Serenity, classic golf on the El Campeon Course at Mission Inn Resort & Club

By Brandon Tucker, Managing Editor

HOWEY-IN-THE-HILLS, Fla. -- Central Florida was a sunny destination for snowbirds long before Disney World and Universal Studios.

El Campeon golf course - Mission Inn resort - No. 7
Mission Inn's El Campeon golf course boasts 85 feet of elevation changes.
El Campeon golf course - Mission Inn resort - No. 7 El Campeon golf course - Mission Inn resort - No. 16El Campeon at Mission Inn Resort & Club

For proof, a little glimpse of yesteryear is fully evident northwest of Orlando at the Mission Inn Resort & Club and one of Florida's great classic, public-access courses, El Campeon.

To find this little beacon, just head northwest from Orlando and journey six miles off the Florida Turnpike to the rural village of Howey-in-the-Hills. These shady, quiet streets lined with old homes and a mix of palms and oaks feel like a time warp back to a day before interstates, food chains and traffic jams.

The village's name comes from founder William John Howey, a real estate mogul who came to the county in the 1910s and bought land to develop citrus groves. His investments soared during the Florida Land Boom. People began moving here, and soon enough, the town was named after him in 1925.

About 30 miles from Orlando, it's located far enough away that it has managed to maintain its very own identity, one with lots of green space, plus two of its most cherished landmarks, the Griffin Waterfront Park and Sara Maude Mason Nature Preserve.

For golf, those with a thirst for the Golden Era of golf course design and think it can't be found around Orlando should think again.

Mission Inn's El Campeon golf course

Mission Inn's El Campeon golf course dates back to 1917 and was originally called "Floridian Country Club." In 1964, the Chicago-based Beucher family took over the club and adjoining resort and renamed the course El Campeon to further enhance the resort's overall Spanish architecture and ambiance.

Family owned to this day, the Beuchers have upheld the property to superb standards -- highlighted by the El Campeon -- and the secret has gotten out. Staff say there are members who come over each winter from as far as northern Europe to stay and play here.

The course was designed originally by George O'Neil but was redesigned in 1926 by Charles E. Clark, of Troon, Scotland. Since then, it been renovated and lengthened to today's max length of 7,007 yards to make it a test for any handicap. But amidst the alterations, El Campeon remains a pure, classic Florida parkland course -- but with a twist. The many hills, up to 85 feet in elevation change, inspired Howey to dub his land, tongue-in-cheek, the "Florida Alps."

Both the front and back nines feature stretches of both wet, low-lying holes and some that tumble up and down. On the front side, holes No. 4-No. 7 make for a dramatic stretch. Each of which are par 4s and play from elevated tees, down and back up to elevated greens.

The back nine has its show-offs, too. The short, par-4 16th has a green almost entirely encircled with water, demanding a very precise short iron onto the green. Both precision and power will be needed for the 17th, named "Devil's Delight."

The double-dogleg par 5 is lined with trees, plus one in the fairway near the green for good measure. And it ends with a tricky approach shot over water.

El Campeon at Mission Inn Resort & Club: The verdict

With a rich history and some of Florida's most interesting land to work with (plus the added treat of very little residential presence around the course), El Campeon is a sleeper pick for one of central Florida's top plays for golfers who like a classically styled course with subtle doglegs and raised, well protected greens.

It may be the best Orlando-area golf course you've never heard of, as it can sometimes get lost in the shuffle compared to some of its area peers with international marketing muscle.

In addition to El Campeon, the resort built a second 18 holes, Las Colinas, to go with a new real estate phase in the early 1990s.

Designed by Gary Koch, Las Colinas is even longer at more than 7,200 yards and winds through the new phase of residential development. In addition to the two golf courses, the club also hosts the Gary Gilchrist Golf School.

Stay and play at Mission Inn Resort & Club

You don't have to stay at Mission Inn Resort & Club to play the two golf courses here, but for the full effect of the Howey-in-the-Hills tranquility, it's a good idea. The resort has a mix of both guest rooms and luxury two- and three-bedroom villas.

Mission Inn is also a popular tennis spot that hosts private lessons, tennis schools and match arranging. Additionally, the resort is also home to the Spa Marbella and four restaurants.

Brandon TuckerBrandon Tucker, Managing Editor

Brandon Tucker is the Managing Editor for Golf Advisor. To date, his golf travels have taken him to over two dozen countries and over 500 golf courses worldwide. While he's played some of the most prestigious courses in the world, Tucker's favorite way to play the game is on a great muni in under three hours. Follow Brandon on Twitter at @BrandonTucker and on Instagram at BrandonTuckerGC.

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