Local golfers have many options in links heaven

You don't have to chip like Phil Mickelson or drive like Tiger Woods to find a golf course in Bradenton and the surrounding area that fits your game.

Big-name architects have altered the landscape in recent years, although weekend golfers might have to hit the lottery to secure a tee time at some of the newer courses. Sure, it's fun wondering how you might play the Jack Nicklaus and Tony Jacklin-designed Concession Golf Club named the Best New Private Course for 2006 by Golf Digest or Tom Fazio's immaculate Ritz-Carlton Members layout. But the real enjoyment comes from testing your skills with friends wherever there are 18 holes in the ground and a 19th on tap. Although rates have increased as courses spend more on maintenance and beautification, there are still bargains to be found. No fewer than 10 Bradenton courses are on the Big Summer Card, a statewide discount plan that gives locals a financial break during the summer months (www.bigsummergolf.com). If you're just picking up the game, it might be advisable to start out at an executive course, such as the par-61 Pinebrook/Ironwood Golf Club, west of U.S. 41 off Cortez Road, or par-60 Peridia Golf & Country Club off State Road 70. No hole at Pinebrook/Ironwood is longer than 378 yards, and a succession of par-3 and short par-4 holes are tailor-made for seniors and beginners. Still, there is enough sand, water and tricky undulations to keep things interesting. Peridia is built along the same lines, although it's worth noting it was originally designed as a par-72 course to be played with the Nicklaus-designed Cayman ball (an idea that came and went, fortunately). For double-digit handicappers seeking relief from the workweek but not wanting to beat themselves up, Manatee County Golf Course and River Run Golf Links are the next logical steps. Manatee County Golf Course, which redid its greens four years ago, is operated by the county as is its sister course, Buffalo Creek in Palmetto. Both recently began offering Family Fun Tees," cutting their yardages virtually in half to attract a new wave of players. Few courses anywhere are as player-friendly as River Run, located adjacent to Pirate City. A $570,000 renovation in 2006 was greeted enthusiastically, and the course always sells out its City of Bradenton Amateur Championship series events. If you're breaking 90 with some regularity and looking for more of a challenge, Bradenton boasts a variety of high-quality public and semi-private courses that are affordable to many. Last fall, University Park Country Club officials opened their 27-hole Ron Garl-designed facility to public play, while still offering semi-private memberships. The plan was formulated to help University Park meet the demands of the area's legion of golfers. Legacy Golf Club at Lakewood Ranch is another public course catering to players in search of a top-notch layout and excellent service. The Arnold Palmer-designed course opened in 1997, and a few months later, Sergio Garcia won the inaugural David Leadbetter Golf Academy International junior event. Toss in such favorites as Links at Greenfield Plantation; Preserve Golf Club at Tara; The River Club; River Strand; Rosedale; Stoneybrook; and Waterlefe, along with private clubs like Bradenton Country Club and it's obvious our city takes a backseat to few others when it comes to great golf.