Spring Training golf on Florida's Gulf Coast: In the footsteps of the Bambino
Lots of baseball fans love golf and combine a Florida golfing vacation with a Spring Training pilgrimage. If you're heading to the Gulf Coast, here are some golf courses where you're likely to see MLB players.
Babe Ruth didn't just swat tape-measure home runs and eat hot dogs by the barrel. He also loved the game of golf.
In fact, he and Ty Cobb had a great golf rivalry back in the day. The Georgia Peach bested the Bambino in three matches in something they dubbed "The Ruth Cup." Cobb is said to have kept the trophy over his fireplace, right next to his Hall of Fame plaque.
But Ruth didn't catch the golf bug until he traded by the Boston Red Sox to the Yankees, who made their spring training home in St. Petersburg in those days.
Ruth wasn't the only legend to sneak away from camp to play one of the many Florida's Gulf Coast tracks. Lou Gehrig loved the game. So did Jimmie Foxx and Lefty Grove, who used to frequent Ft. Myers golf courses. Sam Snead said Joe DiMaggio had the most golf talent of any ballplayer he'd ever seen.
That tradition of duffing ballplayers carries on today. Eight Major League teams still train on the Gulf Coast, and given the region's many excellent courses, players mix and match sports all through spring training.
If you want to see major leaguers at the tee as well as on the mound and at the plate, there are a few local courses where sightings are likely -- but you might need an invitation, as the ballplayers tend to stick to the private golf clubs.
Avila Golf and Country Club in Tampa
Avila Golf and Country Club in Tampa is one such course. It's a 6,800-yard layout redesigned by Jack Nicklaus in the 1980s.
It's also the site of the Major League Baseball Alumni Association's Baseball for Kids Golf Classic, which attracts a host of former stars. Gary Carter, Wade Boggs, Goose Gossage, Ferguson Jenkins, Robin Roberts, Tommy John, Dave Kingman, Bob Feller, Frank Howard and Ken Griffey Sr. are among those who've played the event.
The club's restaurant serves "Floribbean" cuisine like cocoanut-crusted shrimp and has a wine club.
Some ex-ballplayers live at Avila, and frequently take their buddies there - a common phenomenon in the Tampa Bay area, according to Ray Goodman of the County Golf Association in Clearwater.
Old Memorial Golf Club and Palma Ceia
Old Memorial Golf Club is another private Tampa track favored by ballplayers. This Steve Smyers design is annually named one of Florida's best courses by golf publications.
A wide, generally flat course (though with some gently rolling fairways), Old Memorial plays 7,236 yards from the back tees, with some very tricky green complexes. Caddies are mandatory and -- sorry, ladies -- there are no women's tees.
At Tampa's Palma Ceia Golf and Country Club you might spot a host of MLB vets, if you can get on.
Copperhead and TPC of Tampa Bay
Other possibilities include the Copperhead Course at Innisbrook Resort. As a resort course it can get crowded this time of year, so the ballplayers usually travel here in packs.
The TPC of Tampa Bay also sees its share of major leaguers. Designed by Bobby Weed, it's one of the more popular stops on the Champions Tour.
February 28, 2007