Golfers have it made in the shade at Tallahassee's GC of Summerbrooke

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Tallahassee is a town that reveres Bobby Bowden and loves its sports bars, frat parties and politics. It's a university town, which means it has higher education to go with its higher topography, relatively speaking for Florida.

With its rolling hills, dips and valleys, combined with mammoth, gnarled live oaks that bestow that most welcome of Florida pleasures - shade - it's fine, Southern golf terrain.

So you would think that with all the high, political rollers - not to mention the passion of the man himself, Bowden - golf would be more of a focus.

Alas, it isn't.

You want Florida golf, you go south, east or west. Sandwiched between Georgia to the north and the Gulf Coast beaches to the south, Tallahassee would be just another no-stop blip on the tourist road map if it wasn't the state capital and the epicenter of Florida politics, for better or worse.

There are signs, though, that the capital is expanding its golf course repertoire. The opening of Southwood Golf Club, named the third-best, new upscale public course in 2002 by Golf Digest, is one case.

Another course that has captured the attention of locals and visitors is The Golf Club of Summerbrooke. One of the more difficult courses in the area, the knock on the semi-private course since its opening in 1993 has been that its owners didn't have the wallet or the inclination to put the necessary money into it for upkeep.

That has changed, say new owners Sam Funderburk and Reagan Hobbs, both locals. Since buying the course about a year and a half ago, and changing the name from The Players at Summerbrooke, they've made improvements.

They verti-cut the fairways recently, which had never been done before, with plans to do it again in August.

"It makes it a healthier turf," said director of golf Josh Truman. "It's 10 times better than it ever has been, but we've still got a ways to go."

They also trimmed the numerous trees and cleared out brushy waste areas, which allows more venting and better air flow. As a result, the course lost some of its claustrophobia and now has a more open, airy feel.

After members complained the course was a little too challenging, the owners took further steps.

They raised the fairway on No. 3 and took out mounds that inhibited long irons to the green. They also took out some of the undulation in the 15th green, and aerated all the greens. In fact, improving the greens is a priority.

"We want these to be the best greens in town," Truman said. "That's what people talk about when they talk about great golf courses."

Other changes have opened up the course. While still tough, it doesn't punish errant shots as severely as it once did.

"The bottom line is we're trying to make the course more playable," Truman said.

The course demands a variety of shots to score well. It has a good mix of yardages, and most of the obstacles are there for a purpose, not just for photo ops. Nor are the greens tricky: most are open in the front.

The front nine is relatively easy; the back nine is where you'll have to put on your thinking cap.

No. 10, for instance, is a narrow, 369-yard par-4. Oaks guard the green from the right side of the fairway, and a bunker protects the left side, though it slopes left to right. A bogey here shouldn't sap your ego.

A driver can get you in danger on No. 12 if you hit too far and reach the pampas. Aim to the left of the green; the right falls off fast.

No. 14 can also punish a driver, so a three-wood is right off the tee in order to avoid water. It's a reachable, downhill par-5 but with the risk of a sidehill lie. It's a classic risk-reward hole. Add a club length on your uphill, third shot.

The closing hole - "Summer's End" - is another reachable par-5. The fairway gives a right-to-left kick, but trees will block a tee shot too far to the left. The green is receptive and slopes right to left, with a right-side bunker to negotiate.

Other improvements are planned, like upgrading the cart paths, building a patio overlooking the 18th green, and spicing the layout up a bit by planting azaleas and dogwoods. There are also plans to clean up waste areas, improve bad patches on the course and upgrade the cart paths.

"It's gotten a lot better in the last year or so," said Alaine Fenno, a 12-handicapper playing the course with friends. "It used to be so damn hard."

Aside from the man-made improvements, the owners plan to let Mother Nature take its course.

"The course has never really been finished," said Truman. "In that respect, it really wasn't allowed to mature."

The verdict

As far as playability, Summerbrooke is still a tough test, one of the two or three most difficult in Tallahassee, along with Southwood and Golden Eagle. This is a fairly demanding course that is fun to play and should get better if the owners keep up their spending habits.

The par-3s can be difficult, especially from the back tees. The 17th, for example, is a bulk-headed, peninsula green with the left side falling sharply off into water. Visually, it's one of the more intimidating holes.

As far as aesthetics, it would be one of the more scenic as well, if not for the fact that it winds through a housing development. There are houses visible on every hole, though they aren't as obtrusive as those in many Florida golf communities.

The course has that classic deep south feel with moss-draped live oaks, as well as pampas grass. If the owners follow through with their plans to plant azalea and dogwood, and if they clear up bad patches on the course and certain waste areas, it would go a long way to making it more eye-pleasing.

There are long cart rides between many of the holes: this can be good and bad. Rarely do you see another hole while you're playing, which gives a sense of isolation, but the long rides can get old, and if you're walking, you're in for a hike.

Stay and play

Try the Cabot Lodge at 2735 N. Monroe ( (850) 386-8880) or Governor's Inn at 209 S. Adams ( (850) 681-6855).

For a more intimate setting, you might want to try the Calhoun Street Inn, a bed and breakfast that offers six fireplaces and clawfoot bath tubs. It's located in a historic neighborhood downtown, within walking distance to the Florida State University campus: 525 N. Calhoun St. ( (850) 425-5095).

Dining out

Tallahassee has some fine restaurants. For Indian food, there is Curry and Wine at 325 N. Bronough St. ( (850) 656-7200) and for French, try Chez Pierre at 1215 Thomasville Road ( (850) 222-0936).

For something more casual, try Po' Boys Creole Café at either 224 E. College Ave. ( (850) 224-5400) or 1944 Pensacola St. (850) 571 4144).

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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