Less than a week before Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, two-time defending champion Sam Burns and company landed at Innisbrook Golf Resort for the Valspar Championship, an annual PGA Tour stop in Palm Harbor, Florida, me and my slowly-but-steadily-swelling handicap, fresh off a much-needed three-month winter timeout, were hunkered over a 12-foot slider for birdie on the Copperhead Course’s 17th hole. However, on this Tuesday in March, the 191-yard par-3 fittingly named “The Rattler,” was wrapped by an arena of empty grandstands.
In my head, the stadium setting was a full house, of course, while a rowdy, packed-to-the-gills Tampa Bay crowd willed me toward the finish line and up the Sunday leaderboard. If I could somehow post one-under par over my final two holes (a tall task, but so the storyline went), starting with a dropped putt for a circle on this here penultimate hole, I could backdoor my way into a playoff, or if the golf gods deemed me worthy, possibly win this thing outright.
Sans practice strokes, I settle into my stance. Outside the ropes, the gallery, tense and 10-people deep, falls into a library silence. Back and through my putter blade goes. “Get in the hoolllleee!” they yell above a cacophony of camera-clicking photographers as the slippery left-to-righter inches its way to the Promised Land.
With eyes for the hole, the whole hole, and nothing but the hole, my soft-covered ball drips towards its destiny. Three feet. Six feet. Nine feet—at which point I consider walking it in à la Kevin Na at The 2019 Players Championship—10, 11, 11-and-a-half. I can already feel the momentum from my purest stroke of the day carrying me to the 18th tee box and onward to victory.
As fate would have it, the right-hand turn signal course-corrects in the last half-foot, and I miss by a hair on the pro side. Ten minutes later, after chopping my ball out of some hefty Sunshine State spinach, I tap in for bogey at the stalwart finishing hole and tip my hat to the crowd.
I’ve played a handful of PGA Tour host venues in my day, but never had I ever teed it up a week before the pros were slated to get after an $8.1 million purse in prime tournament conditions. My fling with Copperhead, widely considered one of the toughest tracks on the pro circuit, meant airstrip-narrow fairways, four inches of gnarly Bermuda rough in every which direction, and greens so polished and so slick I might as well have worn bowling shoes. Throw in the three W’s of Florida golf—wind, water, and wiry grass—certified kryptonite to my homemade game, and it was the ideal layout for my inaugural round of the season. This is, of course, to say nothing of the Snake Pit, Copperhead’s infamous closing trifecta.
Since 2003, the world’s best players have played the tree-lined trinity (Holes 16-18) more than a half-stroke over par, a final three-hole scoring average topped by just two other courses during that stretch. Kindly, Innisbrook does warn players of its difficulty (evocative of the famous warning sign at Bethpage Black in New York) with an oversized bronze statue of a snake on the 16th tee box, one of the hardest holes on the PGA Tour. That’s where Striker, official guardian of the Snake Pit (who could easily moonlight as the Slytherin house mascot in Harry Potter), puts allcomers on notice.
“The Moccasin, The Rattler and The Copperhead are Among the Most Difficult Finishing Holes on the PGA TOUR!”
Should one want a before-shot of their impending three-headed dance with the devil, the hashtag #SnakePitSelfie accompanies said alert. Neither a kneeling bench beneath the serpent, where I could have prayed for mercy, nor the counsel of my playing partner, Director of Golf Andrew Correy, could have thwarted my bailout of a snap-hook into the stately Florida pines, a ball flight I had hoped my muscle memory retired to 2022. The damage: double bogey, par, and bogey for a 3-over aggregate.
While my driver might have benefited from a visit to the swing doctor prior to my date with Copperhead, the gift of a Tour-level tee time is the magic of the experience, not the letdown of a rusty swing. Sure, it was fun to rattle off three consecutive pars to close out my wobbly front-nine (golf is, after all, a collection of small victories), but the true perk was doing it on the same manicured turf that I’ve watched the big boys compete on for years. Photoshopped fairways. Ball-eating primary rough. Spick-and-span greens running 12-plus on the Stimpmeter. Copperhead rewards imagination, one of my favorite parts of playing this game.
As the osprey flies, Copperhead’s first tee box sits 2,000 yards eastward of St. Joseph Sound in the Gulf of Mexico. There, in a scraggly treetop nest, a mated pair of the chirpy, masked sea hawk served as the unofficial starter for my round, signaling our proximity to the ocean. No matter my coordinates on the globe, a day on the links will forever double as a birdwatching tour, ever the more when I’m in the Atlantic Flyway.
After spotting a couple of orbiting bald eagles on my outward nine, a distant blur of pink triggered my trained eye as I walked up the eleventh fairway. The fast-moving freckle of a cloud was multiple par-5s away in length. I raised my binoculars to confirm the skyward sighting. It was, in fact, what I had suspected: a roseate spoonbill, whose Champagne-tinted plumage brightened an otherwise haphazard hole where I may or may not have had a run-in or two with oak trees cloaked in Spanish moss. Wings may have eluded me on the scorecard, but the blue Florida sky gifted me with an unexpected avian first.
Outside of the months leading up to the Valspar Championship, Copperhead’s conditions are much friendlier on the everyday player. Resort wide, three additional layouts are available for guest play: the North, the South, and the Island Course, Innisbrook’s original routing. The latter showcases one of the most surprising aspects at the resort: its undulating topography, an uncommon golf trait that will make you forget you’re in America’s flattest state.
Having come off a blue-chip layout in Copperhead, I was expecting a gentler day for my final round—then I met the starter on the Island Course’s practice green, who, before directing me to the opening tee, casually declared, “Copperhead is a far more forgiving course.” He was right.
Between Lake Innisbrook hugging the first six holes and the back nine’s wild elevation, the Island Course has some serious teeth. I also rewarded it with the prize for best hole on the 72-hole property at the par-3 fourth, where a hairy, lone Cypress tree acts as a fortress and flagstick gatekeeper in the middle of a greenside bunker.
With 300 guest rooms spread across 900 Central Florida acres, Innisbrook, part of the Salamander Collection of hotels, offers copious hospitality and plenty of fun for the family as well. Away from the links, guests have access to six pools, pickleball courts, fishing, a 4,800-square foot fitness center, a complimentary beach shuttle, and one of the leading tennis facilities in the country.
For a mini-Zen retreat, you’ll want to snag some R&R at the Salamander Spa. After my romp at Copperhead, I headed there for a “Golfer’s Muscle Melter” massage, which proved to be the most memorable treatment of my life. A lob wedge from Copperhead’s first tee, the white-tableclothed Packard’s Steakhouse proved equally over my head with its seafood tower, a seemingly endless bounty of oysters and lobster tail.
While Innisbrook has something for everyone, its fairways and greens are its heartbeat, making for the ultimate golf trip. If you can, play all of its layouts, just remember: “What happens in the Snake Pit, Stays in the Snake Pit.”
Unless you post a number, that is. In that case, broadcast your score for all to hear.