Norman gives a taste of his homeland at Orlando's ChampionsGate International golf course

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

ORLANDO, Fla. - The International course at ChampionsGate opened to a great deal of acclaim in 2000, and though it has received mixed reviews that dampened the anticipation somewhat, there are many who say it's a top-of-the-line round of golf, despite the relatively high green fees.

Both ChampionsGate golf courses, the International and The National, opened for play in 2000 and the International won an honorable mention in Golf Magazine's "Top 10 new upscale courses" for 2001.

The International has the highest course rating in Florida at 76.3 with a slope rating of 143 from the back tees, and even the blue tees sport a 137 slope rating.

It's 7,363 yards from the tips, and if you miss the wide fairways - which is infinitely possible when the wind whips over the tree-less grounds - chances are you'll find yourself and your ball in a deep pot bunker lined with thick Bermuda grass.

There are also a significant number of water hazards, though not many forced carries.

Not that it is perfect or should be considered one of the great courses of Florida. There have been complaints that the course feels a bit contrived, that Norman mucked about a little too much with the flat, central Florida landscape.

Is this really a links course or what Norman believed Americans think a links course should look and feel like? Or is it some sort of blend?

Also, some golfers on a recent outing at the International said the course was a little too quick and hard, which is, of course, a characteristic of true links golf.

The thick, Bermuda rough met with some criticism as well - again, something our British counterparts must put up with when they play those "links" between ocean and mainland.

So it isn't true links golf, but what course in America is? The International is still a challenge and aesthetically pleasing, surrounded by sand dunes and featuring large, fast greens.

It also has mounding similar to the Royal Melbourne, where Norman was a frequent player.

The verdict on ChampionsGate's International

The International is definitely worth your time if you're in the Orlando area. It's only 10 minutes from Disney World and 15 minutes from Universal Studios.

The practice grounds are first-rate and include a driving range, putting green and short-game area, all free with your round of golf. There is valet parking, iced towels and GPS on the carts, something you don't find a lot of overseas.

Steps away from the driving range is the David Leadbetter Golf Academy world headquarters.

The huge Omni Hotel towers over the two courses, and the entire resort takes up about 1,500 acres. You will probably want to take a shuttle to either of the two courses,

Regulars say the ChampionsGate maintenance crew keeps the course in tip-top shape year-round.

Green fees are $70 during the week and $80 on weekends for Florida residents and $80 and $90 for out-of-staters.

Stay and play

The new Omni opened on time and on schedule this fall, which is an amazing feat considering central Florida was a magnet for hurricanes this past summer. It is a huge resort, with aspirations to be one of the best golf destination in the country, and it is indeed an impressive result.

Minutes from Walt Disney World, the Omni is roughly twice the size of normal Omnis, with 730 rooms. It's the centerpiece of the master-planned community of ChampionsGate. The hotel advertises itself as the "first true golf destination resort designed with the meeting market in mind," and it's hard to argue with its 70,000 square feet of meeting space, including a 25,000 square feet Grand Ballroom and 20,000 square feet Junior Ballroom. It can handle groups up to 2,000.

The four-star resort is aimed at golfers, but there is plenty for non-golfers to do, first and foremost being the 10,000 square feet European spa: one recent spa-goer said the massage she received was the best she'd ever had. There is also a fitness center, outdoor heated pool, family pool with waterslides, an 850-foot "lazy river," nature walks, jogging trails, tennis, volleyball and basketball courts.

Orlando dining

You may want to dine in. The resort has seven food and beverage outlets on the property, including the Zen restaurant, serving pan-Asian dishes, and Trevi's, which specializes in Italian. There is also a sports bar and grill, a deli, a clubhouse restaurant and a poolside bar and grill.

Tim McDonaldTim McDonald, Contributor

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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