There are four courses at the world-renowned Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club, which are set in 900 pristine acres of Florida’s Palm Harbor. American architect E. Lawrence Packard designed all four layouts between 1969 and 1973. The Copperhead course is his most famous and arguably best achievement but his Island course – host to numerous U.S. Open qualifiers and NCAA Championships – is not far behind in the rankings.
“It’s not easy growing up in the shadow of a famous younger sibling.” Wrote Rob Armstrong in his book Golfing Florida’s Best. “There are always comparisons, often some jealousies, sometimes even a rivalry. If there is a rivalry between the Island and the famous Copperhead, let me weigh in. The Island is a spectacular golf course. It’s extremely tight. It’s also tough, beautiful, memorable, and a superior test of the game. And if it stood alone, away from its younger relation, it would enjoy a much greater level of recognition and adulation. As it is, I’m hard pressed to vote on which is the better track. Each has a tremendous amount to offer in that they present a different spectrum of challenges and rewards.”
“The Island offers a wonderful mix of terrain and topography. The opening half dozen holes are fairly flat, with more water than Noah faced. The middle six are hilly and undulating – unusual for Florida golf courses. And the final six are a mix of rolling hills, trees and lakes. Architect Packard varies the size of his greens. His bunkers – 74 in all – are a demonstration of his design skill. He has a tendency to put a lot of space between his greenside bunkers and the putting surface, so without a precise sand game it’s possible to get out of a trap and still be in the rough. If Copperhead rewards raw power, the Island rewards accuracy and finesse.”
I have been playing golf for well over 40 years in the Sunshine State -- not because of a love of the locale but because weather necessitates such a desire to keep playing when winter weather precludes my opportunities in the NYC metro area.
Innisbrook has quite rightly received plaudits for the stellar Copperhead Course but I can say with no hesitation that any visit to the resort without playing the Island layout is indeed a missed opportunity. The Island is, in my humble opinion, one of the most underrated courses in the entire State.
One of the legitimate gripes many have Florida golf is how limited the architecture is in most cases. You also have the invasion of housing and the over usage of water to the point of absurdity. The Island is blessed in having a far less cluttering of the housing.
The opening series of holes provides a quality start to the round. Being able to work the ball off the tee is a big time plus at the Island. You see that with the opening trio of holes. Shaping shots, far too often, is an item of quality shotmaking that far too many Sunshine State courses fail to promote.
There's a misconception about the amount of water encountered for the first third of the course. Yes, it's present but it's far from the bombardment impact you get from a number of other proclaimed top tier courses in the State. It is present but architect Larry Packard does give options for those less inclined to take on the direct challenge.
Innisbrook is blessed with a far different feel than many Florida properties. It always amazes me when leaving the chaotic State Highway 19 and entering the grounds how the world you were just in leaves immediately. The look of the property has more in common with the pinelands of North Carolina. There is movement on the grounds and it's clearly not as flat as a pancake as countless others are in Florida.
The property does change gears from the opening six holes and one does encounter a fairly significant amount of undulation -- compared to other State courses. The par-5 7th is a superb hole. There's water along the right side and it's positioned perfectly because players will likely opt to avoid the constant tree line down the entire left side. Being able to work the ball off the tee is called upon and those able to do so when need be will reap a big time advantage.
The general pacing of the holes is also nicely done. Packard made it a point to constantly change key design points throughout the round. Shaping shots is part of that equation -- blending power when called upon -- and being able to constantly place one's ball in the best position off the tee.
The inward half does have its moment where housing clearly asserts itself in the flow of the holes. The quality of the holes does drop a bit once you complete the par-5 11th but quickly resumes its tenacity when you reach the par-5 15th and par-4 16th holes respectively. The latter is simply superb -- because of the angles needed in order to position oneself -- both off the tee and with the approach. The final two is quite good -- a testing long par-3 at the 17th followed by a possible birdie at the closing 18th.
Florida golf has clear limitations but when you get to Innisbrook those limitations move into the rear view mirror. No doubt Copperhead will reap the most attention because it hosts the PGA Tour each spring. However, the Island is no "little brother" layout or somehow to be tagged as the "other course." The merits of the Island are clear and the design attributes are certainly front and center.
M. James Ward
It is the little brother of Copperhead but it is an excellent golf course. Everything is immaculate. It is expensive but as a US open qualifier course you get two feathers for playing this one. If you get the chance go across the resort and play the Copperhead!