Saddlebrook courses are both good resort plays, but green fees are too steep

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

TAMPA, Fla. - For the life of me, I can't figure out why most people insist the Saddlebrook course is more challenging than the Palmer course at the Saddlebrook Golf and Tennis Resort just north of Tampa.

True, the Palmer course is much more wide open, which is in keeping with advertising itself as a "links-style" layout, but its approaches and greens are much trickier. The Palmer has small, undulating greens guarded by high-lipped bunkers; Saddlebrook's greens are much flatter and easier to approach than a floozy in a strip joint.

It probably has something to do with the way the courses look off the tee. The Palmer course is built on higher ground and from its elevated tees, you see mostly wide-open spaces and most golfers seem to be guided by first impressions. When you can swing your big dog with impunity, who cares what happens during the rest of the hole? Only it so happens that the rest of the hole at Palmer is what will fill up your scorecard.

Saddlebrook is definitely tighter than the Palmer, but not so tight that it should be constricting or intimidating. And there are tree-lined fairways on the Saddlebrook, with some rough that has never been explored by man or beast, so if you lose a ball there, don't even think about looking for it.

If you're having only a relatively good day off the tee, however, Saddlebrook is definitely easier. There are those who agree.

"I'm the opposite of most people," said assistant pro Tim Fogarty. "I think the Palmer is harder."

Neither course is long - Saddlebrook is 6,564 yards and the Palmer 6,469. Saddlebrook's slope rating is 127 from the back tees, while the Palmer's is 126.

It's clear the resort doesn't want either course to have a hard-to-manage reputation, advertising them as "two of Florida's most picturesque and playable golf courses."

Dean Refram designed Saddlebrook in 1976 and it was re-designed by Arnold Palmer and Ed Seay a decade later, when Palmer build his signature course here. Saddlebrook's layout has been described as Mickey Mouse ears, though it still seems a little more compact than the Palmer.

Being lower, Saddlebrook has more of a swamp-like feel, with moss-draped cypress trees jutting out of green swamp water. Some of its greens are beautifully framed by classic Florida swamp scenes.

"It's cut out of a Cypress swamp and there's water on 17 of the 18 holes," said head pro Rich Theile.

Same number for the Palmer, but the water does seem to be more ubiquitous at Saddlebrook, maybe because some of it is unseen until too late. Like No. 9, a 406-yard, par 4 dogleg around tall pines. You can hit a fade here to cut some yardage, but you may find the water behind the trees, along the right side, which can't be seen from the tee. Same with No. 10.

The water is in plain view on No. 18, the No. 1 handicap hole, and it traverses the right side of the fairway, with trees to the left. The fairways narrows and the approach shot is over the pond, which dips in front of the green. There's a bail-out area left, but bunkers lay in wait as well if you're short.

The Verdict

The greens are indeed flatter and easier to read at Saddlebrook - the problem becomes whether or not you've played the Palmer course first.

"Everyone tends to read too many breaks on the (Saddlebrook) greens," golfer Tom Moseley said. "They're not as undulating as the Palmer."

The sand is also tighter on Saddlebrook, making the bunkers a tad more difficult.

Like the Palmer, there are too many homes along the course, though it, like Palmer, is in very good shape. Both courses are good resort plays, though women may find it difficult to execute the carries over water on Saddlebrook.

Green fees range from $70 to a whopping $180 for non-resort guests - too much for the courses, it seems to me - depending on the season. The best deal is the summer rate of $70 for both resort guests and non-guests, from May 10 to Sept. 30.

Places to stay

The Saddlebrook resort is about 30 minutes north of Tampa, a mile off Interstate 75, away from the city's muss and fuss and far from the Dale Mabry strip joints.

The resort spreads out on 480 acres and has 800 rooms, including one-, two- and three-bedroom suites. There's a walking village, which is great unless you don't pay valet parking and have to get something out of your car.

The "Super Pool," which is basically a very large pool, is sort of the epicenter, surrounded by meeting rooms, a small outdoor grill and the golf shop.

You'll see a lot of people walking around in tennis garb: that's because Saddlebrook is also known as a prime tennis resort. It has 45 courts in six surfaces, including five lighted courts.

There's a 7,000-square-foot spa, with facials and salon service, a "vichy" shower room (vichy showers were designed in Vichy, France, where water therapy got its start), whirlpools, saunas and steam rooms. There's also a fitness center, sand and grass volleyball courts, a regulation-sized basketball court and a sports field.

The resort does big business with meetings. It has 82,000 square feet of meeting space and can accommodate groups from 10 to 2,000 people.

Places to eat

The resort's Cypress Restaurant serves fresh seafood, like parmesan crusted calamari, for starters, and features dishes like Chicken Under A Brick and Asian-barbecued seabass. Dempsey's Steakhouse has prime beef and pasta and pan-seared Norwegian salmon. There is also T.D.'s Sports Bar and a poolside café.

Fast Fact

Arnold Palmer Golf Academy is located at the entrance to the resort, "where top professionals are trained in Mr. Palmer's teaching philosophy."

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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