Highlands North, Copperhead's baby sister, no easy walk in the Westin park

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

PALM HARBOR, Fla. - Quite a few multi-course golf resorts have the good cop/bad cop routine down pat. They hit you with a hard course - whack! - then reel you back in with an easy one. They slap you with the back of their hand, then give you a cigarette and a phone call. You're so grateful, you sing like a canary and book another week for next year.

Resort guests often say they want a challenge, but when faced with a real, bona fide bad-ass that sends their scorecard racing into the red zone, here they come with their tails between their legs.

Kiawah Island, for example, has its Ocean course. It's tough. Real tough. It knocks you around like a gangster keeping his moll in line. Then you play Osprey Point, or even Cougar Point, and you breathe a secret sigh of relief even as you mock your buddies for liking such a girlie course.

The Westin Innisbrook has four courses, two of which - Copperhead and The Island - are tough even for the pros. You've probably heard of these two courses and, if you play them first, you start looking around for the good cop and a glass of lemonade.

You won't find it at Highlands North, one of the other Westin courses.

That isn't to say it's as tough as the Island or Copperhead. It isn't. It's several strokes easier, maybe more. But, neither can you drop your guard; if you do, you may find your scorecard just as embarrassing as the one you tried to hide from the Island and Copperhead.

Highlands North, formerly known as Hawks Run, is shorter than its two more famous sister courses at 6,515 yards, which was lengthened from 6,410 - they also lowered par to 70. So you play it from the back tees, thinking, how hard can this be? You're a combat veteran after Island and Copperhead, right?

Well, it's probably tougher than you think. Highlands North has tight fairways and bunkers that protect their greens like the Secret Service protects the President.

It has a couple of itty-bitty par 4s that can be driven, but look closer and you'll find all sorts of threats lurking, like the 310-yard par-4 sixth. You look at it and picture yourself on the green, feeling like Tiger. Yeah, right. You'll soon be hitting out of the fairway bunkers or looking for your ball in the rough, wondering how on earth you're going to reclaim that birdie or eagle you swore you were going to get here.

"It's a shot-maker's course," said Westin spokesman Doug Schmidt. "You have to make shots here."

The Verdict

Highlands North is a good course in its own right, without comparing it to the Island or Copperhead. You get the same natural setting you get at all the Westin courses: you may see baby mallards and big, rowdy fox squirrels that won't hesitate to jump in your cart foraging for candy bars. It has a few more man-made structures around it - villas, conference centers - but they never really intrude.

Architect Larry Packard built the same risk/reward characteristics into it he did the others, only if you play Highlands North from the back tees, you may not be able to take advantage of them as you did at the two more difficult courses, which you played from the middle or forward tees.

"I did exactly what you did," said Doug Goodwin, who had played the course a couple of days earlier, as he sipped a beer. "And I paid for it, just like you did. You can't take that course lightly."

Places to Stay

The Westin Innisbrook is one of those all-inclusive golf resorts where you'll never have to start your car engine or carry your clubs, unless you want to practice your bad swing in the privacy of your golf villa. They'll whisk you and your clubs to whichever course you happen to be playing that day and all you have to do is show up for your tee time.

It's a big resort, built on more than 900 acres between Highway 19 and the Gulf of Mexico, with the beaches a short, though congested, drive away. The Westin has 600 guest suites in 28 lodges scattered around the grounds, with six swimming pools, including the monster Loch Ness, which reportedly cost $3.4 million to build.

There's a fitness center, of course, a wildlife preserve, 60 acres of lakes - including some mighty fat largemouth bass - as well as jogging and cycling trails. If you tire of golf, there are 11 tennis courts and three indoor racquetball courts. For you business types, there is 65,000 square feet of "flexible meeting and banquet space."

Places to Eat

Three of the four courses have clubhouse restaurants, the best of which is Packard's Steakhouse at Copperhead. The restaurant was modeled after south Florida's Shula's Steakhouse, with big meat and martinis to compensate for the problems you had at Copperhead.

The Island clubhouse has the Turnberry Pub, an informal restaurant serving breakfast and lunch. Highlands has Bamboo's Caribbean Café, serving Caribbean food like Dungeness crab cakes and grouper sandwiches, as well as Philly wraps, hamburgers and "South Beach chicken salad." The Loch Ness pool and spa has a grill that has burgers, salads, sandwiches and pizza.

Fast Fact

Highlands North was formerly known as Hawk's Run. Nine of its holes were once part of the 27-hole Copperhead facility.

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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