Travelin’ Joe’s Guide to Orlando Golf Courses

Sugarloaf Mountain Golf & Town Club in Minneola, Fla.
Sugarloaf Mountain Golf & Town Club

If you have kids, or are a kid at heart, Orlando means one thing: Walt Disney World. If you're a golfer at heart, Orlando means not only Disney World, but also a slew of outstanding public, semi-private and resort courses. It seems like half of the PGA Tour makes Orlando home, likely due to its fine airport, wonderful climate, superior golf facilities — and hey, we've got to throw in Florida's lack of a personal income tax, too. Pros such as Tiger Woods, Mark O'Meara and Nick Faldo hang out mostly at such private enclaves as Isleworth and Lake Nona, but you never know when you'll run into one of these celebrities at a restaurant or grocery store. Best of all, Orlando has so many public-access Tour courses, you can feel like a star merely by putting your peg in the ground.

What's New in Town

Give and take is the theme these days in O-Town. The real estate slump has shuttered the Ginn Open, won by Lorena Ochoa, but you can still play its distinctive venue, the Independence course at Ginn Reunion Resort. This entertaining 2002 Tom Watson design sports massive moguls, vast sandy waste areas and wildly undulating greens.

Following the closure of its Pete Dye-designed Eagle Pines course in the summer of 2007, Disney will welcome a new addition this fall, when a new Rees Jones creation debuts. Technically, the Waldorf Astoria Golf Club is not a Disney property, but it's surrounded on three sides by the Disney Resort. The course will serve guests of two new hotels, the Waldorf Astoria Orlando and the Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek, slated to open Oct. 1, 2009.

GOLF Magazine's 3rd Best New Private Course of 2008, Sugarloaf Mountain Golf & Town Club, has attempted to weather the economic downturn by keeping its doors open to public play. Situated 40 minutes west of Orlando on remarkably rolling terrain for this part of the world, Sugarloaf's Bill Coore/Ben Crenshaw eighteen dishes out 250 feet of elevation change. Its heaving fairways and occasionally blind tee shots hearken back to classic lay-of-the-land designs that date back 90 years and more and views of Lake Apopka add further nuance to the experience. Unfortunately, the greens have struggled mightily to stay in playable condition, but for a dose of Coore/Crenshaw minimalism, many feel it's still worth the modest tariff ($59-$69).

The Trophy Collection

The closest thing Orlando has to royalty is Arnold Palmer's Bay Hill Club & Lodge, a civilized island in the city's sea of glitz and glamour that serves as winter home for the King. The Challenger/Champion nines make up the layout that has played host to the PGA Tour since 1979 and 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 make it easy to understand why defending champ Tiger Woods has won five times here, including a four-peat from 2000-2003.

An even older PGA Tour stop is Walt Disney World, whose Palm and Magnolia courses made their big-league debut in 1971, when Jack Nicklaus won the first of three straight. Of these two Joe-Lee designed spreads, two-time Ryder Cupper Chris DiMarco says, "The Mag used to be a great course — and it still is if you stay away from the back tees they put in back in 2005. The Palms is a lot of fun, with reachable par-5s." The Magnolia tips out at 7,516 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. Still, the premier Disney course is Tom Fazio's Osprey Ridge, which is distinguished by its mounds, its wetlands and its huge, very three-puttable greens.

Continuing the "magic" theme, I would put Grand Cypress Resort's New Course 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's not everybody's cup of tea, but when the wind is up and the course is playing firm, it's like Scotland in sunshine.

Best of the Rest

Tiger Woods once testified that the Ritz-Carlton Orlando, Grande Lakes 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 the hefty fee.

Ginn Reunion Resort's Independence course might be the best of the property's three choices, but the flower-laden Legacy course, crafted by Arnold Palmer, is close behind. The resort's newest layout is a water-splashed Jack Nicklaus product that typifies the essence of Florida golf, though its profile will rise even further with the opening of its new clubhouse next year.

ChampionsGate's two tracks, the National and the International, are both flattish Greg Norman creations, but it's the linksy International that plays host to early December's Del Webb Father/Son Challenge, one of the most coveted invitations the PGA and Champions Tour players get all year. The on-site Omni hotel is a plus, as is one of golf's greatest institutions of higher learning, the David Leadbetter Golf Academy, which has its headquarters here.

Orange County National's Crooked Cat and Panther Lake both serve as PGA Tour Q-School tests and comprise perhaps the best values in the Orlando area, though they're often overlooked, so superb are the practice facilities and Phil Ritson Golf School.

To keep up with the Joneses, you'll need to tackle Celebration Golf Club, one of the final collaborations between Robert Trent Jones Sr. and Jr. The huge slopey greens and strategically deployed water hazards let you know in a hurry who designed this one.