Saddlebrook Resort – Diamonds Under Your Feet in Central Florida

Back in the summer of 1981, I was a 19-year-old, bag boy at the Wellington Golf Club in West Palm Beach. I was an avid reader of Golf Digest, which back then was as thick as the phone book with hundreds of pages of articles and ads. One quarter-page ad that caught my eye was for a new 36-hole course near Tampa, Florida called Saddlebrook Resort. Designed by Arnold Palmer and home of the Arnold Palmer Golf Academy, as well as a world-class tennis facility. It sounded amazing and yet I never made it there. It’s funny how we sometimes wander all over the world and never look at the diamonds under our feet.

Just 64 miles from my home, I can’t believe it took me 40 years to get here, but I’m very glad I came. My first thought, almost immediately as I drove through the guard gate was, “I could live in this place.” I loved the eclectic architecture, the spacious, well-kept yards, the sprawling ranch homes, and the winding roads. It gave a different, more natural, and relaxed feel than most of today’s cookie-cutter luxury developments or mega-resorts. Part of this feeling comes from the fact that Thomas L. Dempsey and his family still own and operate the property they first bought in 1979.

At Saddlebrook, Youll Never be Without Company 

The two courses which both enjoyed extensive renovations in 2016, weave in and out of the wetlands on the 480-acre property. The property includes a nature preserve that teems with a wide variety of wildlife including birds such as Sandhill Cranes, Wood Storks, Great Blue Herons, Snowy Egrets and Eagles, and of course, gators. Both courses feature plenty of water, lots of sand, giant cypress trees, pines, palms, and Spanish moss.

The par four10th and the challenging 18th hole on the Saddlebrook course set up beautifully for a high fade, followed by a demanding second shot to well-protected greens.

Two Courses With The Right Mix of Shot Values 

There is an excellent mix of tight holes and holes where you can let the driver fly. The green complexes were nicely varied, some large, others small and all feature interesting undulations that require a deft touch with a putter. My acid test of a good course though is how many of my 14 clubs did I use in a round? On the Saddlebrook course, all the boxes were checked.

There are many stand out holes, but on the Saddlebrook course, I loved the short, par four 10th and challenging par-four 16th and 18th all of which set up well for my high fade, being doglegs right. While the fairways on the Saddlebrook course are more than generous, missing them is not an option.

The Palmer course is the easier of the two, shorter and more forgiving than the Saddlebrook course, but you’d be foolish not to play them both for each has their merits, and both were in excellent condition. The Palmer course is what a resort course should be — playable, enjoyable, and with plenty of birdie opportunities. There are still many challenging holes, starting early with the par 3, 2nd hole requiring a carry over wetlands with a mid-iron.

 The beautiful 9th hole on the Palmer course.

 You have no idea how good it feels jumping into the lagoon pool after 36 holes in the Florida sun!

A Serene Village Setting 

Saddlebrook gives the impression of a spacious village with clusters of rooms fanning out from the giant 20,000 square-foot lagoon-shaped pool, which is the focal point of the resort. Yet everything was easily walkable with both courses, two bars, a restaurant and steakhouse, all just a few paces from the pool. 

My second story room had a beautiful view of the course from the balcony, as do most on the property. The one-bedroom suites are very spacious with a small kitchen, a good size lounge, and a large bedroom. The bed was very comfortable and made up with high-quality linen. The steakhouse adjacent to the pro-shop offers a traditional high-end steak house experience with all the trappings you’d expect, but my favorite was the steak and rice salad I had for lunch. So good, I had it two days in a row with plenty of protein for 36 holes a day!

Golf is, of course, not the only reason people come to Saddlebrook. The resort is perhaps equally famous for its’ tennis facilities with over 45 courts, attracting players and tournaments from all over the world.

If you live in Florida, a state with over 2,000 golf courses, Saddlebrook is well worth the drive. If you live anywhere up North, it would be remiss of you to leave it out of your future winter golf or tennis plans. It’s less than 40 minutes from Tampa International Airport, has a large grass range on which you can work on your game and offers practically guaranteed sunshine, 365 days a year, what more could you ask for? 

At a glance:

  • Located 40 minutes from Tampa International Airport and just 30 from downtown Tampa
  • Two challenging but very playable golf courses
  • Beautiful natural setting
  • Spacious rooms most with balconies or patios
  • 20,000 sq, foot lagoon-style swimming pool
  • 45 tennis courts
  • Large golf practice facility
  • Two restaurants, two bars, and a pool snack bar.
  • 95,000 square feet of versatile meeting space
  • 544 rooms
  • “Florida, this is a diamond under your feet don’t miss it!”
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