Norman Course at The Ritz-Carlton Golf Club, Orlando, Grande Lakes is truly a Florida oasis

By Derek Duncan, Contributor

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Invoking the notion of an "oasis" is a powerful concept in marketing, but it isn't always accurate. We hear the word used to described golf courses and resorts when what is really meant is that the place is green and pretty. As a result, "oasis" has become almost a cliche, used interchangeably with "beauty."

Ritz-Carlton Golf Club, Orlando, Grande Lakes
Pines, palmettos and live oaks surround the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club, Orlando, Grande Lakes.
Ritz-Carlton Golf Club, Orlando, Grande Lakes

The original concept of oasis is much more definite. To be precise, it should refer to an area of beauty arising in the midst of something non-descript or desolate, a place of respite in the midst of turbulence. Nothing could better describe Grande Lakes Orlando, the newest JW Marriott and Ritz-Carlton property located in the middle of south-central Orlando's most unexploited region, yet only minutes from the commotion of the theme parks and convention centers.

Those familiar with the bustle and schlock of the I-4 and International Drive corridor are often surprised to find the area surrounding Grande Lakes so isolated. The property is set in the midst of the Shingle Creek Basin, a vast natural preserve and headwaters to the Everglades roughly a mile east of International Drive. The territory immediately surrounding the resort -- what isn't off-limits to construction -- seems far away from the common ostentatious development. When Grande Lakes opened July 2003 as Orlando's newest luxury golf and spa resort, it seemed to appear suddenly in the preserve like a true apparition -- or an oasis.

The Grande Lakes property is comprised of a 1,000-room JW Marriott hotel and the adjacent 584-room Ritz-Carlton. The elegant architecture of the Ritz-Carlton is a tip of the hat to 1920's "Florida Renaissance" architect Addison Mizner (architect of The Cloister on Sea Island) and has the feel of an Italian palazzo.

"We designed the hotel to feel like a home away from home," says design partner Marshall Drake of Hirsch Bedner Associates of Atlanta. "The size of the lobby and public areas is not intimidating, the furnishing is plush and the colors are fresh and airy -- design elements that a Ritz-Carlton guest might choose for his or her home."

From the outside, the two gorgeous structures possess brilliant power, visible from miles in every direction as they rise monolithically above the flat Orlando horizon. The hotels are connected via a walkway, shops, a conference center, and a 40,000 square foot Ritz-Carlton spa. The project was the largest non-gaming hotel to open in the U.S. in 2003.

Golf at Grande Lakes

Accompanying these amenities is an 18-hole Greg Norman Golf Course Design layout that wraps around the base of the resort and stretches into remote portions of the Shingle Creek Basin.

As with many of Norman's southeastern designs, The Ritz-Carlton Golf Club, Orlando, Grande Lakes features wide fairways with little or no rough and smoothly contoured, crowned greens that fade into tight chipping areas. As expected there is virtually no elevation change across the property so most of the challenge and intrigue comes from the routing's interaction with wetlands as well as several man-made water hazards and the dual bunkering -- traditionally cut, white sand bunkers and larger coral-colored coquina shell waste areas.

With such broad fairways and little in the way of severely punishing architecture, Norman's regional designs have always suited resort play. The Grande Lakes design requires few forced carries, the bunkers are not prohibitively deep, and the chipping areas allow for players to putt, chip, or pitch their wayward shots back onto the green. The lateral water hazards, especially coming down the homestretch, and the native vegetation surrounding the holes can swallow truly erratic drives, but overall Grande Lakes is more than roomy enough for most players.

Yet the great innovation of this type of course -- and again, this is something implicit in most of Norman's area designs -- is that, while comfortable for the resort player, there is plenty of muscle and strategy involved for the ace player. Orlando-based PGA Tour pros Tiger Woods, Mark O'Meara, and John Cook, among others, have visited the course on several occasions and complimented the layout and the superlative conditioning (at last report Woods still holds the course record, carded his first time around, according to the author's caddie).

Courses such as these are "angles" designs. There is plenty of free space to drive the ball, but because of the way the greens are oriented -- angled against hazards and quite narrow in places -- the player that can shape the ball around hazards and maneuver it to one side of the fairway or the other will gain a distinct advantage on the approach. Pin positions can be arranged to give the player the option of playing safely toward the center of the green or taking a riskier line toward a flag cut hard against a hazard or swale.

The 410-yard second is a prime example or how the width promotes strategic planning. The fairway bends to the right and it's possible to drive through it into the vegetation. A bunker guards the angled green's front right and a cropped slope falls into a pond on the left. Drives played at the middle or right part of the fairway must carry the bunker and stop short of the down slope. The green opens to a drive on the outside corner of the dogleg, and even then a pin cut in the back left near the hazard is extremely dangerous.

The most memorable stretch of holes at Grande Lakes begins at the sixth, a bunkerless 422-yard par-4 through trees that seems straightforward, but the smallest green on the course is arguably the most subtle and difficult to read. From there the routing takes a detour into the quiet, interior wilderness of the Shingle Creek Basin.

Over the next seven holes the golfer gets cracks at three outstanding and very different short par-4s, including the 363-yard dogleg right seventh, the 387-yard 10th stockpiled with bunkers, and the potentially drivable 352-yard 13th running into a wide but shallow green (all distances are from the championship markers). The fourteenth hole, an exciting par-5 with water to the left, emerges from the sanctuary to segue into the last four holes playing in the shadow of the two hotels.

Derek DuncanDerek Duncan, Contributor

Derek Duncan's writing has appeared in,,,, LINKS Magazine and more. He lives in Atlanta with his wife Cynthia and is a graduate of the University of Colorado with interests in wine, literary fiction, and golf course architecture.

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