Golf in Orlando: The Other Attraction
While most people associate “attractions in Orlando, Florida” with castles, roller coasters, sea-life shows and wizardry, golfers have their own visions: teeing it up on verdant courses with welcoming fairways, variable bunkering styles and come-and-get-me greens. Although playing choices abound in Central Florida, some of the best and most enticing golf is to be found in close proximity to Orlando’s theme parks and other tourist venues, so organizing a vacation to please all family members is easy to do.
Grand Cypress GC at The Villas of Grand Cypress Orlando challenges golfers to focus on their games despite the surrounding beauty. A total of 45 holes of Jack Nicklaus Signature golf provides a variety of playing options. The 27-hole North/South/East Course, a compilation of three nine-hole layouts, tests accuracy rather than strength and distance — a welcome nuance for many players.
Each of the nines has its own distinguishing characteristics. The original North-South combination features ledged fairways and plateau greens perched above water or sand, while the more wooded East nine, with fewer bunkers, invites run-up shots. The island hole No. 5 on the East course is a memory maker every round.
Also available at Grand Cypress is the New Course, a links-style 18-hole layout with steeper and more challenging bunkers and slopes, Nicklaus’s tribute to the Old Course in St Andrews, Scotland.
To hone their games either before or after a round, many visitors take lessons at the Grand Cypress Academy of Golf. “Over 60 percent of golfers at our Academy on any given day are from out of town,” says Fred Griffin, academy director.
Reunion Resort is the only destination in the world where you’ll find layouts designed by Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson all in one locale. Each 18-hole course blends the surrounding landscape with distinctive design characteristics. The Arnold Palmer Course features natural preserve areas, generously wide fairways and a variety of risk/reward shots. The parkland-style Jack Nicklaus Course has long horizon lines and elevated tee boxes and greens. And the Tom Watson Course, with its fast, firm fairways and spacious green complexes, demands strategic play.
“Golfers love coming to Reunion Resort to play our three award-winning courses,” says Kevin Baker, director of golf. “And what really makes golfers come back are our spacious accommodations and world-class amenities.”
Visitors feeling jet-lagged or out of practice can avail themselves of first-rate instruction at the Annika Academy, Annika Sorenstam’s golf school. Or, if putting is the source of woe, also on site is the Frankly Golf Putting Academy, created by Frank Thomas, the gentleman who invented the graphite shaft and introduced the Stimpmeter.
Another top-notch choice is Waldorf Astoria GC, a Rees Jones design carved out of a nature preserve that folds seamlessly into the land’s contours. “Californians looking for great golf, exceptional service, and culinary excellence will find Waldorf Astoria a must-play for their itinerary,” says Rob Turner, general manager and director of golf. “It is a favorite among PGA and LPGA Tour players who call Orlando home.”
The course, which sits in the center of the Bonnet Creek Resort, within the gates of Disney World, has typical Rees Jones design elements, including green complexes divided into quarters. Cypress trees line the fairways in a setting free of residential, condominium or hotel units. Water plays into most holes, with hazards wrapping around many of the greens. Since most greens slope back to front, golfers benefit by recognizing the openings into each green and then playing approach shots confidently to the front half. The Waldorf Astoria Golf Academy offers private and group instructional packages.
Arnold Palmer’s Bay Hill Club & Lodge is on many golfers’ bucket lists, and rightly so. Home to the PGA TOUR’s Arnold Palmer Invitational each year in March, Bay Hill consists of three nine-hole courses: the Challenger and Champion, the combination that hosts the Invitational, and the Charger. Open only to Club members and guests staying on site, the golf courses sweep along the shores of the Butler Chain of Lakes. Palmer, who has owned Bay Hill Club & Lodge since 1974, occasionally greets visitors personally.
“We are in the heart of the tourist capital of the world, yet you wouldn’t know it when you spend a day at the club,” says Brian Dorn, director of golf. “The lodge and the golf course provide our members and guests with a quiet refuge from the activities in Orlando.”
DAILY FEE GEMS
Bella Collina (“beautiful hill” in Italian) is a frequent choice of golfers who want a private-club experience. Nestled among orange groves and woodlands, Bella Collina’s spacious Tuscan-style clubhouse commands attention. Visitor play is welcome on a space-available basis. In designing the golf course, Nick Faldo used the rolling land to create an 18-hole valley-style course with open fairways and holes calling for strategy and imagination.
“Golfers are required to study the lie, feel the wind, read the ground and utilize creativity as they navigate the course,” says Jim Kroll, director of golf.
Over at The Ritz-Carlton GC, Orlando, an 18-hole Greg Norman Signature design preserves the area’s well-balanced ecosystem. Situated at the Headwaters of the Everglades, the region abounds with ponds, wetlands, live oaks and cypress heads. The layout lures players into a sense of feeling one with nature. The course blends into the natural landscape, protecting natural resources and habitats. The optional Caddie Concierge program was the first of its kind in Central Florida.
Nathan Stith, director of golf, says, “The course is always in terrific condition and our team goes out of their way to make golfers feel like family.”
Orange County National Golf Center and Lodge is the only golf facility designed by Phil Ritson, acclaimed South African golf instructor. The two 18-hole golf courses, Panther Lake and the links-style Crooked Cat, both have hosted the PGA TOUR Qualifying School since 2003. A nine-hole short course and six practice greens complement the 42-acre circular driving range, the largest driving range in the U.S.
“Golfers love our facility because they can sleep here, eat every meal here, and practice their game in any wind on any day,” said Tom Coman, golf operations manager and head instructor. “Many enjoy playing 36 holes in a day — maybe 37, if you include a stop at our brand-new bar.”
Walt Disney World Golf, moments away from the Walt Disney World Theme Parks, offers visitors four playing options. The Magnolia, the longest, is named for its majestic magnolia trees, and features elevated tees and water on 11 holes. The Lake Buena Vista course, which has hosted PGA TOUR, LPGA Tour and USGA events, winds through pastel villas, pine forests, palmettos and lakes. The Palm course features sloping greens, lakes, palm trees and tropical sands. The nine-hole Oak Trail course, with its rolling greens, is a walking course that offers enjoyable family golf. Holes five, six and seven are routed around a deep canal and a picturesque pond. The golf courses at Walt Disney World Resort are acclaimed for their design, service, amenities and overall playability.
While Orlando is far better known as a theme park destination than a golf mecca, there’s no reason that the fun can’t include playing a few of The City Beautiful’s many terrific courses. For golfers, they are every bit as magical.