Florida golf courses: Forget the rest stops, golfers love the I-75 'trail'

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

Driving through Florida on Interstate-75? There are great golf courses along the way, from Suwannee Country Club in Live Oak and Ironwood Golf Club in Gainesville, all the way south to Saddlebrook and TPC Tampa Bay, and Tiburon in Naples.

Ironwood Golf Club
Located just 10 minutes off I-75 in Gainesville, Ironwood Golf Club a good muni course.
Ironwood Golf ClubGolden Ocala Golf and Equestrian ClubSaddlebrook Resort - Palmer golf course - 3rd
If you go

Before nearly every exit on Interstate-75, which starts just west of Miami and stretches all the way to Canada, you'll see those little official signs showing nearby gas, food and lodging.

That's great if you're tired, hungry or low on unleaded, but what if you want to play golf? Wouldn't it be great if they included golf courses you could play without getting too far away from the fast lane?

For those golfers hell-bent for a little winter golf in Florida, here are your roadside, golf course signs for courses close to I-75 that we recommend.

We're assuming you're traveling north to south. Mile markers are approximate.

Mile 450: You've only been in Florida now a few minutes. You haven't even seen a palm tree yet. Not much golf in these parts of rural, north-central Florida, but the Suwannee Country Club outside of Live Oak is a nice, little nine-holer that has some elevation changes you might not expect.

Mile 420: Southern Oaks Golf Club in Lake City is a happy, active place where on any given day you might see owner Ron Brooks out on the course, operating a backhoe or one of those big, industrial mowers. Or you might see him stop during a round, get down on his knees, and yank out a clump of goose grass.

"I'm just an old country boy who's worked hard all my life," Brooks said recently.

That puts him in good stead with the hard-working people of Lake City, a hard-scrabble town between Jacksonville and Tallahassee where most people hunt or fish when they aren't working the 9-to-5. The greens are probably the best in the area. The course still has problems with drainage, especially during heavy rains.

Also: Quail Heights Country Club.

Mile 390: Ironwood Golf Club, 10 minutes off I-75, is a good municipal course in Gainesville, a short, but facile layout that, unlike other development-driven courses in the area, is a pleasant walk in the park -- or more specifically, the woods, since there are all sorts of critters ambling around.

It's what a muni should be -- a cheap course with an interesting layout that caters to anyone who wants to play the game of golf without all the expensive bells and whistles.

Also: Meadowbrook and Turkey Creek Golf and Country Club.

Mile 360: Golden Ocala Golf and Equestrian Club is set in the horse country of Ocala. The combination or horses and golf is an unusual combination, and this area of central Florida has some of the best thoroughbreds in the country.

The golf course draws on the best in the world: the 18-hole, Ron Garl design has eight replica holes based on Augusta, St. Andrews, Royal Troon and Baltusrol.

Also: Rolling Greens Executive Course if you're short on time.

Mile 330: Shady Brook Golf and RV Resort is perfect for the gazillions of tourist/golfers dragging their RVs to Florida. It's just three miles off I-75, in Sumterville.

There are also two short, Ron Garl designs: Continental Country Club and Miona Lake.

Mile 270: Now, you're getting into the Tampa area. The Saddlebrook Resort and its two courses are only a mile east, off exit 279. Playing the Palmer Course is a treat for big-hitting palookas.

Whereas the other course, Saddlebrook, is more typically Floridian -- tight, flat and duly forested -- the Palmer Course lays out on higher ground, and gives you room to roam, stray and spray while still having a shot to the green with only a few scattered trees to impede your view.

"They're different in playability and approach," Saddlebrook Head Professional Rich Theile said. "People who hit the ball everywhere tend to like the Palmer while people who hit it straighter tend to like Saddlebrook."

Also: TPC of Tampa Bay.

Mile 240: Rarely has such a good golf course been set in such lousy surroundings at the Legacy Golf Club in Bradenton. Even for Florida, where condos out-number insects, the Legacy Golf Club stands out -- or down. The course itself is one of the best in this part of southwest Florida, but its stature is diminished by the long cart rides through the shadows of looming condo buildings.

"These are some of the best golf holes in the area," said Alistair Campbell, a transplanted Scot who now lives in Sarasota, and who plays the course once a week with his buddies. "But, I hate all the driving through the condos. I'm a (United Kingdom) guy, I'm used to walking. I'm used to having the next tee close to the green. It would be a magnificent course if not for that."

Also: Venetian Golf and River Club, Venice.

Mile 210: In an area considered one of the top metro areas in the country for golf, Riverwood Golf Club is almost certainly the best course in the Punta Gorda area.

Riverwood is a Gene Bates design that is thoughtfully laid out, consistently demanding throughout with a handful of spectacular holes. What's more, green fees here are quite a bargain.

For this, you get a course green as Ireland that will slap you silly if you aren't having a good day.

Mile 120: Eastwood Golf Course in Ft. Myers, at exit 136, is another good muni. It was designed by Rovert Von Hagge and Bruce Devlin.

Mile 90: Naples is pretty much your last stop before you hit Alligator Alley and head to the other coast. Tiburon Golf Club at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort sports two excellent options, the Black Course and the Gold Course. Both courses wear their ritzy resort badges well, with immaculate conditioning, beautifully-groomed fairways, greens and grounds and attentive service. They share a huge, luxury clubhouse you could spend most of the day in.

They share some other common traits and some important distinctions. Both are Greg Norman designs, and they both show his British influence, with stacked sod wall bunkers and fast, firm fairways. The grass is cut short at both courses, and you can putt from well off the green.

Mile 30: Well, if you've made it this far, that means you've pretty much made it across Alligator Alley, where you didn't see any golf courses, but maybe a lot of gators.

When you start seeing signs of civilization, you'll also see Bonaventure Country Club perched on the edge of the Everglades. It has two courses, the more difficult East Course and the West, and both of them are teeming with wildlife.

"You get Northern visitors down here and they see alligators, iguanas and hawks in one day," Director of Golf Chris Baetzel said. "They think that's pretty cool."

Mile 1: Hialeah: End of the road or ground zero, depending on your perspective. The Country Club of Miami has two courses, the East Course and the West Course, designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr. Arnold Palmer was the first pro and Jackie Gleason used to entertain pals like Bob Hope and Bing Crosby here.

Tim McDonaldTim McDonald, Contributor

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.


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