Golf in the Florida Keys: A perfect trip itinerary

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

Here's your "Perfect Florida Keys Golf Itinerary" in three words: Stay in Miami.

Key West Golf Club
Key West Golf Club - the "only Caribbean course in the U.S." - was designed by Rees Jones and Keith Evans.
Key West Golf Club
If you go

Because an hour or so after you leave Miami headed south on A1A, the United States of America turns into a long, skinny strip of fossilized coral a wahoo could leap across.

There's a party every few mile markers, which is how you tell where you are in the Keys, and you can drink a margarita almost any time you please.

There are golf courses, but they are few and far between and they are mostly scrunched in amidst mangrove swamps, palm trees and the Atlantic Ocean on one side and Gulf of Mexico on the other.

From Key Largo 135 miles south to Key West, you will find countless islands connected by the Overseas Highway, including the Seven-Mile Bridge, and endless entertainment options other than golf.

The Keys are better suited to fishing, diving, boating and the aforementioned Margaritas, but the hard-core golfer will find an outlet, if he or she looks hard.

Let's assume you're starting at Key West, and our golf itinerary will therefore begin at Mile Marker 1, in the historic, eclectic - and expensive - city at the end of the road.

Must-play golf courses in the Florida Keys

Day One: Key West Golf Club is actually just outside the entrance to the island city. The 18-hole, public course calls itself the "only Caribbean course in the U.S."

Designed by Rees Jones and Keith Evans, the course was, as you might expect in a place where fights break out over precious little space, a golf course architect's nightmare.

"Land is only a problem if the client doesn't have it," said Evans. "It certainly was an issue to try to get a decent golf course in there on a limited piece of property."

The course advertises itself as 200 acres, but Evans recalled it as sitting on about 130 acres. It's a "core" course where all the holes are right next to each other.

Most of the materials had to be shipped by barge from Homestead.

"There wasn't anything that even resembled sand in Key West," Evans said.

The course is a short 6,500 yards, including the "Mangrove Hole," a 143-yard par-3 that carries over a snarl of mangroves.

The area's easy lifestyle can make even the leisurely pace of golf too strenuous.

"It's not a real fast pace down there," said Evans, who recalled his time back in the Keys in the 1970s fondly. "The fastest I ever saw the people down there move is when a boat smuggling marijuana capsized, and the bales came floating in to shore, where we were having lunch."

Day Two: Sombrero Country Club in Marathon, at MM 50, is a private course that was virtually decimated by Hurricane Georges in 1998. In the Keys, that's not necessarily a bad thing.

"It's more or less the best thing that could have happened," said club pro Chris Reiman. "We've basically re-built the course over the last four years."

The club replaced its Bermuda grass with paspalum, a saltwater-resistant grass, but the course still has to deal with the wind that comes sweeping in off the ocean, drying out fairways and greens.

Reiman described the course, designed by Mark Mahannah as "very enjoyable for the mid-handicapper."

The fairways are narrow, but the rough is playable, and the course appears wide open, since the hurricane took out more than 300 trees. However, water comes into play on 13 of the holes.

The club has reciprocal agreements with other private clubs, and those who stay at the nearby Hawks Cay Resort have playing privileges.

Golf in the Florida Keys: Solid seconds

Day Three: Card Sound Golf Club in Key Largo was designed in 1976 by Robert Van Hagge and Bruve Devlin, and revised by Ted McAnlis in the early 90s.

It's a private club with a small membership. The course is 6,553 from the back tees, and water comes into play on five of the 18 holes.

Day Four: Take your pick. The Cheecha Lodge and Spa on Islamorada has a par-3, nine-hole course designed by Jack Nicklaus; Key Colony Beach has a city-owned, nine-hole course; Hawk's Cay Resort near Marathon has an 18-hole putting green, and the Marriott Key Largo Bay Beach Resort at Mile Marker 103.8 has a nine-hole "putting challenge."

Off course

It's hardly surprising that the Florida Keys offer just about everything there is to do on water, including fishing, diving, snorkeling, jet skiing, water skiing, parasailing and just simple boating.

At Hawks Cay, there are sailing catamaran tours and glassbottom boat reef tours and eco-island adventure tours Caribbean Watersports at MM 97 in Key Largo offers "snuba" diving, kayaking, tandem parasailing and windsurfing.

Key West has 27-mile island tours on waverunners from Key West Water Tours, and kayak eco-tours.

Most every kind of watercraft is available by rental throughout the Keys, as are charter fishing trips.

There are at least 13 parks worthy of your attention, including two state parks: John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo Bahia Honda State Park in Bahia Honda. A must-see is the Key Deer Refuge on Big Pine Key.

Dining out

Key West has probably more great restaurants per square foot than any other city in the U.S. As you might expect, many of the best serve fresh seafood, frequently caught only minutes before you order. It's also the home of key lime pie.

A few favorites would have to include: Alice's at La Te Da, Blue Heaven Restaurant, Duffy's Steak and Lobster House, Finnegan's Wake Irish Pub and Eatery, Kelly's Caribbean Bar, Grill and Brewery (co-owned by movie actress Kelly McGillis), Mangia Mangia and Shula's Restaurant at the Beach Resort.

Other great restaurants strung along the islands are: the 7-Mile Grill and Barracuda Grill in Marathon, The Fish House and Harriette's Restaurant in Key Largo, Little Palm Restaurant on Little Palm Cay and Squid Row in Islamorada.

Stay and play

Key West has almost as many quaint inns and hotels as restaurants. For luxury stays, try the Ocean Key Resort and Wyndham's Casa Marina. Lower prices, but funkier digs include the Key Lime Inn, in the center of Old Town, and the Southernmost Hotel, close to Duval Street, where most of the night life happens.

In Marathon, the Banana Bay Resorts and the Sombrero Resort and Lighthouse Marina are adequate. Try the Key Largo Inn in Key Largo.

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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