Highlands Reserve Golf Club breaks the mold in Davenport
DAVENPORT, Fla. -- Building a successful relationship with Orlando golf requires loving it for what it is. The land often lacks significant movement, homes built too close to the edge of the courses can be distracting, water and wetlands sometimes seem redundant, and then there's the thing with all the carts and cart paths. Nobody's perfect.
But once you accept its limitations you can begin to focus on its advantages. For instance, its abundant, utilitarian courses makes it a more than willing partner, one of the three or four most convenient places with which to shack up for public golf. It's also not hamstrung by any particular sense of bad fashion or style, at least not in the tacky way that other popular retreats like Myrtle Beach or Vegas can sometimes be.
Orlando golf starts to seem pretty good after a while. You'll manage to create a meaningful bond, finding contentment in its numerous if occasionally repetitive and self-possessed courses. You are, at last, satisfied.
Then, just outside of town, you meet a course you weren't expecting. Suddenly everything is confusing again.
Mike Dasher's Highlands Reserve Golf Club (opened in 1998) located 10 minutes southwest of Disney World is like a high-heeled, pouty-mouthed foreign exchange student in a room full of honor roll schoolgirls. It's suggestive, irresistible, and, at the risk of sounding shallow, one hell of lot more fun that the other prudes.
What makes it so is a piece of land that's unlike most everything else in the region, topped by a spirited design that matches the property's unique character. The course sits on the edge of a long sand shelf called the Green Swamp Ridge near the town of Davenport, spanning 120 feet from top to bottom. Dasher's holes fairly dance around it, two-stepping from a high point at the first green all the way to the low basin of the 13th fairway.
We say two-step because that's exactly what it does. Dasher's directive was to build an affordable, walkable, and fun golf course on a minimal budget, something in the neighborhood of $1 million. To do it, Dasher says, "We needed to pair up all the holes, have a paired routing, because I knew that would keep our total irrigated turf acreage down."
The paired routing is not only efficient from agronomic and walkability perspectives, it also helps the routing fit into a relatively tight 150 acres. Dasher used several methods to prevent monotony and claustrophobia on bordering holes. Thirteen through 17 are terraced into the side of gently rising bowl, separated by elevation, planted vegetation, and bunkering. Linear rows of pine trees similarly seclude sections of the parallel second and third and the 10th and 18th.
Because Highlands Reserve Golf Club is situated on what's basically a giant sand hill natural waste areas were available to Dasher wherever he needed them - all he had to do was dig, or to be more accurate, do nothing.
"The bunkers became any depressed areas we elected not to grass," he says, recalling a round played with a partner who was bunkered at the third hole. "He's digging in and getting ready to hit the shot, and he says, 'How deep is the sand in this bunker?'" Dasher replied, "Right there where you're at, I believe that's 90 feet."
"That's all native sand," he adds.
The waste areas serve as divisions between holes, strategic bunkers that cut into the angle of play (challenging aggressive drives at the par-4 seventh and 10th, or the approaches at 10, 11 and 12), and as turf and irrigation-saving washes. Most often they function as all three.
Dasher's diverse, uncommon design punctuates the distinctiveness of the natural site. The tidy tournament yardage of 6,673 will not overpower or intimidate anyone, but the routing keeps the player engaged with three sub-400-yard par-4 starting holes, back-to-back par-5s at eight and nine, several potential drivable par-4s for long hitters, one-shotters ranging from 100 to 225 yards, continuous changes of direction, and holes that provide the option to work the ball left or right or simply go for broke over a hazard.
The greens challenge at Highlands Reserve Golf Club
Accompanying all this is one of Orlando golf's three or four most sporting sets of green complexes:
"The design really begins at the greens," Dasher says, noting the design's roomy fairways. "We did not put in any USGA greens - that's all native soil and they're basically all push-up greens."
Most are open to the fairway and fall away into chipping and drainage lows on several sides. The variety of size, shape, and orientation is staggering: -- the first green is 52 yards deep and roughly 12 paces across with a swale across the center; -- the third green is tilted and almost perfectly round; -- five is crowned and elevated, a perfect foil for the short pitch shot approach; -- number nine green features upper and lower levels; -- the remarkable 10th offers a front left pin location sunk nearly three feet below the rest of the green; -- the 16th fulfills the promise hinted at the first. Modeled after the Gate hole at North Berwick, the Biarritz green is 53 yards deep and cut in half by a trough roughly two feet lower at the center than either the front and back. "I've always been looking for a place to do that, and that's where I decided to do it," says Dasher.
Highlands Reserve Golf Club: The verdict
Did we mention that Highlands Reserve Golf Club is fun? It's also one of the few courses in Central Florida where you can throw your bag on your shoulder and walk.
In every way, Highlands Reserve Golf Club is the antithesis of the typical Orlando golf course; it's not even of the same gender. Power players, the corporate crowd, and the Lake Nona types may criticize it for its length, for being a little proletariat around the edges, or for the housing development on the perimeter. They're missing the point. Highlands Reserve is sporty and original and its diversity is a blessing to repeat play.
April 3, 2004