If you have kids, or still feel like one yourself, Orlando means one thing: Walt Disney World. If you’re a golfer at heart, then Orlando means a slew of outstanding public, semi-private and resort courses.
It seems like half of the PGA Tour makes Orlando home, thanks to an international airport, wonderful climate and superior golf facilities. And don’t forget Florida’s lack of a personal income tax, too. The pros live mostly at private enclaves like Isleworth and Lake Nona, but you never know when you’ll run into one of them at a restaurant or grocery store.
But your chances are much better of running into a quality public access courses in the Orlando area rather than meeting someone you have seen play on television.
Must Play Courses
Bay Hill Club & Lodge (bayhill.com, 888-422-9445, $186-$225)
Golf Magazine’s third best public course in Florida is the winter home of Arnold Palmer. The Challenger/Champion nines make up the layout that has hosted the PGA Tour since 1979.
It’s full of long, flat, no-nonsense, boldly bunkered holes that play over and around seven massive lakes. There’s no drop-dead scenery here, just one challenging, breeze-fueled hole after the next, where the relentless shot-making demands have been conquered by Tiger Woods five times, including a four-peat from 2000-2003.
One catch: you have stay onsite at the 70-room Lodge to play the course (or get an invite from a member).
Reunion Resort (reunionresort.com, 866-880-8563, $100-$150)
Three worthy layouts (open to resort guests only) designed by three golf legends. The Tom Watson/Independence course is the best of the property’s three choices (Golf Magazine’s eighth best public course in Florida, but the flower-laden Arnold Palmer/Legacy course is close behind (the pair both opened in 2004).
The water-splashed Jack Nicklaus/Tradition course, which debuted two years later, typifies the essence of Florida golf. Instruction is available at the Annika Sorenstam Golf Academy.
Waldorf Astoria Club (waldorfastoriaorlando.com, 407-597-3738, $70-$175)
Technically not a Disney property, but it’s surrounded on three sides by the Disney Resort. The Rees Jones-designed course, with water in play on more than half of the holes, serves guests of two onsite hotels: the Waldorf Astoria Orlando and the Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek.
Grand Cypress Resort (grandcypress.com, 407-239-4700, $120-$175)
Put the New Course here on your Orlando must-play list. Jack Nicklaus’ homage to the Old Course at St. Andrews features no trees, minimal water (in the form of winding burns), semi-blind shots, double greens and more than 140 bunkers, some as much as 12 feet deep, where a ladder provides access.
It celebrates a 25th anniversary this year, and when the wind is up and the course is playing firm, it’s like Scotland in sunshine. There’s also 27 other holes and an extensive practice facility, including a three-hole practice course.
Southern Dunes Golf & Country Club (southerndunes.com, 800-632-6400, $99-$119)
Located in Haines City, this Steve Smyers design features more elevation changes than you would expect in central Florida. Water is only in play on two holes, but bunkers and waste areas are predominant throughout.
Walt Disney World (disneyworld.disney.go.com/recreation; $104-$165)
The premier Disney course is Tom Fazio’s Osprey Ridge, distinguished by its mounds, wetlands and huge, very three-puttable greens.
The Joe Lee-designed Palm and Magnolia courses made their big-league debut in 1971, when Jack Nicklaus won the first of three straight.
The Magnolia tips out over 7,500 yards, but there’s big fun to be had from any tee at the par-3 6th, which features a green protected at the right-front by a bunker shaped like Mickey Mouse’s head.
The Palm is the slightly tighter of the two, with many holes edged by jungle-like forest, with wildlife to match.
Best of the Rest
Ritz-Carlton Orlando, Grande Lakes (ritzcarlton.com; 407-206-2400, $85-$180)
Tiger Woods once testified that this layout contained some of the finest greens he had ever putted. The low-profile Greg Norman design eases past oaks, lakes and wetlands, but it’s the service, facilities and conditioning that make it worth a visit.
ChampionsGate (championsgategolf.com, 407-787-4653, $109-$139)
The National and the International course are both flattish Greg Norman creations, but it’s the linksy latter that used to host the Del Webb Father/Son Challenge, where PGA Tour legends paired with family members in a 36-hole competition.
The on-site Omni hotel is a plus (especially the reduced green fee for guests), as is one of golf’s greatest institutions of higher learning, the David Leadbetter Golf Academy, which has its headquarters here.
Orange County National (ocngolf.com; 407-656-2626, $79-$125)
Crooked Cat and Panther Lake both served as challenging PGA Tour Q-School tests and comprise perhaps the best values in the Orlando area, though they’re often overlooked. The practice facilities, including a 42-acre circular driving range, are also superb.
Celebration Golf Club (celebrationgolf.com; 407-566-4653, $79-$129)
One of the final collaborations between Robert Trent Jones Sr. and Jr. opened in 1996. The hugely sloped greens and strategically deployed water hazards let you know quickly who designed this one.
Orange County National has 46 simple yet comfortable rooms on site, with stay and play package deals worth a look if you are looking for a solid golf experience close to other Orlando activities.
Worth the Money
Streamsong (streamsongresort.com, 863-354-6980, $175-$200), a 75-minute drive southwest of Orlando, opened two stunning layouts last December.
The Blue Course by Tom Doak and the Red Course by Ben Crenshaw/Bill Coore (the latter was named Golf Magazine’s “Best New Course You Can Play” in 2012) are both must plays if you have the time.
The resort currently has 12 guest rooms that can handle up to four foursomes. A 216-room Lodge, with casual and fine dining restaurants, full-service spa and a rooftop lounge, is scheduled to open later this year.