By Tony Leodora
Golf magazines, golf television shows and golf radio shows have been disseminating information about golf destinations and resorts for years. They provide a valuable service for the myriad of golfers who never seem to be satisfied in their quest to find the next, new, greatest and exotic golf courses.
The only problem is that not all golfers can afford to visit these wondrous locations of golf magnificence. And there are others who get their fill of all of the bells and whistles. In both cases, they just want good, solid, affordable golf.
If that’s the case … a solution has been found.
The Sebring, Avon Park, Lake Placid area of Central Florida can claim the title as the Value Golf Capital of America.
“This area has been an undiscovered gem for many years,” explains renowned golf course architect Ron Garl, who has done work on a number of courses along what has been known as the Citrus Golf Trail. “People who know this area are well aware of the quality of golf that exists. Those who don’t know the area, don’t know what they’re missing.”
What they are missing is a collection of 13 golf courses – supported by a few very nice hotels – located in Highlands County, an agricultural mecca in Florida. Most of the county’s land is devoted to orange groves and cattle ranches. The county is one of the largest producers of oranges and beef in the country.
But, what land is not used agriculturally, is devoted to golf. And the golf courses sit on the sand ridge that runs north-to-south through much of the state. As a result, there is some gentle roll to the topography and the conditions are excellent for growing grass.
The golf runs the gamut from old and traditional, to modern and innovative.
At one end of the spectrum is the 1926 Donald Ross design at Pinecrest. It is owned and operated by Joe Staffieri, who grew up in the Lancaster, Pennsylvania area and moved to Florida a number of years ago. Preserving the unique Ross characteristics at Pinecrest has become his passion.
“I fell in love with the area,” said Staffieri. “It is so different from the high-powered golf areas in Palm Beach County or Naples. “The people are unpretentious, the golf is uncomplicated and the pace is definitely more relaxed.”
Another traditional course is the Dick Wilson-designed layout at Harder Hall. The course has hosted a Women’s Invitational Tournament for 61 years – with a star-studded list of players that included Stacey Lewis, Morgan Pressel, Natalie Gulbis and Pennsylvania’s Carol Semple Thompson.
Highlands Ridge (North and South) and Sun n’ Lake (Deer Run and Turtle Run) are very active 36-hole semi-private clubs with large memberships. The Deer Run course includes a memorable island green finishing hole that was installed as part of a renovation by Garl. He also did work at the Country Club of Sebring.
Golf Hammock was designed from scratch by Garl, who is based about an hour north in Lakeland, Florida and has a special appreciation for the area.
“More and more people want to play these kind of golf courses,” he says. “They want courses with minimal rough. They want to be able to find their ball. They want to enjoy playing golf instead of being tortured. That era of creating extremely difficult golf courses is over.”
The other courses along the Citrus Golf Trail include River Greens, the 36 holes at Spring Lake, Sebring Municipal GC and Placid Lakes CC.
But man does not live on golf alone … and that’s where Sebring offers an interesting list of diversions.
Of course, the most famous is the Sebring Raceway, home of the annual 12 Hours of Sebring race. Alongside the course is the elegant Chateau Elan Hotel and Conference Center.
The other outstanding hotel in the area is Inn on the Lake, an older boutique hotel that houses the fantastic Chicane’s restaurant. The pan fried grouper, crowned with a light lemon butter sauce, is a must.
For more casual fare, there is Cowpoke’s Watering Hole. The steakhouse and dance club goes back 90 years and attracts people from a wide radius, especially for weekend nights when bands pack the dance floor with dancers. Imagine an 8-ounce filet mignon, prepared perfectly, with bottomless salad and vegetable, for $24.
There are interesting stores, such as the one at Maxwell’s Grove, selling just about everything associated with oranges.
Finally, the town of Lake Placid is a colorful stop. It is known as the Town of Murals and dozens of buildings are adorned with the large paintings. In addition, it claims one of the most unique attractions in the country – the American Clown Museum and School. About 150 people per year come to the school annually to learn how to become professional clowns.
The Sebring-Avon Park-Lake Placid area is definitely a true slice of Americana. Throw in the excellent value golf and it becomes a must stop.