Mission Inn Resort & Club's El Campeon Course: Great golf far from the madding crowds of Orlando
HOWEY-IN-THE-HILLS, Fla. - Yes, it's a funny name for a town. Yes, it's a little far from Orlando. And yes, you should definitely play Mission Inn Resort & Club's El Campeon golf course.
William Howey, one of Florida's first land speculators, bought this piece of land set in the central highlands of the state, in 1916 and dreamed of a horticulture empire. The Depression and historic freezes wiped out the citrus and the bank accounts, but not before Howey had built a hotel and a golf course in the hills. Another businessman, Nick Beucher of Chicago, bought the place in 1964 after seeing it advertised for sale in a newspaper. He spent some time refurbishing the neglected course, designed by Charles Clarke of Troon, Scotland, before finally deciding to turn it into a serious golf resort.
It's one of the oldest golf courses in Florida, and with that history, it's no surprise the course has an "old-school" feel to it. No GPS in the carts. No fancy landscaping or modern gimmicks. No mammoth, new-age greens. Just a fun-tough, scenic course in the hills.
There was no modern earth-moving equipment back in the days when the course was built, and because of the terrain here, it wasn't needed. EL Campeon isn't a unique Florida course with its elevation changes as much as 85 feet, but it is certainly atypical.
"It plays longer than the yardage because of the elevation," Head Professional John Viera said of the 6,923-yard layout.
The course manages to look well-treed, yet open and airy at the same time; that's partly because of the views from the ridges. Lakes and ponds dot the course, making drainage and scenery a simple matter. The two courses - the other course, Las Colinas, is about 5-7 strokes easier, according to locals - lost about 100 trees during the summer of hurricanes. It so happened the course was closed at the time, while maintenance crews were re-doing the tee boxes and sand hazards.
Because of its age, scenery and relatively short distance, the course does not appear intimidating at first. In fact, before the course hosted an NCAA championship, coaches were a little worried about it being too easy. "It ended up tearing them up," Viera said. "There's no margin for error."
It doesn't take long before you realize what Viera is talking about. Holes No. 3 through 7 are long and difficult par-4s, including one at 460 yards and one at 450. The short ones are uphill and feature difficult carries and sharply sloping greens.
"That stretch of holes is just murder," Viera said. "You try to just get through there and survive. No. 7, I think, is the toughest par out here. You're going to make more bogeys on this hole than any other on the course."
The layout takes you up one hill and down another. No. 13, for example, is steeply uphill, and you must avoid the fairway bunkers to go for the small green that falls off left and right.
No. 17 is the hardest hole on a course that has a slope rating of 135 from the back tees. It's a 538-yard, double-dogleg par-5 over the river and through the woods. The ideal landing area on the second shot is to the right and beyond an oak tree in the middle of the fairway. Then, from a downhill lie, it's over sand and water to a tilted green guarded by bunkers. Land in the trap beyond the green and you'll be looking at the water again.
Mission Inn Resort & Club's El Campeon Course: The verdict
Because Mission Inn is in Lake County, northwest of Orlando, it doesn't get a lot of the Orlando tourist traffic; it brings in mostly corporate groups. Still, it's easily reachable, only about 35-40 minutes from Orlando. It is worth the drive, if only to escape the hordes of tourists careening around central Florida bound for the Orlando attractions. It's an excellent golf course to boot.
Stay and play at Mission Inn Resort & Club
Mission Inn Resort & Club has a quiet, relaxed feel, even though on a recent visit a horde of long-distance runners were there for a half-marathon. It has 131 rooms, 45 suites and 13 villas - all on about 1,000 acres of land; thus it has an intimate feel.
The inn also has a 50-slip marina on Lake Harris, five restaurants and lounges, eight tennis courts and rental as well as an antique yacht for cruises of up to 49 people. It also has 30,000 square feet of meeting space and a lakeside pavilion.
November 2, 2004