Orlando golf courses are raising the bar

By Derek Duncan, Contributor

ORLANDO, Fla. - If New York is the city that never sleeps, Orlando is the city that never stops building golf courses.

As it strides into 2004, Orlando has taken firm measures to ensure that it will not become obsolete as a golf destination. Combined with several important openings from 2003, no less than eight new or newly renovated courses will have become factors in the area's complicated golf psyche by the time spring is complete. If you haven't been to O-town in a while - actually if you haven't been there since last summer - here's what you'll find new.

The Ritz-Carlton Golf Club at Grande Lakes Orlando - In south-central Orlando, on a 500-acre nature preserve known as the Shingle Creek River Basin, is Grande Lakes Orlando, Central Florida's largest and most prestigious 2003 opening (July). Centered around a new Ritz-Carlton Hotel (the hotelier's first Orlando venture), Ritz-Carlton Spa, and the adjoined 1,000-room JW Marriott is the elegant and low profile Grande Lakes Golf Club from Greg Norman Golf Course Design.

The facility's immaculate presentation and service, including a new concept called the caddy-concierge program, is everything one would expect from the name Ritz-Carlton. As for the golf, Grande Lakes is a lovely, minimalist design echoing themes common to many of Norman's southeast United States courses.

Wetlands and waste areas of coral-colored crushed Coquina shell define the boundaries of the expansive, roughless playing corridors, while more formal white powder bunkers stimulate shot patterns to fairway and greens. Slick, crowned putting surfaces that slide off into mown chipping areas provide short game intrigue without undue punishment for the resort player. Most endearing is the property's secluded setting, especially at the holes near the center of the environmental preserve where the only signs of civilization - and impressive signs at that - are the two hotels looming stately in the distance.

Green fees at Grande Lakes are seasonal, ranging from the low $100's for resort guests to upwards of nearly $200 at certain times of the year. Caddy-concierge rates are inclusive (the gratuity is not included).

Eagle Dunes Golf Club - With the opening of Eagle Dunes near Sorrento in 2003, Mike Dasher completed an impressive Orlando-area design triumvirate (along with Highlands Reserve west of the city and North Shore located southeast of the Orlando International Airport).

The rugged course is built over a sandy, nearly treeless site and Dasher's routing makes the most of the property's natural movements. Holes move broadly up, down, and around natural and manmade landforms, usually arriving at large but moderately contoured greens. The club may currently lack polish due to its location and youth but the golf is rip-roaring fun and full of simple but effective strategies and a titillating assemblage of holes, including two potentially drivable par-4s on the first nine and plenty of tumbles and twists on the second.

Best of all, green fees are $30-$40. Play Eagle Dunes now before any housing is built.

Reunion - The Reunion you see today is not necessarily the Reunion you'll see later in 2004 or beyond.

Reunion will not be open in full form until the spring of 2004, but portions of the eventual 54 holes are currently ready for play. Nine holes of the Tom Watson-designed 18 and another nine from the Arnold Palmer Course Design course opened last fall, with early accolades going to the Watson holes. Construction will begin later in 2004 on a third 18 designed by Jack Nicklaus and Jack Nicklaus II.

As more of a private community than a resort, Reunion, located southwest of Orlando across I-4 from ChampionsGate, would be an ambitious project for anywhere but Central Florida. Sales thus far, however, have been brisk. Eventually the Reunion courses will be restricted to resident play (with short-term condominium rentals available), but until the lots and memberships fill out tee times are being offered to guests and those interested in buying.

Shingle Creek - Shingle Creek Golf Club, and the adjacent Rosen's Shingle Creek Resort slated to open by 2007, are the latest cogs of the growing Orlando machinery of hotelier and philanthropist Harris Rosen.

The Shingle Creek course opened in early December of 2003 and is located just east of International Drive, the Orange County Convention Center, and Rosen's accompanying properties, Rosen Center and Rosen Plaza. Architect David Harman of local Orange County National and Magnolia Plantation fame built the course on a level, once soggy parcel in the same Shingle Creek Basin that provides the setting for Grande Lakes roughly a mile to the south.

The design has been cultivated to match the function of the future resort, which will specialize in catering to business groups and "team building" functions as well as, presumably, large golf outings. As such the course is more sporting than flamboyant, meticulously maintained with few penal aspects about it. With the current absence of tree growth (or should we say, maturity), most of the challenge comes in the form of depressed bunkers and a smattering of lakes that come into play only on severely off-line shots, and the tiered, elevated greens that will really roll if the greens keeper wants to mow them down.

Shingle Creek green fees range from $69 in the summer months to a high of $124 through the month of January.

Grande Pines - The Marriott corporation was active in Orlando golf in 2003. In addition to the introduction of Grande Lakes at the new JW Marriott and Ritz-Carlton property, the hotelier also reinvested in a much-needed update of one of their Orlando-market staples, the old International Golf Club on International Drive, set to re-open in January.

Architect Steve Smyers was hired to completely renovate the course, and in the process of remedying the course's infrastructure deficiencies the architect created a stimulating and striking new golf course without significantly altering the routing.

The most immediate differences between the old and new versions are the suddenly dramatic and daring green complexes and the removal of much of the trees and vegetation that had grown to crowd the holes. Grande Pines, an amenity to the Marriott Grande Vista Resort, now features arguably Orlando's most integrated and strategic sets of greens.

Resident rates begin at $100 with afternoon play discounts, and non-resident rates begin at $130. Walking is allowed and encouraged.

Isleworth Country Club - Although most of those who read this will not have access to it, Smyers' renovation of Tiger Woods' home club in Windermere is worthy of note. The architect initially worked on the course in the early 1990's, rebuilding the greens and bunkers, and returned this time to revamp the entire course, gouging land from certain fairway sections and adding it to others to create a vertical optical dimension that didn't previously exist.

The renovation included adding length (to 7,544 yards from the "Tiger" tees) and a re-envisioning of the green complexes (most were elevated, angled, and re-bunkered). The effect of the work, according to one report attributed to Woods, will be that the course will play several strokes more difficult. Isleworth reopened in December 2003. (Smyers will stay busy around Orlando with two new projects near Lakeland, one northwest of the city, and a redesign of Interlachen Country Club in Winter Park, all due to begin in 2004.)

Eagle Creek - The last of the new courses to open in the current Orlando cycle is Eagle Creek, a Ron Garl and Howard Swan design located southwest of Orlando International Airport (around the corner from Lake Nona and North Shore). Travelers flying through Orlando on an east-side takeoff or landing might have noticed the course under construction out their window.

The site is typically open and low profile with omnipresent wetlands and water, but the design promises to be charismatic with five three-shotters, a par tally of 73, and riveted bunkers. Eagle Pines is tentatively set to open March 1st with green fees ranging from $60 to $105.

Derek DuncanDerek Duncan, Contributor

Derek Duncan's writing has appeared in TravelGolf.com, FloridaGolf.com, OrlandoGolf.com, GulfCoastGolf.com, 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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