golden days of Miami golf, the Country Club's most famous member and resident, comedian-actor Jackie Gleason, played host to a slew of celebrity golfers, including Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. Jack Nicklaus played his first professional tournament here and Lee Trevino won his fourth pro title at the club.

Now one of six courses run by the Miami-Dade County Parks and Recreation Department, the Country Club of Miami offers two manicured courses, with lush fairways and newly re-grassed greens. A renovation of the facility's East and West courses was done by Bobby Weed in 1989, and the tracks continue to be a vital part of the Miami landscape.

The East Course, a 6,353-yard par-70 layout with a slope of 124, requires shot placement and strategy from both the novice and serious player. The West Course - the original site for the former National Airlines Open - hosted the 1991 Senior PGA Tour National Qualifying School. Its treacherous bunkers, lush fairways and rolling greens offer an adventure.

Our round was played (at a cost of $54) on the West course, a 7,017-yard layout that plays to a par of 72, has a rating of 73.8 and a slope of 132 for the back set of four tees. West is not for the timid, and if you have trouble getting your ball in the air you are going to be in big trouble here as no less than six holes require drives or approach shots over water, including three of the four par-3s.

The 552-yard, par-5 third, a straightaway three-shotter that sports a smallish elevated green, is bordered in front by two bunkers and behind by a creek that runs down the entire right side of the hole and ends in back of the putting surface. No. 5 is a downwind, 394-yard par-4 with water threatening both left and right if your approach is not pure, and the 462-yard, par-4 sixth (West's hardest hole by handicap) turns back into the wind and has some elevation changes that give it real teeth.

The seventh - a 510-yard, par-5 that plays into the predominantly southern wind - brings water and sand back into play when going for the green and any shot not placed perfectly on the round green will find trouble. No. 8 is a 212-yard, par-3 that requires a carry over water and the negotiation of two bunkers short of the green, while the approach on the 421-yard, par-4 ninth also asks you to cross water on your second shot and play to a green that is slightly uphill and ringed by bunkers.

The back-nine's challenges begin in earnest with the 175-yard 11th, another par-3 that requires a water carry to find the putting surface. Adding to the anxiety are four bunkers that completely engird the green, which is slightly elevated and peaked at the front.

You might be able to get a shot back on the 14th, a 347-yard par-4 listed as the course's easiest hole. Even here, your approach is premium, as four bunkers guard the peaked, undulating green.

You'll earn your score on the way home, beginning at the 170-yard 15th, rated the hardest par-3 on West. Playing into the wind and over water, the green looks tiny compared to the two bunkers that shield its front on both sides. On the 523-yard, par-5 16th, the wind will again be a factor, as will the creek that lines the right flank and disappears for a minute as your view is blocked by a rise near the landing area.

On the 423-yard, par-4 17th - the hardest hole by handicap on the back - sees trees left and water right narrowing the fairway in the landing zone and a huge U-shaped bunker standing sentinel on the right-front of the elevated green. Par is a great score here, especially if the wind is up (it usually is).

The round ends at one of the West's easier par-4s (at 392 yards the 16th-ranked hole on the track), but you can't take anything for granted because of the wind, the three bunkers that line the fairway and the four bunkers that guard the green.

Believe me, when you finish your round at the Country Club of Miami's West Course you will know you've been in a real dogfight. I think this is one of the most underrated tracks I've ever played. For more information or a tee time, visit http://www.golfmiamicc.com/golf/proto/golfmiamicc.  

Really Get Back to Nature at Crandon

For our third round we headed south and out into Biscayne Bay to play the incomparable Crandon Golf Key Biscayne, which is also run by the Miami-Dade Parks and Recreation Department. A round at Crandon is about more than just golf: you'll spend the day on a tropical barrier island and a course surrounded by water, mangrove forests and lush foliage.

Crandon Golf Club is an explosion of color and light. Designed by Bruce Devlin and Robert Von Hagge and opened in 1972, and later remodeled by Von Hagge in 1993, this 18-hole track is one of the top public facilities in America. Secluded, yet inviting, with the Atlantic Ocean to the east and Biscayne Bay to the west, you'll have a hard time believing you are a 10-minute drive over the Rickenbacker Causeway from Miami's hustle and bustle.

Crandon has been rated as a top 10 course by Golfweek and recognized as one of America's top-75 upscale courses by Golf Digest. Over the years, Crandon Golf Key Biscayne has hosted several nationally televised PGA Champions Tour events.

The course features seven saltwater lakes, sculpted fairways, challenging sand traps, mangrove thickets and holes overlooking the bay. It's the only course in North America with a subtropical lagoon.

And there is plenty of wildlife, including crocodiles (the course has three), numerous raccoons and many multi-colored and -sized iguanas darting about. You are likely to see blue and tri-colored herons, white ibises, snowy egrets, pelicans and anhinga gracing the fairway roughs and saltwater banks. The property is designated as a certified Audubon Sanctuary.

Now stretching 7,301 yards from the tips (thanks to the recent addition of new black tees), the par-72 Crandon carries a rating of 76.2 and a 145 slope. The $1.5 million renovation in 1993 by von Hagge included rebuilding 17 greens, enlarging some bunkers, shrinking some greens, and adding mounds around a few of the putting surfaces.

The fairways are wide and generous, and the greens sizable and medium in speed. Water hazards (lakes, canals and the bay) are involved on 13 holes, and 86 bunkers are scattered in strategic areas. There is significant mounding around many of the well-bunkered green complexes, and the bunkers are filled with soft-white sand.

Each of the holes is memorable, but we will highlight a few to keep your eye on. The challenge begins right out of the chute at No. 1, a 557-yard, dogleg-left par-5 that requires a drive over water and mangroves. The fourth - measuring a whopping 638 yards as one of the longest par-5s in Florida - requires three great shots to even consider par.

Crandon's seventh, touted as one of the greatest holes in golf and one of the toughest in South Florida, is a 451-yard par-4 that doglegs rightward over water; it resembles a barbed fishhook that's baited with a blind landing area just beyond the mangroves. Your second shot will probably be a long- or mid-iron over a marsh to the hard-to-hold, awkward green.

No. 11 (a dogleg-right and uphill 456-yard challenge) is considered Crandon's toughest. From the black tees it feels as if you are playing out of a tunnel deep within thickets; anything less than a prodigious drive will leave players contending with the palms blocking the green approach. If coming in from the right, caution is needed as water waits, as does the deepest set of penalty bunkers around any of the 18 greens.

No. 12, a par-3 playing 178 yards, creates problems by requiring a carry over water to a bunker-backed, crescent-shaped green. Coming right after the tough 11th, you may feel like you're being picked on a bit.

The round concludes at another par-5, this one expanded to 555 yards and requiring a 230-yard carry over an inlet of Biscayne Bay. On this hole during the 2000 Royal Caribbean Classic at least one of the Champions Tour players in every group found water off their drives.

Resort golfers and high handicappers will have their hands full, but solace can be taken in the spectacular surroundings and manicured playing conditions at Crandon Golf Key Biscayne. Here, the senses are treated to an exciting round of golf that allows one to forget civilization for a day. With a cost of $160, a round here (combined with our first two stops) more than extinguishes our bankroll. But - for my money anyway, you'll find this course and its experiences hard to match.

For additional details or a tee time, visit http://www.crandongolfclub.com/golf/proto/crandongolfclub.

This story originally appeared in Cybergolf on January 29, 2009.  

Steve Habel is one of Cybergolf's national correspondents, contributing news stories, features, equipment and book reviews and personality profiles from his base in Central Texas. He is also the media coordinator for Bechtol Golf Design, the managing editor for Business District magazine in Austin and works as a contributing editor for Horns Illustrated magazine, a publication focusing on University of Texas sports. He also writes a blog (www.shotoverthegreen.blogspot.com), which features news on golf and the Longhorns.