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Clearwater Country Club offers a blast from the past in the Tampa Bay area

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Clearwater Country Club describes itself as "Golf as It Should Be." That's up to anyone's interpretation, but it certainly brings back memories of the 1920s when the club opened as one of the first in the Tampa Bay area.

Located in Clearwater, about 45 minutes from the Tampa International Airport and no more than 20 minutes from some of the best beaches in America, the golf course is a trip to the past, back when everyone from Babe Ruth to Babe Zaharias stopped by to play a few rounds.

Designed by Herbert Strong in 1920 when Florida's west coast had little more to offer than mosquitoes, it thrived immediately and was a predecessor to the more complex, and tourist-friendly, courses built since then, but it also offers golf that isn't about avoiding water and hitting targets.

There is a meandering creek that winds around seven holes, but hitting it straight is the key. Clearwater Country Club keeps its rough deeper than most Florida golf courses, so at 6,225 yards from the tips, keeping the driver in the bag and going 3-metal (or 3-wood if you want to play it like it was 1920) is a good idea.

The course itself, while it isn't among the longer par-72 plays in Tampa Bay, still has its character.

The fairways are undulating and the trees that line most of the fairways offer Clearwater Country Club's best defense. The greens have been rebuilt with Tiftdwarf Bermuda grass and were holding up in July 2011 when many greens in Florida were suffering from a lack of rain.

It's easy to get off to a nice start at Clearwater Country Club. The first hole is a 325-yard par 4 that is drivable with a long draw. If you can't hit it, it's still a drive and a pitch to the No. 17 handicap hole on the course.

Clearwater bears its teeth on No. 3, the toughest hole on the course. It's a 415-yard par 4 that is straight with no water but extremely tight. It's a hole that's tempting to bomb with the driver, but any errant shot is going to cost you.

The sixth is simply a smaller version of the third hole. No problems if you keep it in the fairway; big problem if you miss.

The back nine is shorter but trickier. That's where Stevenson Creek really comes into play. It fronts the par-4 13th, the 14th and the par-5 17th. The 17th is reachable in two at 471 yards if you keep it in the fairway.

Clearwater Country Club offers a 20,000-square-foot meeting facility and a large practice range with several PGA-certified teaching professionals. It also has one of the more friendly staffs in all of Tampa Bay.

Call for course conditions, and they will be happy to tell if the greens are being aerified. On a recent weekday, they were aerating and told anyone who called to warn them in advance.

Clearwater Country Club is not a tough course, but it is a chance to walk with history. That's what brings regulars such as locals Gary Cleveland and Joe Zimmerman coming back for more.

"This is the way that golf was meant to be before it got all tricked up," Cleveland said. "It's simple and the way it used to be, and that's how I grew up playing the game."

There's nothing spectacular to see here unless you want to play old-fashioned golf with tight fairways and small greens. Don't bring your camera, but bring some extra balls in case you aren't straight off the tees.

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