Sandestin - More Accessible than Ever

By: Joel Zuckerman


It's not quite an airline hub like O'Hare in Chicago, or Hartsfield-Jackson in Atlanta. But the tiny Northwest Florida Regional Airport in Destin, Fla., serves as home base to at least one active carrier, Vision Airlines. And this up-and-comer brings visitors to the Florida Panhandle from a couple of dozen destinations primarily in the southeast, though flights do arrive from as far north as Buffalo, and as far west as Las Vegas. This is great news for golfers, because the charms of Sandestin Resort, just 30-odd minutes from the airport are now within much easier reach than they were previously.

Sandestin Links' 9th Hole

For example, the drive to Sandestin from this correspondent's home base on Georgia's coast would be an untenable seven-plus hours, nearly 500 miles of blacktop. But the flight from Savannah International is an effortless hour-and-ten. It's a simple formula: Flying leaves additional time for driving. Not to mention putting, chipping, wedge-work, bunker play, and all the disparate elements that draw ardent golfers to the game's most interesting venues.

And 2,400 acre Sandestin Resort, with its sugary-sand beaches, lively and attraction-filled Village of Baytowne Wharf, proliferation of pools, tennis courts and marina, and particularly its quartet of fine courses, certainly qualifies.

The Raven Golf Club, a former host venue of the Boeing Championship on the Champions Tour, is among the marquee venues and the first among equals in regards to the trio of pure resort courses available for public play. This Robert Trent Jones Jr. design is a lovely walk through the marshes, wetlands and pine trees of the resort.

4th Hole at Sandestin's Raven Course

Its accolades include "Best New Course in Florida in 2000" by Florida Golf News, and a 4 star rating by Golf Digest in both 2006 and 2008. The course offers mostly generous landing areas and has a sense of spaciousness lacking at several of the other courses. But as the resort has grown in population, the housing presence encroached too closely on the par-4 16th, which was a tight dogleg-right to begin with. To lessen the chances of errant tee shots whacking off of roofs and through windows, the holes are now consecutive par-3s, known as 16-A and 16-B, and they are used alternately depending on the day. The configuration of the various layouts on property results in the unique distinction of a single juncture of parallel fairways between the Raven and Burnt Pine, designed by the architect's brother, Rees Jones. In golf circles the Jones Boys are well-known for their strained personal relationship, but at least at Sandestin their golf holes can exist peaceably side by side.

Speaking of which, Burnt Pine is not only the priciest, but also the least accessible of the four courses. Outside play must commence prior to 8 a.m. or after 1 p.m., but being a "dew-sweeper" or teeing it up post-lunch is well worth it. "We offer a private course feel, and do far fewer rounds than the other courses at Sandestin," states head professional Jared Morton. "It's not a resort feel, rounds are faster than at the other courses, and we only do about 20,000 rounds a year, which is light for a year-round facility."

No. 14 at Burnt Pine

Burnt Pine is a very stately golf course: isolated, great tree cover, generous housing setbacks and a real sense of remove. Capacious bunkering surrounding smallish greens puts a real premium of approach shots. But this woodsy environment ends abruptly midway through the inward nine when players are confronted with the most arresting of the 72 holes available at Sandestin Resort. The par-3 14th is a dazzler, and the single best reason not to tangle with the 7,000 yard tips. This over-marshland gauntlet with the bay shimmering to the right is tough enough from the blue tees at about 190 yards. But take a few giant steps backward to the tips at 215 yards, and it becomes nigh impossible for the average player.

This sensibility is quickly reinforced on the following hole also, as the "Tiger" tee shot of the par-4 14th is a full 80 death-defying (at least ball-eating) yards longer than the blue markers, stretching a tough-enough hole to 445 untenable yards.

Lesan Gouge is the tournament coordinator for Sandestin Resort. "We do lots of corporate business because of the variety of courses we offer," explains the former college golfer at UT-San Antonio. "For board meetings and smaller groups wanting to offer their members a prestigious golf experience, we tend to book them on the Raven or Burnt Pine. These groups tend to be 20 or less. If it's a larger group, and many of the participants are just occasional or casual golfers looking for a leisurely round, they tend to head to either Baytowne or the Links, the latter offering some gorgeous views of the bay."

Gouge remains very busy, as the resort regularly hosts 30, even 40 corporate outings monthly. In mid-spring, the resort had more than 1,800 corporate golfers scheduled for June, with additional bookings expected.

The Links Course has some of the most memorable views on the entire property. Architect Tom Jackson designed this winding layout against the backdrop of the Baytowne Marina and the Choctawhatchee Bay. With five holes that run along the bay, few trees, plenty of wind and some spectacular views, none better than the drop-dead gorgeous 8th hole, a 355-yard par-4 with a tough carry from the tee. The Links is practically bipolar.

The waterside views are delightful, but early on both nines a golfer is practically bumping up against the roadways and byways in the resort and beyond. For example, as one approaches the green of the par-5 11th, one is so close to the Starbucks across busy Highway 98, it's tempting to consider taking the golf cart up to the drive-through window. Knowing the rules of golf is always helpful, but at The Links, a working knowledge of the rules of the road won't hurt. Between stirring golf holes and scintillating water views one will encounter roundabouts, yield signs, and three and even four-way stop signs. It's a crazy quilt, but a worthwhile golf experience despite the distractions.

16th Hole at Baytowne

And finally there is Baytowne Golf Club, which underwent a comprehensive renovation by original course architect Tom Jackson in 2005. Baytowne was originally a 27-hole facility, but when The Raven was built more than a decade ago, nine holes was sublimated into the newer golf course, and nine more were built for Baytowne. This "two-halves-makes-a-whole" philosophy is easy to understand in the playing, as the golf course burrows through a tunnel under the main highway outside of the resort, and offers a number of holes on the beach side of the highway, before coming back to the bay side.

A golfer is never close enough to see the ocean, but you can smell the salty air, enjoy the cool breeze and can at least imagine the crashing surf beyond the condos and hotels one views in the medium distance. It has some nice strategy and some challenging holes, but the housing, road crossings, tunnel traffic, etc., makes it a busier and more hectic golf course than some would care for. It's a good test of the game, but far from the bucolic experience at the adjacent Raven.

Rick Hileman is the director of golf at Sandestin Resort, and has an interesting philosophy about the catastrophic BP oil spill of 2010, which probably falls under the heading of "all publicity is good publicity."

"It was no blessing by any means," begins Hileman. "But at the same token, it exposed us to parts of the country that barely even knew that northwest Florida exists, and is full of white-sandy beaches and incredible bird and animal life. The fact is that the oil spill had virtually no effect on the Panhandle, other than bad PR for six to 12 months. We were never really impacted, and we were open the day after the spill occurred last April, and have been open the entire time. Unfortunately, it significantly impacted us in 2010, but thus far in 2011 we are coming back to the same levels we were enjoying pre-spill."

Traditionally this resort has been a drive-in destination. East Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky and Ohio have been their feeder markets. But the new airline service is opening up Sandestin to fly-in markets that would otherwise never consider the circuitous or daunting drive to this small, but lovely portion of coastline. And though they come for a variety of reasons, golf is at or near the top of many visitors list, with Burnt Pine and The Raven the leading lights.

"I don't think that Burnt Pine is just the best course in Sandestin, or even greater Destin," concludes head pro Jared Morton. "In my opinion, it's the best course on what's known as the Emerald Coast, from Pensacola to Panama City and beyond."

For more information, visit www.sandestin.com.

This story originally appeared in Cybergolf on May 23, 2011.

Joel Zuckerman, called "One of the Southeast's most respected and sought-after golf writers" by Golfer's Guide Magazine, is an award-winning travel writer based in Savannah, Ga., and Park City, Utah. He has written five books, including the epic "Pete Dye Golf Courses" in 2008. Joel's course reviews, player profiles, essays and features have appeared in more that 100 publications internationally, including Sports Illustrated, Golf, Continental Magazine, Travel & Leisure Golf, Sky Magazine, Golf Connoisseur, Golfweek, Estates West, Millionaire and Golf International. For more of Joel, visit www.vagabondgolfer.com.


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