A guide to the hidden gems of Sarasota County golfing

From history to present-day, Golf has been a permanent part of Sarasota's landscape. There are no shortage of courses and country clubs for the golfer to spend an afternoon perfecting their game.

Players have been watching golf balls soar against the blue skies of Sarasota County for close to 130 years since John H. Gillespie showed up with his bag of hickory shafts in 1885. He built two golf holes in 1886 near where modern day Main Street now exists.

With Sarasota County's pristine streams, fresh cut fairways, sparkling lakes, sugar white sand bunkers, and natural wildlife, you can see that old John was on to something.

The area has a wonderful and varied group of golf tracks. Some are hidden, and all are gems. Below are a few to give you an idea of what you may find here. All are open for play to the golfing public (in one manner or another.)

Let's start off with a few located in Sarasota proper.

Bent Tree Country Club

Phone: 941-371-8200
A favorite of mine and many others is the Bent Tree Country Club. Opened in 1975, Bent Tree has hosted a multitude of LPGA Tour events over the years. As a matter of fact Hall of Famer Nancy Lopez won her very first LPGA Tour event at Bent Tree in her record year of 1978. A private club for many years, it now welcomes outside play.

Tough enough to host U.S. Open Qualifying, it can play difficult from the back tees, but the middle tees are just right for an enjoyable day. I've always found the greens to be in great shape – smooth rolling with just enough speed to keep you on your toes. The natural beauty of Bent Tree, with its softly rolling hills is not a bad course to walk if you are so inclined.

Serenoa Golf Club

Phone: 941-925-2755
Serenoa Golf Club is a pleasant track designed by Mark Alden that has a nice way of meandering through the countryside. Plenty of room to fire away off the tees, but beware – this layout has water in play on all 18 holes. Bring some extra balls. The holes are all a challenge and the putting greens with the over-seeded Poa-trive grass are in top shape. At Serenoa there seems to be an inordinate amount of golfers from international locations. The mere fact that players would travel from halfway around the world to play there should tell you something good about the place.

Misty Creek Country Club

Phone: 941-922-2188
Misty Creek Country Club is another facility that was private, but now you may contact them and book a tee time up to 7 days in advance. This is a tight course with plenty of natural hammock forests, pine trees, and those vexing palmetto bushes that will capture an errant shot. The greens are usually very nice on this par 72, 6,895 yard layout. To make the course feel a little more open you could move up to the forward tees at only 5,208 yards.

Nowhere else have I seen so much wildlife. I've spied bald eagles, deer, and of course a few of the Florida gators in the ponds. It's like a walk in a nature preserve.

Bobby Jones Golf Club

Phone: 941-365-4653
You should not leave the Sarasota city area without visiting the historical Bobby Jones Golf Club. Opened in 1927 by Bobby Jones himself, the first course built was designed by none other than the famous Scottish architect, Donald Ross.

Run by the city of Sarasota, the facility offers 45 holes of terrific golf. Ross' original 18 holes are now known as the British Course. It has the two nines named after Jones' two legs of U.K wins (the British Open and the British Amateur) on the way to his historic Grand Slam in 1930. The front nine is called "St. Andrews," while the back nine is named "Hoylake." This is the toughest and longest of the courses at Bobby Jones GC. The next 18 hole layout is called the American Course with its two nines known as "Merion" and "Interlachen" in honor of Jones two U.S. wins - the U.S. Amateur and U.S. Open to secure the Grand Slam. The 6,032 yard American Course is a little less demanding than the British Course, but still very popular with local players.

The final nine holes of play at Bobby Jones GC is the Gillespie Executive Course. Named in honor of Sarasota's first golfer, it is only 1,716 yards long. This brief course has six par 3's and a few short par fours to go along with them to allow golfers to get in a quick round of golf and hone their short game.

Pelican Pointe Golf & Country Club

Phone: 941-496-4653
Now let’s move on to a course just south in Venice – Pelican Pointe Golf & Country Club. Filled with live oaks and wetlands, this course has three nines available for play. The Preserve, the Meadows, and the Hatchet Creek nines make up the 27 holes. A Ted McAnlis design, the course may play as long as 7,182 yards or as short as 5,326 yards – depending on which tees and which nine hole layouts are paired to make the 18 that you may play that day.

Heron Creek Golf & Country Club

Phone: 941-423-6955
Farther south in North Port we find another 27 hole layout called Heron Creek Golf & Country Club. I’ve always enjoyed this club. It doesn’t seem to matter much which two of the three nines you’ll be assigned to play on any given day. They are all worthy and entertaining. The Marsh Course wanders through the wetlands and presents plenty of thought-provoking shots. The Oaks Course has ample trees to deal with, and the Creek Course makes you play around the water of the Myakkahatchee Creek to reach home.

University Park Country Club

Phone: 941-359-9999
North of the city of Sarasota you’ll find University Park Country Club. They offer three superb nines of golf designed by Ron Garl. All three are exciting to play. This was a private club for a long period of time, but now you can give them a call to set up your tee time. With a mind boggling six sets of tees on each nine there are exponential course combinations and yardages that may be achieved. I’d suggest trying one of the middle set of tees since the courses are tough enough without going all the way back to the tips. The course is in great shape and the fairways run firm and fast with speedy, true greens.

Legacy Golf Club

Phone: 941-907-7920
Over in Lakewood Ranch is a brilliant course – the Legacy Golf Club, designed by one of my favorites, Arnold Palmer. Arnold creates challenging tracks (this one is 7,008 yards from the back tees), but never too hard to enjoy. This par 72 course has extra wide landing areas. The task is when you hit your approach shot to the flag. Be sure to be precise since there is abundant sand and water to make play difficult.

Ritz-Carlton Golf Club

Phone: 941-309-2900
Also in Lakewood Ranch is a course that fewer people will get a chance to play. The Ritz-Carlton Golf Club is a members’ club that also allows play by guests staying at the Sarasota bayfront resort. Tucked away on a road that is not the easiest to find you’ll approach the guard gate and, to your surprise, be greeted by name and given directions to the magnificent clubhouse. There they will set you up with an incredibly attentive caddie (even if you are riding in a cart). The strong Tom Fazio designed course is one of the best in the area. Tough but fair and always in impeccable condition. Due to the few number of players on the course at any given time, you’ll find play brisk.

The course is robust enough to have hosted U.S. Open Qualifying rounds and is a stout par 72, 7,414 yards from the deep tees. Just check into the Ritz-Carlton and make your plans. You will enjoy your day.

Stoneybrook Golf Club at Heritage Harbour

Phone: 941-746-2696
Moving north to Bradenton you’ll find two clubs that also have some pretty good golf. You’ll first encounter the Stoneybrook Golf Club at Heritage Harbour course. At 7,141 yards from the back tees, I think that the 6,219 yard middle tees are plenty strong enough. An Arthur Hills design, there is a mix of ponds, lakes, and creeks on most of the 18 holes. You’ll need to have pin-point iron skills to get tight to the flags.

River Strand Golf & Country Club

Phone: 941-708-3617
Just down the road is the River Strand Golf & Country Club. With three nines it is also an Arthur Hills design. This time however Mr. Hills had some different land to work with. The Estuary nine is perhaps the most difficult of the three due to water and a few longer holes. The Sanctuary nine offers slightly less trouble, and the Tributary nine (my favorite) has the best mix of holes. The generous landing areas coupled with the fine Tif-eagle greens make playing there a treat.

Tatum Ridge Golf Links

Phone: 941-378-4211
Last but not least, named one of Golf Digest’s best places to play, Tatum Ridge Golf Links is a Scottish-style links course east of I-75 on Fruitville Road. With a fully stocked pro shop, and a restaurant, Tatum Ridge Golf Links is a full equipped course and also right next to Sun-N-Fun RV Resort and Campground. The course features a signature hole: 504-yards, par-5 13th, a dogleg right, over water.