Retirees love to golf, not fish, at St. Andrews South in Punta Gorda

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

PUNTA GORDA, Fla. - The St. Andrews South Golf Club is a pretty, open layout through a community with some ritzy houses, many of which have boats moored in their back yard canals that lead to nearby Charlotte Harbor.

The course itself is dotted with ponds and lakes connected to these canals. In the waterways, redfish, mullet, trout, snook, even tarpon swim and jump. It's enough to get an angler's blood pumping.

It has been said the feeding grounds are so fertile, sometimes the tarpon get so fat they can't make it out through the narrow pipes that connect to the canals. It would be a fisherman's paradise except for the single fact that fishing isn't allowed. The sport fish are there purely for show.

And make no mistake, the course is there purely for the mostly retired members who play the Ron Garl-designed course, smack dab in the Punta Gorda area deemed one of the top metro areas in the U.S. for golfers.

"I think it's a perfect design for what it is - a retirement golfing community," said St. Andrews South General Manager Charlie Priester. "You walk a fine line with a golf course like this. You have to make it playable."

The course is definitely that. With a length of 6,103 yards from the back tees and a slope rating of 124 from the tips, it's a course that factors age into the architectural equation.

"It's a good length for us older folks," said member Chuck Hoch. "But, it's harder than the yardage indicates. You have to manage your game around the course, and that's the way it was designed."

Garl put together a good course with the length limitations. True, there are many holes where a decent drive will leave you with a short-iron into the green, but there are some longer holes and the course is laid out with enough imagination that you'll find yourself using more clubs in the bag than you might think, looking strictly at the numbers.

"He's made it interesting," Hoch said. "It's not just up and down, up and down."

No. 4 will test the empty-nesters. It's a 458-yard par 4 with water right and left, with a finger of the lake reaching across the fairway, which curves left, that surely catches many balls. Most will lay up before the water, 240 yards away, to get a good shot into the well-bunkered green.

And there are enough risk-reward options to keep the course moving along even for the under-60 set, like No. 3, a 375-yarder that wraps around a lake to the right. There are also some tough par 3s, like the 180-yard fifth hole. With a small pond left-front of the green and the flag tucked behind a bunker, it can be a tough little hole.

"Any time you walk out of here with a three, you're in good shape," Hoch said.

The verdict

St. Andrews South is a good course for older retirees or women or those who don't necessarily want to test their long-drive skills.

It's in good shape, though there are several areas that are still making their way back from the hurricane of 2004: some of the cart paths haven't been completely finished, for example. There are also some rough, bare patches on the greens, the result of salt intrusion, carried by winds from Charlotte Harbor.

Stay and play

For those bed-and-breakfast, walk-around types, the Virginia House Bed and Breakfast in downtown Punta Gorda might be right up your alley. The place was built in the late 1880s as a place for Methodists to worship.

It's been restored to close to its original condition, after a series of ownership changes, and the result is what bed-and-breakfast enthusiasts would call quaint and charming: hardwood floors and walls, canopy beds, a working fireplace in the living room and antique fixtures. The claw-foot bathtub in the Chancel Suite is a treat. It's in a 100-year-old neighborhood, and within a few blocks of the riverfront area, with small shops, museums and the downtown marina.

For you beach types, Palm Harbor Resort is one of those resorts that almost meets that marketing slogan all resorts insist on using - the word "unique." First of all, you can only get to it by boat or car ferry, though it does cost a whopping $50 to take the ferry about 75 yards over the waterway - you get a pass if you're staying at the resort.

It's a small, cozy barrier island with sweeping views of the Gulf of Mexico right outside your front window. No asphalt here at the resort, and precious few cars: most island residents and guests scoot around the island by golf cart.

At the resort, the roads are made of shell and you can hitch a ride with a passing cart if you don't want to rent one. You rarely see people wearing shoes and there's a slow, relaxing feel to the place.

The villas are privately-owned and furnished impeccably, with screened-in porches overlooking the beach, grass-topped dunes and Gulf. Sunsets can be spectacular. You can pretty much do anything concerned with water - kayaks and canoes for the hardy, beach umbrellas and lounges for the melanoma worshippers.

Dining out

The resort has a little breakfast café that serves continental breakfast and for lunch there is the pizzeria.

The Rum Bay Restaurant is open for lunch and dinner daily and has terrific baby back ribs, along with seafood and the kind of wacky drinks you expect from a beach resort. Since the villas have refrigerator and cooking facilities, there's also the Rum Bay Store next to the restaurant.

If you want to go to the mainland, Johnny Leverock's Seafood House is just a ferry ride away, and overlooks the marina and yacht basin.

In Punta Gorda, try Mama Nunzio's for great Italian food. Get the seafood chowder and lasagna.

Fast Fact

St. Andrews South opened in 1980 and the private course has reciprocal agreements with about 20 area courses in the summer.

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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