At first it seemed like a local cultural thing, or maybe a benign inside joke. Nearly every time an Orlando resident was questioned about the driving time from one golf course to the next— between almost any two points of interest, really— the response was the same: twenty minutes. True, this sort of question-and-answer process, like anything redundant, tends to create inertia of its own. Even so, the experience produced a comforting sensation of community as it became apparent they weren't kidding. Got twenty minutes?Then you can get to a good, sometimes great golf course.
Indeed, an astonishing 150 courses reside within a forty-five-minute drive of downtown Orlando. That's more golf than Myrtle Beach, the Monterey Peninsula and Hilton Head combined. Were it not so hackneyed, one might even call Orlando a golf mecca.
It follows that Orlando is de rigueur for marquee golf course architects, offering designs by Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Pete Dye, the Robert Trent Joneses, Greg Norman, Rees Jones, Arthur Hills, Ron Garl, Bobby Weed, Steve Smyers and many more. The area exerts similar magnetic pull on golf instructors, with schools run by such luminaries as Nick Faldo, David Leadbetter, Phil Ritson, Gary Irby, Fred Griffin, Bill Skelley, Rick McCord and Simon Holmes.
But Orlando is no longer just strip malls and strips of fairway. In fact, the city's other new headline names—Emeril, Yamaguchi and Van Aken—evidence a recent restaurant boom. Add new first-rate accommodations, a lively mix of downtown neighborhoods and an ever-expanding stock of courses, and it's clear why more than three dozen Tour pros call Orlando home. Let's just say it's not Disney World that lured a certain former number-one golfer in the world to Orlando.
The Orlando area was a two-time loser during this past fall's hurricane season, hammered first by the high winds of Charley and then biblically drenched by Frances. Thankfully, the courses survived relatively unscathed, save for a loss of some trees. Currently there's little sense that this area's golf riches were so recently battered.
BAY HILL CLUB & LODGE, CHAMPIONSHIP
9000 Bay Hill Boulevard, Orlando; 407-876-2429, bayhill.com. YARDAGE: 7,267. PAR: 72. SLOPE: 140. ARCHITECT: Arnold Palmer, 1961. GREENS FEES: $207-$378. T+L GOLF Rating: *****
Paying homage to the guy who put professional golf on the map is part of the reason Tour players want to compete in the Bay Hill Invitational every March, but it is more than mere obligation. Like the King, the place exudes a genuine bonhomie. In a similar vein, most of us amateurs will get a kick out of playing holes we have seen the pros play on television—for example, the croissant-shaped sixth, a 558- yard par five ringing a lake, or the eighteenth, a 441-yard par four with water impinging on the right—while forgetting that the Championship eighteen, played from the appropriate set of tees, also doubles as a very enjoyable resort course. The place says golf, right down to the forecaddies required for any group of three or more lodge guests.
ORANGE COUNTY NATIONAL GOLF CENTER AND LODGE, PANTHER LAKE
Phil Ritson Way, Winter Garden; 888-727-3672, ocngolf.com. YARDAGE: 7,295. PAR: 72. SLOPE: 137. ARCHITECTS: Phil Ritson, David Harman and Isao Aoki, 1997. GREENS FEES: $65-$140. T+L GOLF Rating: ****1/2
The word "pure" figures prominently in the promotional materials for Orange County National, and although the analogy isn't mentioned, the property exudes a golf-first-and-last ambience not unlike that of Oregon's Bandon Dunes. There's even a lighted putting green outside the lodge, "for those players who just can't get enough." Hardly as isolated as Bandon, it is still comparably and mercifully free of surrounding homes. There are forty-five holes in all at Orange County, including the well-regarded Crooked Cat, plus the Phil Ritson golf school and a practice facility billed as the continent's largest. But the original Panther Lake eighteen endures as the most popular layout, with its thirteen freshwater lakes, scenic use of wetlands, stunning oak hammocks and pine forests, and elevation changes up to sixty-five feet.
THE RITZ-CARLTON GOLF CLUB, ORLANDO, GRANDE LAKES
4048 Central Florida Parkway, Orlando; 407-393-4900, ritzcarlton.com. YARDAGE: 7,122. PAR: 72. SLOPE: 139. ARCHITECT: Greg Norman, 2003. GREENS FEES: $59-$185. T+L GOLF Rating: ****1/2
With the gargantuan Ritz-Carlton and its even bigger sister hotel, the JW Marriott, looming over many views on the course, it is unlikely you will forget you're not really in the Everglades. But Norman has done a good job with the illusion nonetheless, incorporating mature oaks, cypress heads and various water features into the layout. Most greens are fronted by a bunker or two, but they are not severely sloped and are usually ringed by large chipping aprons. Expansive waste bunkers filled with pinkish crushed coquina sand add a trademark Norman touch. Unlike at most resort courses, players can walk, using a "Caddie Concierge," a Ritz-Carlton invention. As advertised, ours knew the course, the game and the surrounding area.
EAGLE CREEK GOLF CLUB
Emerson Lake Boulevard (off Narcoossee Road), Orlando; 407-273-4653, eaglecreekgolf.info. YARDAGE: 7,198. PAR: 73. SLOPE: 130. ARCHITECTS: Ron Garland Howard Swan, 2004. GREENS FEES: $60-$110. T+L GOLF Rating: ****
Garl's prolific career exceeds his reputation among the general golfing public. Here the Floridian collaborated with Howard Swan, whose work includes another course for the same developer in Portugal. The "European flair" attributed to the result includes such design elements as pot bunkers with revetted faces, but, whatever the cross-cultural influences involved, Eagle Creek is a delightful play with a number of excellent holes. The eleventh, a par three of 217 yards, makes especially picturesque use of native grasses and wildflowers. The eighteenth, originally a long par four, is now a risk-reward par five, though water in front and to both sides of the green puts it in the risk-risk category for most of us. Eagle Creek is also the first course in Florida to use Mini-Verde turf on the greens, intended to withstand extreme heat while minimizing grain. The putting surfaces were in great shape for our visit.
GRAND CYPRESS GOLF CLUB, NORTH-SOUTH
One N. Jacaranda, Orlando; 407-239-4700, grandcypress.com. YARDAGE: 7,021. PAR: 72. SLOPE: 136. ARCHITECT: Jack Nicklaus, 1984. GREENS FEES: $115-$250. T+L GOLF Rating: ****
Part of a Hyatt resort that became a fixture when it opened in the mid-1980s, Grand Cypress has forty-five holes that altogether pack quite a wallop within a fairly discreet site. The New course is a passable "links" course, while the East nine is more wooded and a bit more forgiving, with less bunkering and fewer forced carries. But the best eighteen is still found in the original North-South combination. With elevated greens canted at angles to fairway approaches framed by fescue-covered mounding, it is instantly recognizable as a Nicklaus target-golf track.
THE LEGACY CLUB AT ALAQUA LAKES
1700 Alaqua Lakes Boulevard, Longwood; 407-444-9995, legacyclubalaqualakes.com. YARDAGE: 7,160. PAR: 72. SLOPE: 132. ARCHITECT: Tom Fazio, 1998. GREENS FEES: $49-$109. T+L GOLF Rating: ****
If there is such a thing as a golf course architect whose style seems suited to the generally flat topography of Florida, it would be Tom Fazio. Or so it appears from the immense body of work he has racked up in the state. At Legacy, said to be a favorite among local pros, his signature elements are on display, including spacious landing areas, bunkering deployed to snare wayward shots rather than to force carries, and large, gently contoured greens that nonetheless remain tricky. Tall native pines help to segregate holes from one another and from the housing that borders parts of the course.