From weekend hackers to the PGA Tour pros, these Orlando finishing holes can make or break you

By Jeff Berlinicke, Contributor

ORLANDO, Fla. -- You've seen the damage that can be done on the last three holes of a golf tournament, or the last three holes of your $5 Nassau.

Magnolia Course at Walt Disney World - hole 17
The 485-yard 17th hole is part of a tough finishing stretch on the Magnolia Course at Disney.
Magnolia Course at Walt Disney World - hole 17Bay Hill Club & Lodge - hole 18South Course at Grand Cypress Golf Club - hole 9International Course at ChampionsGate Golf Club - no. 18

When the chips and bucks are on the line, it's not the first 15 holes that matter. Nos. 16, 17 and 18 are what it's all about. Ask Jason Dufner, Jean Van de Velde or any weekend hacker who was cashing a paycheck before the stretch drive.

The Orlando area hosts three professional golf events -- the PGA Tour's Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill Club & Lodge and the Children's Miracle Network Classic at Walt Disney World's Palm and Magnolia courses, as well as the LPGA Tour's CME Group Titleholders at Grand Cypress Golf Club -- and it's expecting a return of the Father-Son Challenge at ChampionsGate. And all of these courses feature tough finishing stretches.

The Children's Miracle Network Classic, played each October, is one of the most intriguing events of the year. To gain full exempt status on the PGA Tour, it requires a finish in the top 125 on the money list. And you get to see plenty of guys hovering around the 125 cut line and playing for their professional lives in the final official money event of the year.

And, for some, it may very well come down to the final three holes.

Magnolia Course at Walt Disney World

The final three holes on Disney's Magnolia Course don't play easy, especially when it's the final round of the Children's Miracle Network Classic and every shot could mean your PGA Tour card.

The 16th hole isn't too difficult, playing as a par 4 at 450 yards, but the two closing holes are tough. The 17th is a 485-yard par 4, followed by the 492-yard 18th.

For Disney guests, it is a friendly course. But for the pros, the rough is deeper and the pins are placed in locations that make the players who are fighting for their PGA Tour lives to take a deep breath and let it rip. Disney golf is all about the tourists who flock there every week, so it isn't too tough. But when a golfer is between 124 and 126 on the PGA Tour money list, the last thing he is thinking about is Mickey Mouse.

Jack Nicklaus made headlines here in 1973 with a victory that netted him $30,000. Nicklaus became the first golfer to earn more than $2 million in career earnings with the win.

Bay Hill Club & Lodge

Dramatic endings are the rule when the PGA Tour shows up in March for the Arnold Palmer Invitational, because Bay Hill is home to one of the classic finishing holes in all of golf.

The closing stretch starts at the 16th hole, a short par 5 that is reachable in two if you can bend a long approach shot around a pond into a tight green. That's followed by the 219-yard, par-3 17th, which has had four new bunkers added in the past two years.

Most golf fans know all about the 18th hole, where the tournament is usually decided. At 441 yards, it isn't long, but the approach is over water that nearly surrounds the green.

The 18th is where Tiger Woods won four straight from 2000-2003. Woods won it again in 2008 and 2009 -- sinking long putts on the 18th hole to win by one both times.

In 1990, Robert Gamez, then a young player with a promising future, pulled off one of the most spectacular shots in the four decades that the PGA Tour has been visiting the Orlando area. Trailing Greg Norman by one shot on the 18th hole and facing a 172-yard approach over water to a tight pin location, Gamez took out his 7-iron and gambled. Palmer, who never met a gamble on the golf course he didn't accept, watched as Gomez plunked it into the hole for an eagle 2.

South Course at Grand Cypress Golf Club

Amazingly, the LPGA Tour, which has its headquarters in Daytona Beach, didn't host a tournament in Florida in 2009. It returned in 2010 with the season-ending LPGA Tour Championship at Grand Cypress Golf Club, and it will be there again for the 2011 season-ending event (now called the CME Group Titleholders).

The LPGA visited Grand Cypress for years, but it went on a 10-year hiatus before coming back in 2010. It was tight down the stretch in the return visit, but Maria Hjorth pulled it out on the 18th with a long putt.

Grand Cypress consists of three nine-hole courses -- the North Course, South Course and East Course -- and the 18-hole New Course. The back nine of this LPGA event is played on the South Course after opening on the North Course -- and the final three holes can be brutal. No. 9 is a 474-yard par 4 that is tough, but fair. Keeping the ball in play is imperative, especially on the closing holes.

International Course at ChampionsGate

The International Course at ChampionsGate is the site of the former Del Webb Father-Son Challenge that has been on hiatus for the past two years. One of golf's greatest recent memories was in 2008 when Arnold Palmer, paired with his grandson Sam Saunders, was playing in the final round. Palmer was struggling and, on the 18th, Saunders hit into the left greenside bunker in the alternate-shot format. Palmer couldn't escape, and Saunders put the ball way past the hole, leaving Palmer a 30-foot putt. The King nailed it dead center.

Greg Norman designed ChampionsGate's International Course to play much more like a European links than a typical Florida golf course. The 16th hole is a long par 4, the longest on the back nine. After a relatively easy par 3 on 17, the 572-yard par 5 is a tough closing hole with greens surrounded by bunkers. There's not a lot of water on the course, but it's a grueling test.

Jeff BerlinickeJeff Berlinicke, Contributor

Jeff Berlinicke is a golf writer based in Tampa, Fla. He writes for multiple publications including the Tampa Tribune, Golf Fitness Magazine, and the Associated Press. He has also received multiple honors from the Florida Press Association.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Great Finishing Holes

    Rod Neill wrote on: Oct 28, 2011

    Great choices, Jeff. Have played them all and they're right up there with the best. Disney Palm's closing holes aren't "gimmes" either - Tough Par 3 16th and plenty of trouble on 18.
    Bay Hill would have to be my favorite - the only bad thing about holes 16 to 18 is that when you're playing them it means your round is almost over.