Golf by the Gulf. Grand-style resort pampers guests, punishes golfers

AS I approached our resort hotel in this northwestern corner of Florida, I wondered if I'd taken a wrong turn. The architectural style and soft peach stuccoed exterior seemed to say Bermuda, but the hospitable manner in which I was greeted was definitely Deep South. ``Welcome to Bay Point, ma'am. We're glad you're here.''

And I, for my part, was glad to be at Marriott's Bay Point Resort, near Panama City Beach. My husband had arrived earlier to check out the golf courses. I checked out the resort's spacious lobby, from which the surrounding peninsula was in full view through the three-story-tall Palladian windows. The scene of the marshes, sailboats, a strip of white sand beach, emerald green water, and a nearby island made me reluctant to leave this hub of activity for our accommodations in the newer expansion.

Bay Point Yacht and Country Club was already a popular vacation spot when Marriott came in last year to expand and enhance it, making it the 22nd of Marriott's world-class resorts. The American Automobile Association has given its ``four diamond'' seal of approval to this resort, which includes 450 hotel, villa, and suite accommodations, 12 tennis courts, five pools, and a full-service 145-slip marina, on 1,100 acres. The diversity here attracts families as well as groups for conventions. Our villa bordered the golf course and provided a private balcony from which we enjoyed spectacular Florida sunsets.

Bay Point is a wholly contained community. Its five restaurants, four lounges, two clubhouses, and retail shops definitely kept me on the peninsula. A stroll on the private beach and a dip in the Gulf provided even more of an incentive to spend all my time at the Point. In addition, the beach was an excellent vantage point from which to observe boat departures to nearby Shell Island, a paradise of sea oats and sand dunes. Other on-site activities included children's programs and schools for sailing and golf.

Those who want to develop sailing skills will have sea stories to savor after enrolling in Steve Colgate's Offshore Sailing School. The Sunday-to-Sunday course begins at $884 and includes double-occupancy accommodations in the hotel or the lakeside or fairway villas. By the time certificates are awarded at the graduation dinner, new sailors are well versed and experienced in the art of sailing. Shorter courses are available; also classes in racing and sailmaking.

These other activities and the grand style of the resort were mere lagniappe for my avid golfer spouse. Golf was why we were there. Since we'd played the original course, Club Meadows, on a previous trip, it was golf on the Lagoon Legend, designed by Bob von Hagge and Bruce Devlin. The new $4 million-plus course exceeded our expectations. The 7,080-yard, par-72 course is one of only three in Florida to feature lush bent-grass greens.

Hole No. 13 encompasses a six-acre swamp reached by a walkway; Holes 16 and 17 border water. In total, water comes into play on 12 holes. The 18th hole is especially difficult. Golfers have to shoot over the lagoon to a fairway - then back to the mainland, where the green perches on the edge of the Grand Lagoon. Golf pros tout the course as ``a shotmaker's dream.'' Since my game of golf would not be recognized by a pro, their dream became my nightmare.

The course should be analyzed before playing. We quickly discovered why Bay Point has developed the advertising theme ``A monster lurks at Lagoon Legend.'' Golf package rates are lowest during winter season, Nov. 1-March 30.

I found time to look into another aspect of the resort, the Bay Point Yacht Club Marina. Harbormaster Scott Burt said that up to 100-foot yachts can be berthed at Bay Point, the largest private yacht marina on the Gulf Coast. Full-service amenities are available at the marina, within walking distance of the resort.

Boaters heading south are using America's newest river, the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway. The Tenn-Tom is navigable, safe, and scenic. It's a major project of the United States Army Corps of Engineers. The waterway is a connecting artery between the Ohio, upper Mississippi, and Tennessee Rivers. Tenn-Tom bypasses the busy lower Mississippi River, cutting hundreds of miles off the trip south. The waterway ends at Mobile, Ala., an eight-hour yacht trip from Bay Point.

If you go

Marriott's Bay Point Resort provides shuttle service from Panama City's airport. Air passengers are served by Atlantic Southeast/Delta, Eastern Metro, and Continental Express. Write the resort, at 100 Delwood Beach Road, Panama City, FL 32407, for more details. Telephone (904) 234-3307 (within Florida) or 800-874-7105 outside the state. For boating brochures and navigation charts on the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, call the Development Authority at (601) 328-0812.

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