Sandestin Resort

A sleepy corner of the Gulf has grown to be a golfing jewel of Florida's Emerald Coast

One of the key components of a reputable resort destination is accessibility. A bagful of stars, diamonds, or other industry grandsandestin.jpg
accolades doesn’t carry much weight if prospective guests can’t get there without expending an unusual and unnecessary amount of time, effort and money.

That brings us to the Florida Panhandle town of Destin and Sandestin Resort. Northwest Florida Regional Airport in Destin may not be O’Hare in Chicago or Hartsfield-Jackson in Atlanta, but it serves the area quite well from several southeastern cities, as far north as Buffalo, and as far west as Las Vegas. This is great news for golfers, because less time flying means more time for driving…not to mention putting, chipping, wedge-work, bunker play, and all the disparate elements that draw ardent golfers to places like Sandestin Resort. Encompassing 2,400 acres of sugary-sand beaches, a lively and attraction-filled waterfront village and marina, a proliferation of pools and tennis courts, and particularly its quartet of fine golf courses, Sandestin deserves plenty of quality time.

The Raven Golf Club, a former host venue of the Boeing Championship on the Champions Tour, is among the marquee venues and the first among equals in regards to the trio of pure resort courses available for public play. This Robert Trent Jones Jr. design is a lovely walk through the marshes, wetlands and pine trees of the resort.

Its accolades include "Best New Course in Florida in 2000" by
Florida Golf News, and a 4 1/2 Star rating by Golf Digest in both 2006 and 2008. The course offers mostly generous landing areas and has a sense of spaciousness lacking at several of the other courses. But as the resort has grown in population, the housing presence encroached too closely on the par-4 16th, which was a tight dogleg right to begin with. To lessen the chances of errant tee shots rattling off of roofs and through windows, the hole was transformed into consecutive par-3s, known as 16-A and 16-B, and they are used alternately depending on the day. The configuration of the various layouts on property results in the unique distinction of a single juncture of parallel fairways between the Raven and Burnt Pine, designed by the architect’s brother, Rees Jones. In golf circles the Jones brothers are well known for their strained personal relationship, but at least at Sandestin their golf holes can exist peaceably side by side.

Burnt Pine is not only the priciest, but also the least accessible of the four courses. Outside play must commence prior to 8 a.m. or after 1 p.m., but being a “dew-sweeper” or teeing it up post-lunch is well worth it. “We offer a private course feel, and do far fewer rounds than the other courses at Sandestin,” stated head professional Jared Morton. “It’s not a resort feel, rounds are faster than at the other courses, and we only do about 20,000 rounds a year, which is light for a year-round facility.”

Burnt Pine is a very stately golf course; isolated, with great tree cover, generous housing setbacks and a real sense of remove. Capacious bunkering surrounding smallish greens puts a real premium on approach shots. But this woodsy environment ends abruptly midway through the inward nine when players are confronted with the most arresting of the 72 holes available at Sandestin Resort. Burnt Pine’s par-3 14th is a dazzler, and the single best reason not to tangle with the 7,000-yard tips. This over-marshland gauntlet with the bay shimmering to the right is tough enough from the blue tees at about 190 yards. But take a few giant steps backward to the tips at 215 yards, and it becomes nigh impossible for the average player. This sensibility is quickly reinforced on the following hole as well, as the “Tiger” tee shot of the par-4 15th is a full 80 death-defying (and ball-eating) yards longer than the blue markers, stretching an already difficult hole to 445 untenable yards. Lesan Gouge is the Tournament Coordinator for Sandestin Resort. “We do lots of corporate business because of the variety of courses we offer,” explained the former college golfer at University of Texas-San Antonio. “For board meetings and smaller groups wanting to offer their members a prestigious golf experience, we tend to book them on The Raven or Burnt Pine. These groups tend to be 20 or less. If it’s a larger group, and many of the participants are just occasional or casual golfers looking for a leisurely round, they tend to head to either Baytowne or the Links, the latter offering some gorgeous views of the bay.” Gouge remains very busy, as the resort regularly hosts 30 to 40 corporate outings monthly.

The Links Course has some of the most memorable views on the entire property. Architect Tom Jackson designed this winding layout against the backdrop of the Baytowne Marina with five holes running along Choctawhatchee Bay. There are few trees, but plenty of wind and some spectacular views, but none better than the gorgeous 8th hole, a 355-yard par-4 with a tough carry from the tee. This combination of stirring golf holes and scintillating water views make the Links Course a worthwhile golf experience.

And then there is Baytowne Golf Club, originally designed by Jackson as a 27-hole layout. But the architect directed a major renovation of the course in 2005. The “new” Baytowne burrows through a tunnel under the main highway outside of the resort and offers a number of holes on the beach side of the highway before coming back to the bay side.

While Baytowne doesn’t afford a direct view of the ocean, you can smell the salty air, enjoy the cool breeze and can at least imagine the crashing surf beyond the condos and hotels in the medium distance. With some challenging holes, Baytowne is a good test of one’s game, but quite different from the bucolic experience at the adjacent Raven.

Rick Hileman, the director of golf at Sandestin Resort, has an interesting philosophy about the catastrophic BP oil spill of 2010, which probably falls under the heading of “all publicity is good publicity.” “It was no blessing by any means,” explained Hileman. “But at the same token, it exposed us to parts of the country that barely even knew that northwest Florida exists and is full of white sandy beaches and incredible bird and animal life. The fact is that the oil spill had virtually no effect on the Panhandle, other than bad PR for six to 12 months.

“We were never really impacted; we were open the day after the spill occurred last April and have been
open the entire time,” Hileman added. “It significantly impacted us in 2010, but thus far in 2011 we are coming back to the same levels we were enjoying pre-spill.”
A visit to the resort’s bustling Village of Baytowne Wharf, with some 45 separate businesses in one centralized pedestrian plaza, underscores the point that business is on the upswing. Happy vacationers--be they couples, singles or families--can be found practically shoulder-to-shoulder, enjoying kids activities, shopping, live music, al fresco meals, libations of every stripe, and even fine dining. As for the latter, gourmands could do much worse that the Marlin Grill, just on the immediate outskirts of the action. Its handsome décor, delectable and wide-ranging menu, lively bar and eclectic drink list are some of the reasons for its long-standing reputation as one of the resort’s most popular upscale eateries.

Traditionally, Sandestin has been a drive-in destination, drawing from East Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky and Ohio. But the new air service provided by up-and-coming Vision Airlines is opening up the resort to markets that would otherwise never consider the somewhat circuitous drive to this small, but lovely portion of coastline. And though they come for a variety of reasons, golf is at or near the top of many a visitor’s list, with Burnt Pine and The Raven the main draws.

“I don’t think that Burnt Pine is just the best course in Sandestin, or even greater Destin,” noted head professional Jared Morton. “In my opinion, it’s the best course on what’s known as the Emerald Coast, from Pensacola to Panama City and beyond.”



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