Innisbrook Resort's Island golf course prettier than famous sister

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

PALM HARBOR, Fla. -- Three predatory birds whirled and screeched in the sky, playing out an aerial death duel above the manicured golf course. Two ospreys desperately chased and harassed a bald eagle, who had moments before stolen from them some sort of small, hapless animal, now dangling from the eagle's mouth.

Island Course at Innisbrook Resort - 18th
The Island Course has always been known as Innisbrook's most scenic course.
Island Course at Innisbrook Resort - 18thInnisbrook resort - Island Course
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Islands Course at Innisbrook Resort & Golf Club

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The 18-hole Islands Course at Innisbrook Resort & Golf Club in Palm Harbor, FL is a resort golf course that opened in 1970. Designed by Larry Packard, Islands Course at Innisbrook Resort & Golf Club measures 7310 yards from the longest tees and has a slope rating of 144 and a 75.1 USGA rating. The course features 5 sets of tees for different skill levels. The greens are tiff eagle grass and the fairways are bermuda grass.

18 Holes | Resort golf course | Par: 72 | 7194 yards | ... details »

This was but one wildlife moment at the Island Course at Innisbrook Resort, just a long tee shot away from crowded Highway 19, which runs down the western coast of Florida. There's the story of the coyote who wandered in from the woods to watch golfers at the resort's golf academy. It watched for a while, keeping its tips to itself and then ambled back off into the woods when it had enough.

There are geese nesting areas and fat tilapia fanning their beds in the pond alongside No. 10. Then there are the alligators, of course, and the many other critters that wander at will on the 900 acres of the resort. The Island takes a back seat to the resort's other, more famous golf course, the Copperhead, but that may be only because the Copperhead hosts a PGA Tour event every year.

The Island, with its glimpses of primordial, southern swamps, is more scenic than Copperhead. And many say it's as difficult, if not more so, than its more touted sister course.

"The Island is prettier," said Rob Walker, who was just finishing a four-day stay at the resort with friends. "And, for my money, it's just as hard."

The Island also has more history: it was the first course built at the well known resort near Tampa, back in 1970.

"This was the first course built and we sold out on the basis of this course and the clubhouse," resort spokesman Doug Schmidt said.

In any case, the Island and Copperhead are the two headliners of the four resort courses, and you'll get a workout at either one. The Island has more distinctive nines, with the front nine trudging around and through black swampland, with greens framed by moss-draped Cypress trees, looking like an old-time Florida post card.

Then, the course climbs on the back nine, taking advantage of some rare Florida topography -- elevation. The course was designed by Larry Packard, who did all the resort's courses, and the Island, perhaps even more than Copperhead, rewards the bold and accurate, while penalizing the bold and inaccurate. As for the meek, take your par and be happy.

No. 5, for example, gives your tee shot a good roll if you hit the right spot in the fairway, avoiding the hazards. And if you hit your tee shot to the correct spot on the dogleg right No. 9 -- on the right side of the fairway -- it will feed down toward the water, giving you about 130 yards into the green instead of 175 if you play it safe. Again, if you miss, you're in some tough rough.

No. 15 is the same: a good tee shot over the left-fairway bunker will get you 30 to 40 more yards, or you can play it safe to the right and take the bunker out of play. Water comes into play on many of the holes and beckons you to come close, providing as it does the best and shortest routes to the promised land.

The Island Course at Innisbrook: The verdict

I actually preferred the Island Course at Innisbrook over the Copperhead, by the slimmest of margins. I liked the swampy feel and the isolation, though Copperhead has even fewer villas along the course to spoil your walk in nature. The Copperhead is a stroke or two more difficult, but it seemed to me the Island has a slight edge in its mix of interesting and varied holes.

The Island has been ranked among the country's top 50 resort courses by Golf Digest and Travel & Leisure Golf rated it 14th in its "Fifty Finest in Florida." The course has been a regional qualifier for the U.S. Open and has hosted the NCAA championships, which Phil Mickelson won here in 1990.

Lodging at Innisbrook

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 resort 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's 65,000 square feet of "flexible meeting and banquet space."

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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