PALM HARBOR, Florida – The shining star that is Innisbrook Golf & Spa Resort lit up brightly last March when Tiger Woods wowed the golf world with a weekend run up the leaderboard at The Valspar Championship to jump-start his 2018 comeback by contending on a Sunday.
The white-hot spotlight that played out with Tiger finishing T-2 on the legendary Copperhead Course stuck with me these many months. So what better way to relive it than to start the winter golf season by staying and playing there, taking an early sojourn south in the aftermath of the rainiest and rawest New England November ever.
From the moment I drove in the gate on a sun-splashed Sunday afternoon in early December, I knew I had found golf paradise.
Fittingly, the first housing lodges immediately lining both sides of the driveway had the names Troon, Turnberry, and of course St. Andrews, where I would end up staying in a spacious suite
After a lightning quick check-in at the Osprey Clubhouse, surrounded by walls lined with portraits of past Valspar winners like Jordan Spieth, it was a quick one-minute drive back to the St. Andrews building, where I got an instant jolt upon opening the door to my enormous accommodations by seeing a balcony overlooking the Copperhead Course itself.
Soon after settling in and catching up on the day’s NFL action (including the Bucs-Saints game being played right down the road in Tampa) on both of the two high-definition large screen televisions, it was time to explore.
So, I set out driving up and down the tree-lined streets of the massive 900 forest-like acres featuring pine trees and greenery as glittering as the greens themselves on the four championship courses, passing the seemingly endless clusters of low-rise lodges that house guests and owners, all of which were nestled perfectly into the natural terrain of Innisbrook.
After my tour of Innisbrook, I took the ten-minute drive through the delightful old-Florida-like town of Palm Harbor to take in the sunset on the Gulf of Mexico.
Then it was then back to Innisbrook and its Osprey Clubhouse to watch Sunday Night Football in the well-heeled sports lounge with amiable golf guests, who were warmly watching Rams-Bears from frigid Chicago but likely were also looking forward to the next day on the links.
After a peaceful night’s sleep in my suite and awakening to my view overlooking Copperhead, the much-anticipated day of golf had arrived, starting at sunrise with a return drive to Osprey and its Market Salamander Grille for a grab & go breakfast.
Then it was back to the suite to get golf-ready and a 30-second drive to the Copperhead Clubhouse, and it just got better from there.
The polite Pro Shop staff were prepared for my tee time, and had me registered, loaded on the cart, and out on the range and putting green within minutes.
They also coincidentally paired me with three Pennsylvania natives, like myself, who also like me were staying on the Innisbrook grounds, and we quickly realized we had something else in common – we collectively couldn’t believe we were about to play Copperhead, one of the world’s most iconic courses.
But indeed we were, and surrounded by a bevy of golfers preparing with similar anticipation, off we went right on time in invigorating weather showing sunny skies with passing clouds.
Copperhead Golf Course
Our foursome all got off the picturesque first tee with solid shots, where we quickly realized that sand, as befitting a championship Florida course, would be a constant companion throughout our round.
As would some severe dog legs and blind shots, including a few un-Florida-like uphill tee shots and hillside lies reminiscent of our native Pennsylvania courses with which we were all familiar, and fortunately, quite comfortable playing.
Yet an extreme challenge, nonetheless, which we welcomed since this was after all a tough track the pros play every March in the Valspar as part of the Florida swing, making it one of the Tour’s most popular tournaments during the best month of the year there, even more so with baseball Spring Training sites seemingly surrounding the course just short drives away.
But the biggest tests would come, as expected, on the greens, where like any PGA tournament course, there is no such thing as a gimme, even from inches away, especially when they played slow to start but quickened as the round moved along and the sun dried out the course.
However, that consistent contest of golfer vs. green is what makes grinding gratifying, and all of us had our moment by draining at least one long putt, that singular shot per round that most every golfer gets that keeps them coming back.
With the round moving along briskly and no waits whatsoever on any tee box, we quickly completed the front nine and stopped at the clubhouse for a deliciously big all-beef hot dog to go, which provided instant energy as we all started strong on the back nine.
But making our mark would soon become a bigger issue when we came across the imposing Snake Pit sculpture at the 16th tee, serving notice that we were beginning the demanding finishing holes, which as we’ve seen at the Valspar makes even the pros take notice, but for us was cause for a big gulp.
Fortunately, we survived that “uh-oh” moment and completed the round without calamity, confident that we had been competitive while also reveling in the challenge and completing what we all agreed was a bucket list round for any golf lover.
To top off the memorable day, there was lunch in the legendary Packard’s Steakhouse inside the Copperhead Clubhouse, just steps away from our cart drop-off, and truly the only deserving way to cap off a game for the ages.
THE 19th HOLE
In addition to the 7,200-yard Copperhead Course, Innisbrook features three additional championship courses (Island, North, and newly-renovated South) and a state-of-the-art 10-acre Golf Institute with daily clinics and/or private lessons. The Valspar Championship will be held on Copperhead from March 21-24, 2019.
Beyond golf, the resort features spa & salon services, fitness classes, bike rentals, six swimming pools, a Tennis Center featuring 11 clay courts, a zip line course, family crafts & games, a variety of activities including live music, a half-dozen food establishments, and of course, blazing sunsets.
Innisbrook is a member of the Salamander Hotels & Resorts group (www.SalamanderHotels.com), founded by Sheila C. Johnson, with additional luxury properties in Florida (Orlando, Destin, St. Augustine), Charleston (SC), and Middleburg (VA).