A guide to golf in Orlando

A guide to golf in Orlando

Putting up big numbers is not exactly the goal in golf. Though there are a few exceptions to that rule. There are big drives, of course, and the big money that usually comes to those who hit the biggest drives.

And then there’s Orlando, a city that can put up big numbers like few golf destinations can.

Not only is it home base for many PGA, LPGA, and Senior Tour pros, but it can also post the following statistics: 451 hotels and motels with 110,000 rooms, 95 different attractions, approximately 4,300 restaurants, and 150 courses within a 45-minute drive of downtown.

As for the latter, in this case quantity does mean quality. From perennial favorites like Grand Cypress and Walt Disney World, to up-and-coming courses, Orlando can keep your playing card full.

Ever since Disney World opened in 1971 southwest of downtown Orlando, followed over the past three decades by an assortment of other attractions built in the same area, most visitors automatically head to the southern side of town. Golfers usually do too, since that’s where the best layouts are found. But Orlando has undergone such rapid growth recently that other parts of the city have developed dramatically, to the point where quality public courses are now found in all directions from downtown.

One course in the area generating a lot of positive conversation among locals — Victoria Hills Golf Club — is actually 35 miles north of Orlando in DeLand. It’s a 45-minute ride straight up Interstate 4 heading toward Daytona Beach, but the course is well worth the journey.

This Ron Garl design, set in what was formerly a cow pasture, is part of the 1,859-acre Arvida Victoria Park residential community. Garl, a Florida native, has built an excellent course that runs through mature oaks and Floridian pines. Extremely fair in all respects, the layout unfolds over gently rolling hills and pine hammocks, with carries over sprawling waste bunkers required on some tee shots.

Walt Disney World has five 18-hole courses on its sprawling property. The Palm Course and the Magnolia Course opened concurrent with the resort in 1971; the Lake Buena Vista Course debuted a year later.

The two best layouts, Osprey Ridge (designed by Tom Fazio) and Eagle Pines (designed by Pete Dye), opened in 1992. And yes, the tee markers on the courses are shaped like Mickey’s head. Disney offers countless fun hotels and restaurants to choose from on its 47 square miles of property.

Orlando’s other major player, the Grand Cypress Resort, more than lives up to its first name. The two original nines (the North and South) remain the Resort’s best challenge. The East nine came on board in 1986, while the New Course, a links-style track inspired by the Old Course at St. Andrews, opened in 1988. All 45 holes were designed by Jack Nicklaus.

A first-class practice facility features two ranges, a three-hole practice course, and a Golf Academy. You can stay at the 700-plus room Hyatt Regency (check out the grotto pool and Hemingway’s Restaurant), but you’ll be a five-minute shuttle ride away from the courses. Stay at the Golf Villas however, and you’ll have a short walk to the golf facilities, including an expansive clubhouse, which features a nice collection of memorabilia from Orlando-area PGA, LPGA, and Senior Tour players in the restaurant area.

The Legacy Club at Alaqua Lakes is a Tom Fazio design that is part of a residential community located just west of Interstate 4 in Longwood, 30 minutes north of downtown. Many of the natural habitats found on this former cattle ranch land were incorporated into the layout.

In fact, that was done so successfully that The Legacy Club is one of the few non-private layouts to be named a Audubon International Signature Certified Sanctuary course. You’ll see why as you pass around and over natural wetlands while possibly catching a glimpse of deer, black bears, bobcats or wild turkeys, among others.

Fazio incorporated a fairly open feel into the front nine, while the back requires more accuracy both off the tee and with approaches. The par fours are consistently tough throughout, while the par fives offer up better birdie opportunities. Most of the greens are large with subtle undulations, and some (notably the par-four 10th) feature false fronts. Fazio saved the best for last with an excellent par four closing hole that plays 404 yards uphill.

The Legacy Club also features a fun yet seldom-seen touch on the first hole. To the right of each set of tees are signs indicating the course record from those particular tees. From the tips, PGA Tour pros Chris DiMarco and John Cook share the record of 64, while Gene Thompson and Ed Crain share the low mark of 66 from the white tees.

Mike Bender holds the course record of 62 at Timacuan Golf and Country Club at Lake Mary north of downtown. No surprise there since he’s a GOLF Magazine Top 100 Teacher and runs the Golf Academy on site (the facility also has a lighted driving range open to 9 p.m.). Ron Garl did the original 1978 design, and Bobby Weed was brought in for renovation work after severe flooding in 1976.

The front nine is wide open with good-sized greens, while the back has a more Carolina feel to it — numerous lakes and tighter fairways lined by tall pine trees. The toughest tee shot comes on the par-four second, where you have to carry a lake — hit it too well though and you run the risk of going through the fairway into another lake. Water is left of the green on the approach shot as well. The best par three is the 203-yard 16th.

Ever wanted to feel what it was like to get to the PGA Tour’s Qualifying School finals? Even if you’re not one of the pros who survives regional qualifying, you can play the courses at Orange County National, host site of the 2007 Q-School finals.

Orange County National is home to two very good courses: Panther and Crooked Cat. The former opened first (in 1997) and cuts through wetlands and lakes, especially on the 17th, a par-three over water. A more links-style theme is found at Crooked Cat, with large bunkers stretching in all directions along many fairways.

Set amidst orange groves away from all the tourist stops, the facility is also home to the Phil Ritson Golf Institute, a 46-room Lodge, and a circular 40-acre driving range where Tiger filmed his famous bouncing ball commercial. If you’re looking for 36 holes of solid golf, tucked away from all the local attractions (although you can see Disney’s Contemporary Hotel in the distance from some holes), Orange County National is the place.

Florida native and current NBC golf analyst Gary Koch wanted to create something different and unique with his design at Mystic Dunes, located at The Palms Resort and Country Club just two miles south of Walt Disney World. That he did.

You’ll leave here talking about the severely undulated greens — and you’ll either love them or hate them. Some are diabolical and hysterical at the same time (most notably the sixth and eighth), although the greens are kept at a fair speed. Add in shaved collection areas hugging most greens and a three-putt may be a good effort. It’s almost a shame because the overall layout is fun, with environmentally sensitive areas framing a number of holes. Stay out of the whiskey barrel bunkers on the linksy front nine, and then avoid the oaks and pines on the back.

Greg Norman was given a huge blank landscape to create on over at Champions Gate, southwest of downtown with its own exit off Interstate 4. His two 18-hole designs, The National and The International, opened in October 2000.

Norman’s National Course is more American in style, with larger bunkers, good-sized greens and fairways — everything is out in front of you. The layout, which hosted a Canadian Tour Qualifying event, also features large chipping areas around most greens. The fourth and 10th are solid par fours, while the 210-yard 14th is the best par three, with a green almost completely encircled by tall trees.

The International Course is by far the more challenging of the two, with high rough, more exposed holes, deeper bunkers and more mounded dunes, all making it highly unpalatable if you play from the wrong tees. Leave your ego at the door here and you won’t leave as frustrated as those who don’t. The best stretch of holes comes on the front side — five through eight — with the par four seventh the best of the bunch.

And don’t be surprised to see or even bump into some PGA Tour Pros here — it’s also home to the headquarters of David Leadbetter’s Golf Academy, where a variety of famous pros and promising amateurs practice.

Speaking of pros, Arnold Palmer’s Bay Hill Club & Lodge, which opened in 1961 on the southwest side of town, is available to public play — but only if you are staying at the Lodge. Time your stay around the Bay Hill Invitational. Rates will be at their highest, but course conditions are optimal around tournament time.

MetroWest, one of Robert Trent Jones Sr. last designs, opened in 1987 just six miles southwest of downtown (close to Universal Studios). It’s a local favorite due largely to consistently superior conditions. Set on 230 acres, Jones made the most of the space by creating plenty of roomy fairways, but extensive bunkering surrounds many of the large greens. The back nine is especially memorable thanks to a number of elevation changes rare for the mostly flat central Florida landscape (check out the downtown skyline from the 13th and 14th tees). The course is part of a 1,800-acre residential community development renowned for beautiful landscaping.

The latest section of Orlando to experience a boom in commercial, residential, and golf real estate is the southeast. Anchored by Orlando International Airport, this area is also home to the exclusive community of Lake Nona, home to Ernie Els and Annika Sorenstam, among others. Just east of Lake Nona is North Shore Golf Club.

Florida-based designer Mike Dasher carved his second Sunshine State design (the other is Highlands Reserve south of downtown) out of a wide open cow pasture. Dasher created two distinct nines here: the front is more open, while the back is loaded with oak trees and winds thru more scenic marshland. The 417-yard 12th is North Shore’s best and toughest hole — a par four dogleg right with an oak tree-lined fairway.

Is there a perfect time to visit Orlando for golf? Well rates are cheapest in the summer when the weather is the hottest. Prime time is January through April when the roads are clogged with tourists and the green fees peak out at full-fare. Sneak in around November and December though, and you’ll find decent weather amd middle-of-the-road rates both on the course and off.

In other words, you’ll enjoy the golf in Orlando without posting any big numbers of your own.

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