Golf in the Florida Panhandle: Bubba and Boo love it, and so will you

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Northwest Florida is often overlooked as golfers race by to the more publicized peninsula.

My advice: Slow down, stop and play the Panhandle.

There are some exceptional layouts in the region with designer tags such as Tom Fazio, Rees Jones, Greg Norman and Fred Couples.

Encompassing beach-framed towns such as Panama City, Destin and Pensacola, the Panhandle is where Masters champion Bubba Watson and PGA Tour pros Boo Weekley and Heath Slocum grew up and groomed their games at layouts such as Tanglewood, Stonebrook and The Moors near Milton, about a 25 minute drive from Pensacola.

Enhancing the experience is a folksy hospitality you'll find from pro-shop attendants to deep-sea fishing captains that's more Old South than New Florida. Sometimes referred to as 'L.A.' (Lower Alabama) because of the large number of vacationers from Birmingham and Montgomery, the Panhandle lifestyle is unpretentious and relaxing where a great round of golf is often celebrated with some body surfing, an ice-cold draft and Apalachicola oysters on the half shell.

The eclectic Panhandle golf menu is comprised of sprawling multi-course resorts, high-end daily-fee layouts and affordably priced public courses. Generally, the farther inland you venture from the beach areas, the cheaper the greens fees.

Panama City golf

If you're a Tom Fazio design fan, put Camp Creek Golf Club on your must-play list.

Lesser known than his other designs, Camp Creek, just west of Panama City Beach on Highway 30A, is one of my Panhandle favorites. With no homes framing the fairways, it exudes an ambiance of seclusion and exclusivity. Undulating white sand dunes, pristine wetland areas and spacious greens dominate the experience.

For the only Nicklaus Design course in the Panhandle, head to Bay Point Resort Golf Club in Panama City Beach near St. Andrews State Park. The feature layout of a 36-hole complex, the Nicklaus Design Course, formerly known as Lagoon Legends, was redesigned and renovated in 2005 and renamed.

Stretching 7,000 yards, the Nicklaus is the quintessential 'risk/reward' course. If you risk too often and fail to execute you might need a calculator to add up your score. The rewards are plentiful, though, even if you don’t play well, especially at the signature No. 5 hole, a 398-yard par 4, which has a stunning, panoramic view of the Grand Lagoon and St. Andrews Bay.

Others play possibilities in the area include the Hombre Golf Club, a 27-hole complex that has hosted the PGA Tour Qualifying School, Holiday Golf Club, which has an 18-hole layout and lighted par three course, and Shark's Tooth Golf Club, a Greg Norman design that winds around Lake Powell.

Destin golf

For the past 27 years, the Southeastern Conference football coaches, men's and women's basketball coaches and athletic directors have convened at Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort in late May and early June for meetings and golf.

If you happen to visit during that time, no doubt, you'll see Steve Spurrier, Nick Saban, Les Miles and other coaches roaming the fairways.

A sprawling 2,400-acre resort complex, Sandestin has four championship layouts -- Baytowne Golf Club, Burnt Pine Golf Club, Raven Golf Club and The Links Course. There's not a weak link in the quartet. If you told me I could only play one, my choice is the Rees Jones-designed Burnt Pine, which has a front nine enveloped by pine forests and a back nine with postcard-like views of Choctawhatchee Bay.

Emerald Bay Golf Club and Regatta Bay Golf & Country Club also use the Choctawhatchee Bay and its pristine surroundings as lush settings for their championship courses. Unpredictable winds and multiple water features provide lots of challenge on the Bob Cupp-designed Emerald Bay.

At Regatta Bay, designed by Robert C. Walker, the former lead architect for Arnold Palmer, the experience oozes with private club-style opulence from the lush, immaculately maintained course to the chilled apples on the first and 10th tees and mango-scented iced towels.

Water, water everywhere is an apt description of Seascape Resort Golf Club, a venerable Destin favorite, which has water features on 15 of the 18 holes. You don't need to be long off the tee on this 6,100-yard, par-71 Joe Lee design, but there are enough hazards, much of it liquid, to provide challenge. A great feature for those who want to spend time at the beach is the nine-hole option offered in the afternoon.

Pensacola golf

Bubba Watson isn't the only PGA Tour pro from the Pensacola area; 1976 U.S. Open Champion Jerry Pate and veteran Joe Durant also played area courses as juniors. Pate still resides in the area.

My three favorite layouts are Lost Key Golf Club, a target golf layout that was the first in the world to be certified as an Audubon International Signature Sanctuary, Scenic Hills Country Club, a 54-year-old course dotted with tall pines, and Tiger Point Golf and Country Club, a 27-hole course built along the Santa Rosa Sound.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Ed Schmidt has authored two books on Florida golf and has visited the Panhandle annually for more than three decades.