The Florida panhandle boasts miles and miles of sugary beaches and some of the bluest water in the gulf. Panama City Beach is located close to the center of the panhandle, and thanks to its relatively close driving proximity to most Southern cities (and even many Midwestern cities), it has become a Spring Break and family vacation Mecca.
After its recent $30-million resort-wide renovation, The Sheraton Bay Point Resort is the only AAA 4-Diamond resort in Panama City Beach. From lobby to rooms to pools to meeting rooms, the Sheraton Bay Point has been fully updated. With over 300 rooms, a new spa, and fully revamped restaurant menus, the resort feels more up-to-date than it has since it originally opened in the 1980s.
Renovations take full advantage of the resort’s ideal location: directly on the waterfront. Views from the bayside rooms are spectacular, and the pier stretching out over the water provides for a relaxed stroll to lunch at Pelican’s or family picnic at your own private island beach. If you fish, the staff tell me that one of the best redfish holes in the area is just off the end of the pier.
Along with top-to-bottom renovations of the resort itself, the 7,152-yard Nicklaus Course—the only Nicklaus design in Northwest Florida—which is actually a significantly redesigned Bruce Devlin layout, received a substantial facelift. By all accounts, the Devlin track was much too difficult for a “resort” course (rumor has it that it had the highest slope rating in the state for a while), so this may be the only course in existence that Nicklaus has “softened” (though it’s still formidable, with a rating of 74.3 and slope of 143 from the tips).
Each nine on the Nicklaus Course has a stretch of memorable holes. On the front, this stretch, from #2-#5, culminates at the 398-yard 5th, a swamp-hopper that plays across wetlands to the landing area and then across more marshes to the semi-island green (as seen from the air in the picture below).
On the back, things get and stay interesting from the 522-yard 12th onward. At the par-5 12th, two fairway bunkers effectively split the landing area in half. The 296-yard 13th is a fine risk-reward drivable par 4. And the 17th is a 234-yard par 3 from the tips (a more manageable 171 from the “#2” tees). The 408-yard closer is a semi-cape hole that tempts you to cut as much off over the water as you possibly can. In short, this is just a wonderful back nine.
Sister to the Nicklaus Course is the Meadows Course, a Willard C. Byrd design from the 1960s. For a while, World Golf Hall of Famer, the late Hubert Green, was the “resident pro” here, and the course preserves some of that classic “Florida resort” feel. The greens here are somewhat less undulating and certainly slower, and the mixed turf in the fringes is not nearly as “sticky” as the Bermuda on the Nicklaus Course. Northerners not used to Bermuda grass greens might want to play The Meadows first to ease into the Southern conditions.
Although the holes are not as memorable here, they are a lot of fun to play and are much more forgiving. For example, water comes into play on 17 of the holes on the Nicklaus Course, but only 10 on the Meadows. I felt like I hit the ball pretty well on the Nicklaus Course, but terrible on the Meadows, but scored only a stroke worse on the latter.
The fairways on the Meadows Course have more doglegs than the local Humane Society, and most fairways are lined with towering pines that are tough to get over if you feel like trying to cut off some yardage. In fact, the 443-yard 10th and 532-yard 11th are about the only straight holes on the entire layout. There’s room to miss the fairways, but you have to get lucky in the pine straw.
What’s brilliant about the combination of the Nicklaus and Meadows courses is that they feel so completely different, despite sharing basically the same topography. The Nicklaus is a test for serious players, whereas the Meadows is not only fun for better players, but also great for families or beginners who want to enjoy a less stressful day on the links. (Although a couple of course workers said they thought the Meadows was actually harder, due to some smaller greens and tough, strategic bunkering.)
For golfers looking for a can’t-miss Panhandle destination, the Sheraton Bay Point Resort is it. Several restaurants cater to all tastes – and specialize in seafood, of course – including the aforementioned Pelican’s out on the island in the channel not far from the 5th green of the Nicklaus Course. The pier behind the resort is actually one of the better spots in the area for shore fishing, and the resort runs one of only three licensed boats out to Shell Island. If you’ve never experienced the “sugar sand” beaches of the panhandle, take the trip to Shell Island. When I got off the boat, I momentarily experienced a sort of “snow-blindness,” the sand was so dazzlingly white! You can take a picnic lunch out to the island (about a 20 min boat ride), find an isolated stretch of beach, and laze away the day in your own private paradise.