Central Floridas Portofino Bay a perfect headquarters for golf getaway

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Northern Florida, Central Florida, Southern Florida. Where do you begin when considering a quality golf getaway to the Sunshine State?
 
A well-planned vacation can save time, headache and unnecessary logistical heartache. One of the most important, and sometimes overlooked aspects of a top-of-the-line getaway is the establishment of the vacation headquarters.
 
Today, we offer a three-course itinerary in Florida ' with headquarters at the Portofino Bay Hotel at Universal Orlando. Were not restricting you to Orlando golf, although there are myriad Orlando courses to enjoy. Well give you one track in Orlando, another in Tampa ' which requires a one-hour westward jaunt on the Interstate ' and another, which is a 3 -hour day trip worth taking to Port St. Lucie.
 
Portofino Bay is your home, and the diverse locations of the courses offer three regional golf highlights you can take home with you.
 
Close to headquarters
To immerse yourself into any of the 81 holes of golf on the Walt Disney World Resort is to play sleight of hand with your imagination. In a place known for flooding the senses with neon lights, bands, cartoon characters and fireworks, the golf experience is surprisingly serene.
 
After a short drive from Portofino Bay, Disneys Osprey Ridge awaits.
 
FLORIDA-OSPREY-RIDGE-17
Osprey Ridge is the least Florida-like of the Disney courses.
Sometimes, when playing the Tom Fazio-designed Osprey Ridge course that opened in 1992, it's hard to imagine how close you are to all the Disney din. You get out on the course, and it's a complete world of its own. The golf is great, and Osprey Ridge is the most unique and peaceful of the courses at Disney. It is pure parkland in the middle of Florida, with enough trees to make you think youre playing in a Carolina forest.
 
One of the overlooked features about Osprey Ridge and the other courses at Disney is anyone can play them. No memberships are necessary (or even possible), and you don't have to be a guest of the resort.
 
The dramatic Osprey Ridge layout winds through heavy vegetation and oak forests, with rolling terrain and several high ridges uncharacteristic of Florida. Wildlife abounds, and that's no accident. There are eight nesting platforms atop tall poles for ospreys, alongside ponds stocked with fish. There are hand-built boardwalks, instead of asphalt cart paths, winding through wetlands.
 
The constant at Osprey Ridge is fine golf. But each layout has its own personality, mainly because there were four designers ' Fazio, Pete Dye, Joe Lee and Ron Garl.
 
The daily greens fees on the 18-hole courses are all pretty pricey, ranging from $125-170 for resort guests during the January through April peak season.
 
What time of day to play is another important factor to consider. The course is crowded in the morning, and pace of play can be very sluggish. But the course thins out after 2 p.m., and crisp rounds are possible in mid-afternoon virtually any time of year. The afternoon is an ideal time to play if you can stand the heat. Some people cant, particularly in July and August, but if you can tolerate the warm temperatures you will be surprised how fast you can play 18 holes in the afternoon. Many players consider the heat worth the trade-off of a nice, smooth round with no waiting.
 
Another good thing to know is that there are complimentary taxi vouchers (through Yellow Cab) provided for Disney resort guests who are coming to play any of the courses. The valet desk or bell services will call a cab for guests, and pro shop personnel at the golf course will assist guests in returning to their hotels.
 
The entire golf experience is covered at Disney, and with a little planning you can beat the crowds and save a couple bucks. As Disney's 81 holes of golf prove, especially the 18 at Osprey Ridge, you'll find that all the magic at this kingdom isn't just for kids.
 
Westward Bound
Now its time for that I-4 drive to Tampa.
 
When the first three words of a course are Tournament Players Club, there is no doubt a special golf experience awaits. And when a player doesnt have to pay extravagant membership fees to play a TPC course, he or she definitely should take advantage of the rare opportunity.
 
tpc tampa bay
TPC Tampa Bay is one of only 10 public-access TPC venues.
Most TPC courses are private, requiring that members live in a home on the property or pay dues to join the club. Not so at TPC of Tampa Bay. The course, designed by Bobby Weed with Chi Chi Rodriguez acting as player consultant, is open to the public year-round.
 
And when we say year-round, we mean it. Remember, this is Florida, where the golf season never ends.
 
Florida provides another highlight for courses that take advantage. The wildlife and natural surroundings give players something to survey as theyre waiting on the tee. Weed and Rodriguez recognized this immediately, and didnt shy away from the wetlands, cypress heads, numerous ponds and lagoons. Instead, they viewed the natural features as opportunities to add beauty to their layout.
 
Wildlife was abundant when Weed and Rodriguez took their first look at the property, and they built the course in such a way that the natural inhabitants were not disturbed. Weed was on horseback during his first tour of the land in 1990, and he has kept the wetlands and flats of native grasses intact. Armadillos, egrets, deer, fox, blue heron, alligators and otters are just a few of the playing partners you might run into. And, if you keep your eyes peeled, a bald eagle might just soar overhead.
 
While nature was important, Weed and Rodriguez still had some work to do. They moved thousands of tons of dirt to build the course, which opened in 1991. It took some time for the new ground to mix with the old, but after nearly two decade of maturation, the golf course now blends perfectly with the oaks and pines and cypress trees. Bunkers and wetlands seem to go hand-in-hand.
 
The courses designation as an Audubon Sanctuary is important to those involved with TPC of Tampa Bay, but nature isnt the primary reason visitors stop by.
 
Remember the golf: The key to a good round here is to avoid the water, which comes into play on 15 holes. Dont be fooled early in your round, because the true test comes on the back nine. The three finishing holes can put crooked numbers on your card that will give you a TPC-sized dose of reality.
 
The 16th and the 18th arent long for par-4 holes, but they require precision on every shot. No. 16 is 430 yards, which might sound like a straightforward hole, but its anything but straight. The dogleg left challenge requires a tee shot on the right side of the fairway to have a chance at reaching the green in regulation. The putting surface is tucked into a cocoon of trees that allow little room for error. The 18th is an average-length par 4 at 456 yards, but it does a 180-degree turn from its partner two holes early. It doglegs right and features a pond down the ride side of the fairway from tee to green.
 
No. 17, tucked between the two doglegs is a long par 3 that forces a carry over trees and water. The faint of heart can bail out to a landing area to the right, but this is a par 3, remember. Youre supposed to aim for the green, which, unfortunately, you cant see from the tee box.
 
It isnt just the finishing holes that present challenging golf at The TPC. Those three letters signify not only a connection with the PGA Tour, but also assure an excellent place of play.
 
PGA Tour players play a role in the design and architecture of all TPC clubs, which are scattered throughout the United States and Mexico. Some players are the actual designers, but in the case of the TPC of Tampa Bay, Chi Chi Rodriguez acted as consultant.
 
In 2008, TPC courses were used for 10 events related to the PGA Tour ' actual tournaments, playoffs, featured events, Fall Series or skins games. TPC courses represent some of the top venues for professional players, let alone those of us who ply their game on nothing but public-access courses. When theres a chance to mix the labels TPC and public access, it is a rare treat.
 
Pack Your Bags
Port St. Lucie requires a bit of drive time from Portofino Bay, but its an all-around golf experience worth the trip. There are three fine golf courses at PGA Village designed by a couple of legends in golf course architecture, but it's impossible to talk about the PGA without making the extraordinary, 35-acre learning center the focus of the conversation.
 
Pete Dye and Tom Fazio created enough good golf to keep visitors happy, but at PGA Village, it's practice, practice, practice. Every golfer has been to the local driving range or practice facilities at golf courses in their towns. Now, take that experience and multiply it by about 1,000.
 
The learning center features a massive horseshoe tee that allows for shots into any wind direction. The short-game area is the best in the country, giving players the chance to practice bump-and-runs, flop shots and everything in between.
 
Practice bunkers offer different varieties of sand and run the gamut from deep, greenside pits to low-slung fairway bunkers. The best deal in Florida golf just might be the daylong pass at the learning center ' $15 for the individual golfer, $5 for spouses.
 
It's what you would expect from a village set up for PGA of America pros ' active or retired. There are more than 2,000 homes, many of which are retirement homes for former PGA Tour pros. There also are vacation villas to offer the pros, and others, a home away from home.
 
The surprise for the public at-large might be that they are welcome, too. But, even though this feels for all the world like a country club, all of those who love the game will be happy to know that every aspect of PGA Village is pure public golf.
 
Throw in the PGA Historical Center ' an 83,000-square-foot facility that showcases rows and rows of vintage book and various other memorabilia ' and the public-access experience is a golf extravaganza.
 
Let's not forget about the golf courses, where everyone can play at an affordable rate.
 
The Ryder Course and the Wanamer Course were built by Tom Fazio, and Pete Dye designed the Dye course. The courses aren't the toughest challenges a player will ever face, but they arent cupcakes either. All three went under extensive renovation from 2006 to 2007. Variety is a plus, and the knowledge that the rounds of golf are part of the entire village adds to experience.
 
The Ryder Course has an inland Carolinas feel to it, in large part because of pine trees that adorn the modestly rolling holes. Both nines wrap counter-clockwise, with real estate on the perimeter.
 
The Wanamaker Course has a more primitive feel, acquired through more deployment of wetlands, native marsh plants and palmetto trees. There's also more elevation, which affords the occasional heightened view and sense of drama to the holes.
 
The Wanamakers holes also are varied than those of its northern counterpart, with Fazio indulging himself and the golfer by way of quirkier angles, more crumpled landing areas and more whimsical hazards. The 545-yard, par-5 13th might be the greatest example, with an onslaught of bunkers, including a dunes-like cross hazard 90 yards short of the green.
 
The Dye Course passes for links golf in Florida. Its virtually flat, wide open and windswept, with only scant evidence of real estate. It's not exactly links golf, more links-like.
 
The non-returning nines wrap around a 90-acre marsh called 'Big Mamu' that sneaks occasionally into play. Dye said shortly after the course opened in 1999 that he was thrilled to be a part of PGA Village because of what PGA of America teaching pros have meant to the game. Theyve made so many players so much better; it's like a gift to people who deserve it so much.
 
Headquarters highlights
More about your home away from home.
 
Portofino Bay Hotel is a quaint version of Italy, modeled after the seaside resort village of Portofino and nestled behind both theme parks. Cobblestone streets and outdoor cafs lend ethnic authenticity to the atmosphere along with excellent cuisine and live outdoor Italian operas every night.
 
portofino bay hotel
Portofino Bay Hotel offers Central Florida golfers an Italian flair.
Each of the Portofinos eateries has its own charm, but Mama Dellas Ristorante is a place that makes a meal a special occasion in a setting that looks like a classic, beautiful home. Dont miss the strolling opera singers, fantastic fare and the atmosphere at Mama makes sure that everyone she has invited in for the meal cleans their plates and has a fantastic time. Reservations are required on most weekends. On a more casual note, having a waterfront cocktail outside at the Thirsty Fish is a relaxing way to unwind after a full day.
 
Peace and good eating at your Portofino home. Excellent and diverse Florida golf on the road. If you follow this well-planned Florida itinerary, or customize something similar to your liking, youll find more enjoyment and less wasted time during your golf trip to the sunshine.
 
' Kelle Barr contributed to this story
 
Jeff Barr is a longtime golf and travel writer who has penned three books on the subject ' the most recent of which, 1001 Golf Holes You Must Play Before You Die (Sellers Publishing) is available at book stores and at www.rsvp.com. Barrs book, Golfs Best-Kept Secrets (Sellers Publishing), is due out in Fall 2009. Kelle Barr is a veteran travel writer who has contributed to several books and whose stories have appeared in many national publications.