Flying into Tampa? How to steal some golf time near Tampa International Airport

By Katharine Dyson, Special Contributor

Ahh -- such a scene: people who smile when they reach out to help you; cutting-edge art work; fun, efficient trams; smart-looking places to get nutritious food; cool metal sculptures; even free electric car charging stations.

Rogers Park Golf Course - 8th
Rogers Park Golf Course is located near Busch Gardens, just 20 minutes from TPA.
Rogers Park Golf Course - 8thRocky Point Golf CourseBabe Zaharias Golf CourseClearwater Country Club - 7thTPC Tampa Bay golf course - 9th
If you go

Is it a fancy resort? Nope. It's Tampa International Airport (TPA). Just off I-75 on the Gulf Coast near St. Petersburg and Clearwater, it's been called "America's favorite airport."

You're in Florida, so can you think of a better thing to do with a little extra time then hit the ball around? With more than 40 golf courses a half-hour or less from the airport, making that happen is as easy as punching in an address on your GPS to a course that welcomes outside play and offers rental clubs.

Here are a few golf courses near the airport that roll out the "green" carpet for visitors. Each of them offer rental clubs.

Rocky Point Golf Course

On the short side at 6,328 yards and a tad tight, Rocky Point Golf Course is considered one of the best of the in-city public courses with a history dating back to 1911. Think sand, birds and water with several wildlife habitats located throughout the grounds. Managed by the Tampa Sports Authority, this track gets high marks from repeat players for its friendly, helpful staff. This is such a popular value in the area that unless you hit a fluky day, don't expect to finish in three to four hours. Enjoy your golf and the wildlife (birds, not locals).

Driving distance from TPA: 10 minutes

Babe Zaharias Golf Course

Starting out in 1926 as the Forest Hills Golf and Country Club, the facility was purchased by Mildred Ella "Babe" Didrikson Zaharias in 1949. After her death in 1956, the course closed and sadly became a tangle and haven for the motorcycle set before the Tampa Sports Authority rescued it in 1974. Located in a tree-lined residential neighborhood, Babe Zaharias G.C. is a short course at 6,244 yards, but it delivers a punch with four par 4s that are more than 400 yards from the tips. The course got a big boost with a $1.9 million restoration under the direction of architect Ron Garl. Today it features fine-rolling Tifdwarf Bermuda greens and updated bunkers. For the price and the shape it's in, you can't go wrong.

Driving distance from TPA: 20 minutes

Rogers Park Golf Course

Completing the trio of good courses operated by the Tampa Sports Authority, Rogers Park Golf Course (built in 1952) sits on 160 acres buffered from "civilization" on three sides by the Hillsborough River. Home of the Tampa City Amateur Medal Championship, Rogers Park is the place to come if you have a solid practice session in mind with a lighted driving range and three-hole short game course. Renovated in 2000-2002, including the construction of a new clubhouse, the 6,802-yard layout got an uplift by Garl. Catch the action of the giant roller coasters of Busch Gardens next door.

Driving distance from TPA: 20 minutes

Lake Jovita Golf & Country Club

Take your pick of courses, North or South. Both wind through a thousand-acre, master-planned community of lakes ponds, valley, hills and tropical foliage. Playing more than 7,000 yards from the tips, these courses are for golfers who are looking for a solid test. Warm up at their world-class practice area, then head to either the South Course (designed by Tom Lehman and Kurt Sandness with a number of surprising elevation changes) or the North Course (designed by Sandness and featuring even more dramatic drops). Both tracks are beautifully sculptured with plenty of white-sand bunkers, immaculate greens and exceptional par 3s. Afterward, relax in the handsome clubhouse where Mediterranean meets Key West.

Driving distance from TPA: 30 minutes

Clearwater Country Club

A classic track designed by Herbert Strong in 1920, Clearwater Country Club is located in the city center. There is water on a couple of holes, but for the most part this easily walkable track is pretty flat with bunkers primarily around the greens. The staff is friendly, the golf course is in good condition and -- for the price -- it's a good deal. Advanced players might find it a tad short at about 6,400 yards, but elevated greens with smooth-rolling Tifdwarf Bermuda greens and playing around mature oaks and Stevenson Creek -- as well as back-to-back par 5s on nos. 13 and 14 -- create challenges.

Driving time from TPA: About 25 minutes over the West Campbell Causeway

Dunedin Country Club

Fans of classic Donald Ross golf courses should head to Dunedin Country Club and tee it up where Babe Ruth played along with Sam Snead, Walter Hagen, Ben Hogan and other greats. Dating from 1927 and the former home to The PGA of America, Dunedin Country Club is classic Ross golf restored to its original layout from original drawings and historic photos. Ross aficionados will appreciate the subtle routing -- right, left, right; small elevated crowned greens, strategic bunkering and the "Ross Corner" (the first four holes).

Driving time from TPA: About 25 minutes

TPC Tampa Bay

Also consider the pricier TPC Tampa Bay course in Lutz. Designed by Bobby Weed with Chi Chi Rodriguez, the course winds through natural wetlands, ponds and lagoons and is an Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary.

Driving time from TPA: About 25 minutes

So you're back in the airport with some downtime. Why not browse the collection of 1930s murals depicting the history of flight located in Airside E terminal -- remarkable restorations by George Snow Hill. Or at Airside A, look up at the brilliant bold silk-screen canvases suspended from the ceiling depicting an ever-changing floating watery world with electronically-enhanced flowing colors and shapes. Mesmerizing.

Katharine DysonKatharine Dyson, Special Contributor

Katharine Dyson is a golf and travel writer for several national publications as well as guidebook author and radio commentator. Her journeys have taken her around the world playing courses and finding unique places to stay. She is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America, Metropolitan Golf Writers of America; Golf Travel Writers Organization and Society of American Travel Writers. Follow Katharine on Twitter at @kathiegolf.

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