Golfers needn't die to go to heaven Golf: The Florida Panhandle area offers some very fine sites to play the game, and in the off-season they come at bargain prices.

February 09, 1997|By Jeff Williams | Jeff Williams,NEWSDAY

Florida's tee box is its Panhandle. If you look at the state as a big ol' dogleg beginning in Pensacola and sweeping right down toward Miami, then the Panhandle is where you would be teeing off.

Not many people I know ever think of the Panhandle as a Florida golf destination. A gulf destination, maybe, someplace to go for sun and sand along the Gulf of Mexico. The Panhandle is very similar to the Jersey Shore or Maryland's Eastern Shore. It's a family summer vacation spot for the locals at reasonable prices.

But it also happens to be a very fine place to play golf, and during the winter you get some reduced temperatures, even the possibility of a flurry every two or three years. You also get reduced prices for golf and lodging that make the Panhandle a tremendous bargain. Hey, the average high will be in the mid-60s, so what's bad?

I'd like you to remember this name: Kiva Dunes. No, it's not the newest Baywatch Babe or the newest Atlantic City resort. It is one of the best golf courses anywhere, and that's anywhere with a capital A. Kiva Dunes isn't in Florida, either. It's just over the border in Alabama in the area known as Gulf Shores.

Kiva Dunes was designed by former U.S. Open champion Jerry Pate. This is a magnificent golf course, beautiful, challenging and playable for every level of golfer. Play the front tees at 6,000 yards and it's a delight. Play the back tees at 7,000 and it's a devil.

The course does not actually play right up to the gulf dunes, but it comes close enough that the gulf's presence is always noticeable.

Pate did a masterful job of routing holes through existing dune valleys, and though it's really not a links course, there are several holes that are mindful of the great seaside courses of the British Isles.

If you're considering playing Kiva Dunes, a good place to stay would be the Perdido Beach Resort, (800) 634-8001. Golf packages that include Kiva Dunes may be available.

Swinging back into Florida and east of Pensacola, the largest of all the Panhandle's golf destinations is the Sandestin Resort in South Walton Beach. There are 63 holes of golf at Sandestin.

Rees Jones' Burnt Pine is the centerpiece of this complex, and a lovely piece of work it is, if only you can master the par-3 14th. You play over a salt marsh, or bayou, from tee to green. It's 212 yards from the back, a more reasonable 160 from a forward tee.

The green is surrounded by the bayou, and a sign on the tee tells you to take a drop near the green rather than stand on the tee and keep filling the bayou with your golf balls.

You can stay at the Sandestin Beach Hilton Golf and Tennis resort, where package deals are available, (800) 277-0800.

Farther to the east, near Panama City, is the Marriott Bay Point Resort. I'm not sure if you really want to play the Lagoon Legend course there, but if you do, bring an extra two dozen golf balls and some extra humility. Designed by Robert Von Hagge, it was meant to be hard. Frankly, it's downright mean.

You could play the Club Meadows course at Bay Point and be perfectly content, and you won't have to completely restock your golf bag with balls at the end of the round. The Marriott offers golf packages, (800) 874-7105.

Packages

Boca Raton Resort has a three-night golf package with instruction for $1,534, double, (800) 327-0101.

The PGA National Resort in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., has a bunch of packages available that include accommodations, breakfast, instruction and unlimited golf, (800) 633-9150.

Outside the Sunshine State, the Hyatt Regency Hilton Head in South Carolina is offering off-season bargains and discounted golf at five courses, (800) 233-1234. La Quinta Resort in the Palm Springs, Calif., area is offering packages on its courses through April 30. For $590 a day you get accommodations, a round of golf and unlimited use of practice facilities. Cheaper packages are available, (800) 598-3828.

Pub Date: 2/09/97

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