Miami's top golf resorts: From Doral and the Ritz-Carlton, to the Biltmore Hotel and Shula's G.C.

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

Miami is a different sort of American city, and it boasts outstanding golf courses and resorts, including Doral Golf Resort and Spa, the Ritz-Carlton on Key Biscayne, the Biltmore Hotel and Shula's Hotel and Golf Club.

Biltmore Hotel
The Biltmore doesn't have the ocean, but it does have a Donald Ross-designed golf course.
Biltmore HotelCrandon Park golf courseDoral's TPC Blue Monster golf course
If you go

MIAMI -- If Miami is indeed a third-world country, as Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo (in)famously claimed, then I'm planning on visiting some more third-world golf resorts.

People in Miami protested Tancredo's characterization, of course, though most Americans couldn't understand the protests because they were in Spanish.

Espanol or Ingles, Miami is a different sort of American city, stuck way down there on the southern tip of the country, so close to Cuba. Even its golf is different. The city and its environs don't have the sheer number of golf courses Orlando does, or Myrtle Beach further north into the American heartland.

What it does have is some ritzy golf resorts with some great courses -- old, new and in between. Here are four of the city's golf resorts I visited recently, and ones you should check out if you're planning a trip.

Doral Golf Resort and Spa

Doral is the longest-running PGA Tour stop in Florida, which is why a lot of people have heard the name. What some people might not know is that Doral is also a world-class resort, with five golf courses in all, and a world-class spa.

The Doral Golf Resort and Spa has a classic, Miami look, with palm trees swaying from the ocean breezes, under blue, cloudless skies. It seems to take up the entire town of Doral, spread out over 650 acres.

The spa is a big attraction here, but make no mistake, golf is the centerpiece. In fact, it's sometimes referred to as the "Kingdom of Golf." Its five courses make it unique among South Florida golf resorts.

First, of course, is the TPC Blue Monster. It's a deceptively difficult course. It's south Florida flat, and there is nothing tricky or wacky about the greens. They're relatively flat and easy to read, if you're at all familiar with Bermuda grass.

Doral's difficulty lies in its rough, which right now is about 2 1/2-inch thick Bermuda. It's very easy to lose your ball even if you're only a few feet wayward off the tee, and if you are, you'll be muscling long irons in. This is when you should flex your biceps, not off the tee. If you miss the green, you're facing a tricky chip out of the nasty stuff. Your ball settles in and sinks to the bottom like quicksand.

The course's difficulty also lies in its landing areas, which are frequently squeezed by bunkers and/or water. You must be either long and accurate, or -- like the pros -- wily. Thus, the frequent use of fairway woods and long irons. Even Tiger Woods keeps his 5-wood handy out here.

Then there's the wind. It's a very open course and wide open to the winds that come swirling in off the Atlantic, after they're through cooling the muscle boys and silicone-charged vixens at South Beach. It can mean a three- or even four-club difference.

Then, there's the Greg Norman-designed Great White Course. It's 7,171 yards long and is the only golf course in the Southeast to use crushed shells as its main design element.

Doral's Gold Course was designed by Raymond Floyd, with narrow, tree-lined fairways and gently contoured greens. It finishes with an island green on the 18th.

The Red Course at Doral hosted an LPGA tournament in 2001, and requires strategy and shot placement, with water on 14 holes.

The Jim McLean Course starts off with a trio of challenging par 3s that are some of Florida's toughest opening holes. The 13th through 15th holes are also a difficult stretch of holes, aptly nicknamed the "Bermuda Triangle."

The Ritz-Carlton on Key Biscayne

Key Biscayne is only a few minutes from downtown Miami, but seems as if it's in another world, only with the same great weather and turquoise waters.

Once you take the Rickenbacker Causeway east, you head out into Biscayne Bay and leave behind the hectic Miami traffic, noise and chaos. Everything here on Key Biscayne is mannered and ordered. The streets are wide and clean. Kids play on well-kept soccer fields, their parents watching from the sidelines. Cyclists cruise down the causeway, wearing the latest in designer cyclist wear.

Watch the dolphins cutting through the clear water and the hawks and pelicans diving for fish in the shallows, without fear of getting car-jacked.

The Ritz-Carlton on Key Biscayne is Miami's only AAA Five Diamond resort, and it's a beauty, stuck out on the end of what they call here their "island paradise."

The hotel doesn't have a golf course on the property, but the Crandon Park golf course is a few minutes away. It's the kind of municipal course that plays host from former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush on down.

It's an excellent, affordable course in a beautiful setting, and you don't have to be a President's brother to play it.

"We're proud of that," Director of Golf Carlos McKeon said.

He's also proud of the course, as well he should be. Crandon Park is one of the best munis in the state, maybe in the country, with an upscale clubhouse and a great design by Robert Von Hagge and Bruce Devlin.

This is one of the best deals in south Florida, when you combine price and the quality of the experience. Crandon Park can be a handful, especially if you play it from the back tees, with the near-constant wind that comes sweeping over the unprotected layout.

Biltmore Hotel

The Biltmore Hotel rises almost like a medieval castle over an old, settled Coral Gables neighborhood, with views of the Miami skyline, the golf course and tropical gardens.

It is a beautiful, old-world elegant hotel, with architecture inspired by Spanish castles. It has housed Presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush, Prince Albert of Monaco and the Dali Lama, as well as the usual litany of Hollywood celebrities.

You'll see a lot of people lugging tennis rackets and golf clubs. There are 10 lighted tennis courts, but the star is the golf course.

"We don't have the ocean here, which is okay," said Jason Epstein, the head pro at the Biltmore's golf course. "The ocean is over-rated. We've got a Donald Ross golf course."

That they do, and they're doing everything they can to bring it into high relief. Like many of Ross' courses, the Biltmore layout, built in 1930, lost much of the master's imprint over the years, through storms, neglect and the biggest destroyer: time.

The course was in the hands of the city of Coral Gables for many years, and though this is a well-heeled city, it did not put much money into it and the course fell into disrepair. City councils don't revere Ross like many golfers do.

But, the Biltmore took over management several years ago, and has been slowly bringing Mr. Ross back to life, spending its own money on the renaissance.

They just completed a $1.5 million renovation, including replacing unsightly St. Augustine grass in the rough with Bermuda. They also filled many of the more than 200 bunkers -- yes, 200! -- because, after all, this is a resort course and pace of play is always important.

Shula's Hotel and Golf Club

It would be hard to misunderstand the gender of Shula's Steakhouse. The big goal post outside the entrance. The photos of all the football players taking and giving vicious shots inside the dark wood decor. The menu, written on a football sitting upright on a kicker's tee.

"It's pretty masculine," said my wife, as we sat down and encounter the football/menu, also noting two huge men sitting at a table next to us that appear to be serious carnivores.

"Yeah," I say, intent on studying the football, and not dwelling on whether she means it as a compliment or complaint. "I'm getting the 48-ounce porterhouse. You ever eat three pounds of meat?"

Shula's, of course, is named after famous Miami Dolphins football coach Don Shula, who led the Fish to the perfect season, the only in NFL history.

This is just one part of the coach's complex. There is Shula's Hotel and Golf Club just down the street. There is Shula's Steak 2 inside the hotel, a more informal eatery, as well as Shula's Athletic Club.

It's all located on Main Street, the town center of Miami Lakes, south Florida's first master-planned community near Miami that opened in 1963. It's one of the earliest examples of the New Urbanism movement, where shops and restaurants and other commercial districts are within walking distance of homes.

The hotel has a spa, of course, by Aveda. It includes a stone water display, seven treatment rooms and a "serenity room with a selection of tea for relaxation." I'm betting Larry Csonka never sipped tea here.

You can't catch any spirals from Bob Griese or even Dan Marino, but you can show your athletic side at the golf course.

The Senator Course at Shula's Golf Club also recently completed a $2 million renovation, done mainly because of the effects of Hurricane Wilma. Course officials say the layout is better than the pre-storm track.

The changes were so dramatic, they decided to re-name the 6,982-yard, Bill Watts-designed course to the Senator course, in honor of former Senator Bob Graham. There is also an 18-hole executive course.

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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