By Len Ziehm and 19th Hole Senior Staff | June 11, 2018 | Golfer’s Paradise
Located in the Tampa Bay area on Florida’s Gulf Coast, Innisbrook Golf & Spa Resort is nestled on 900 acres of rolling hills and 70 acres of lakes in sunny Palm Harbor. A family-friendly destination, the famed Innisbrook is part of Salamander Hotels & Resorts, the hospitality empire founded by entrepreneur Sheila Johnson.
Quiet and secluded, Innisbrook evokes classic elegance, boasting 72 holes of championship golf, 550 spacious guest rooms and suites, four restaurants, the Innisbrook Golf Academy, and the award-winning Salamander luxury spa. The resort is skirted alongside the natural setting of a wildlife conservancy, which makes it the perfect retreat for golfers.
There are four golf courses on the Innisbrook property – North, South, Island, and the Copperhead course, where the PGA TOUR host the annual Valspar Championship. The North Course is frequently referred to as “Little Copperhead,’’ because of its connection to the PGA TOUR layout. The big Copperhead is more famous as the site of the Valspar Championship, and home of the notorious “Snake Pit,” known as one of the toughest finishing holes on Tour.
Most recently, 40,000 spectators packed Innisbrook’s Copperhead Course during the Valspar Championship (March 8-11) to witness Tiger Wood’s highly anticipated Tour debut. Ultimately, Paul Casey won the 2018 Valspar Championship.
Last November, four months before the Valspar Championship, Salamander Hotels & Resorts hosted a special media preview event at Innisbrook, during an exclusive unveiling and ribbon cutting ceremony for the newly renovated “Baby Copperhead” North Course.
The renovation at Little Copperhead took about six months, but it was well worth the wait. Innisbrook is one of Florida’s busiest golf resorts, and Little Copperhead has received plenty of raves since the tourist season kicked into high gear.
The work done at Little Copperhead centered on the putting surfaces. Director of golf Bobby Barnes envisioned an update of the North Course for two years before it became a reality.
“We replaced all 18 greens, and it was a project that was tremendously successful,’’ said Mike Williams, Innisbrook’s Managing Director. “We finished on time, under budget and have a project well done.’’
At the time of the unveiling, Williams had been in his current job only eight months, but he worked at Innisbrook previously when Hilton was the resort’s manager. Williams spent 25 years working at various locations for Hilton, then was executive vice president for Crescent Hotels for five years before deciding to “retire’’ at Innisbrook. Williams and his wife have since moved into their new house, built near the No. 10 green of the Innisbrook Island Course.
His eight months on the job, though, haven’t been the life of a retiree. In addition to dealing with the uncertainty of Hurricane Irma’s October visit that wreaked havoc with the entire state, Williams worked immediately to gain approval for the Little Copperhead renovation. That delighted Rob Koehler, superintendent of the North and South courses at the resort, and Bobby Barnes, the director of golf. Koehler and Barnes had dreamed of doing the North Course renovation for two years.
The new greens on Little Copperhead played like they’d been there for years.
“The greens were over 40 years old,’’ explained Barnes. “We switched to TIFEagle Bermuda, the same as at Copperhead and the Island Course, and we re-sodded all the bunker collars.’’
Those new greens played during the grand opening round, were as if they had been there for years. Those who have visited the course in the past will also note three new trees on the first hole, two more on the right side of the No. 18 fairway and three palms that now outline the island green at No. 5. Koehler managed virtually the entire project.
That’s particularly noteworthy, in that no new architect was deemed needed. The original layout designed by the legendary golf architect Larry Packard is still very much in evidence. The sizes of the greens were expanded where shrinkage had occurred over the years, allowing for additional pin placements now. That’s always a good thing.
Packard finished his storied career – he designed over 600 courses — at Innisbrook.
Packard designed all four courses at Innisbrook, and Little Copperhead merits a special place in the resort’s history. Nine of its holes were once part of the Copperhead course, which opened in 1972. Packard designed the two Copperhead’s nine holes at a time and the back nine of the North Course was once part of the premier layout.
The biggest difference between the “big’’ and “little’’ Copperhead course is the length. Little Copperhead – the North Course – measures only 6,325 yards from the back tees. It has an unusual quirk with back-to-back par-3s at Nos. 15 and 16 and plays to a par of 70. Big Copperhead is 7,209 yards and a par 71.
Though already hosting a professional tournament for 25 consecutive years, both the U.S. Golf Association and PGA Tour have toyed with the idea of bringing a major championship to that layout. It hasn’t happened yet but, down the road, who knows?
Larry Packard also created the South Course, which contrasts with the others at Innisbrook in that it is more links-style with 10 water hazards. Larry was an Innisbrook resident until his death in 2014 at the age of 101. At the time, he was the oldest living course architect in the world.
Après Golf – Dining
Diners can entertain their taste buds with a multi-course dining experience at Packard’s Steakhouse, the resorts’ fine dining restaurant — named after the famed course designer. The signature Packard’s Salad and the She Crab Soup are a must. The restaurants’ specialty is obviously, their steaks, serving premium cuts of Angus Beef. Florida fresh Gulf seafood specialties are also served, the Grouper is highly recommended. The wine list features wines from around the world, and their signature martini and the Floridian Micro-Brewed beers are also a must. Packard’s Steakhouse offers a very relaxed setting which overlooks the famous Copperhead Course.
The Market Salamander Grill & Bar at the Osprey Clubhouse offers a varied menu, with an emphasis on incorporating fresh produce purchased daily from local farmers. The restaurant and bar opens onto a large patio with fire pit and overlooks two of the resort’s four championship golf courses. Dining is available outside and in the open-style bar, which features several large-screen TVs and live entertainment from local bands.
Executive Chef Thomas McKinney-Stehr oversees Innisbrook Resort’s four restaurants and recently developed new menus and concepts at Packard’s Steakhouse and Market Salamander Grill & Bar, both of which are open to the public via reservation.
Chef McKinney-Stehr, who was born in Germany to a restaurant family, has worked in a variety of four-star and four-diamond kitchens from Germany to Italy and in resorts in the Southeastern U.S.
“Food is not just a career but my passion in life from a young child,” said McKinney-Stehr, who also oversees the extensive catering services the resort offers for weddings, banquets, and corporate events.
Innisbrook’s low-rise lodges are set amongst wooded acres, thoughtfully arranged in small clusters that blend into the natural setting. Rooms and suites vary in both size and décor. The spacious suites are complete with living room, kitchen, and private balcony in addition to the cozy king-size bed. For the comfort and convenience of the guests, free shuttles operate and will arrive at your lodge in less than five minutes to ferry even one guest from point A to point B.
After a grueling day on the golf course, guests can retreat and relax with signature treatments at the award-winning Salamander Spa, ranked among USA Today’s 10 best. The Salamander Spa at Innisbrook is an 18,000 square-foot spa, salon and wellness center, to gather your thoughts, be surrounded by nature and enjoy the simple beauty of the surroundings.
Set amid the resort’s tranquil scenery in which nature provides a stunning backdrop, the Salamander Spa features a meditation labyrinth, relaxation courtyard and treatment terraces and steam rooms. The spa offers single and couples treatment rooms where a hand-selected staff performs a myriad of services, including massage, body and skin care treatments specially created for couples, gentlemen and even mothers-to-be. Guests can also enjoy the weekly yoga class held on the spa’s terrace to help rebalance mind, body, and spirit.
Something for Everyone
In addition to championship golf, there are a multitude of other amenities and activities offered by the resort, including 11 tennis courts, basketball courts, volleyball and beach volleyball courts, lakes for fishing, and bikes (including tandem and surrey bikes) available for rent.
The resort’s six pools are a family favorite, especially the Loch Ness Monster Pool with sand beach areas, two waterslides, and a waterfall. There’s plenty of space to relax on lounge chairs circling the pools, and multiple options for soaking and swimming, including plunge pools with bubbling jets.
The grounds are maliciously well-kept, and with wildlife conservancy, guests can ride bikes throughout the natural surroundings or take a stroll down the Nature Walk. A free shuttle service is provided to ferry guests across the expansive grounds. There is also a free shuttle that goes to the Honeymoon Island beaches, which are eight miles away (a 15-minute drive).
For golfers and beginners who are dedicated to improving their game, the award-winning Innisbrook Golf Institute provides the perfect setting for students to concentrate and focus. Director of Golf Instruction Dawn Mercer has taught thousands of guests. The Innisbrook Golf Institute is ranked in the Top 25 of all golf schools nationally.
Images courtesy of Salamander Hotels & Resorts