Mickey, Shamu, and Yes, Golf: Orlando States its Case as a Golf Destination

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

ORLANDO, FL - The Price Waterhouse Center in downtown Orlando started to fill up almost 30 minutes before tip off. The NBA's Miami Heat was in town to play the Orlando Magic, and tickets were nearly impossible to come by.

Thousands of kids walked the arena's aisles holding their parents hands, most of them decked out in the No. 1 jersey of All-Star Magic guard Tracy McGrady. By the time Orlando took a 51-44 into the half, over 15,000 people had gathered for this intrastate showdown between these Sunshine state rivals.

This sizable congregation of locals in a town known for its collection of theme parks and out of town license plates begged the question: "Who are these people?"

Yes, Virginia, there's a big chunk of Florida's population that actually calls the Orlando, Kissimmee, St. Cloud area home. But to most of the world, Orlando is a place to visit - not a place to hang a hat, throw a "welcome" mat and settle down.

So why, given its status as one of the most popular destinations in the U.S., its 300-plus sunny days a year, its thousands of hotel rooms, and a tourism industry that rivals any in the world, has Orlando had such a hard time establishing itself as a golf destination?

"Our greatest asset may also be our biggest hindrance to being a true golf destination," says Todd Howard, Director of Golf at the International Golf Club. "Most people come to see Disney World and Sea World, and they will golf while they are here. Hey, we can't complain about that, but golf does exist in the shadow of Mickey."

Depending on whom you ask, there are between 100 and 150 golf courses in the greater Orlando area. The most accurate assessment is somewhere in between, but the fact remains that any town with this many golf tracks and 110,000 hotel rooms should be considered a major, national golf destination.

"Since 1998, there have been 14 new golf courses built in and around Orlando," says Howard. "That is more than have been built in Myrtle Beach, or maybe anywhere other than Las Vegas. But because there are so many other things to do here, we aren't always mentioned as one of the major golf destinations."

The facts are simple - no theme parks, no Orlando. At least, no Orlando as we know it. But take away Mickey and Shamu, and the area can still make a legitimate claim to being on of the world's golf capitals.

Orlando is the home of the Golf Channel, Tiger Woods, Arnold Palmer, top-notch golf schools, and the annual PGA Merchandise Show, which attracts nearly 50,000 industry professionals each year. The PGA headquarters and the World Golf Village are just a morning road trip away, as are the golf rich towns of Tampa and Daytona.

"The amount of golf industry located in this area is amazing," says Bob Ferrera, Head Professional at Twin Rivers Golf Club (at right). "We are almost more of a golf capital than a pure destination. In a sense, Orlando and north Florida are home to all things golf."

The traveling golfer is a simple animal, and his hierarchy of needs can be expressed in an equation that includes weather, cost, accessibility and quality. One could argue that Orlando has the country's best climate for golf - summers can be searing, but who closets their sticks when it gets too hot? Spring and fall are warm, with temperatures in the 80's, and winters are even toasty as the mercury holds around 70 degrees. And as far as accessibility, Orlando is a two to three hour plane ride from most of the East Coast population centers.

"People can get from New England to here in a couple of hours, and traditionally they have been our biggest constituent," says Bob Ferrera, head pro at Twin Rivers Golf Club. "But now we see just as many golfers from Pennsylvania and Ohio."

If Orlando is lacking in any deparment, its scenery. No mountains, no oceanfront property, and barely even a hill or vista to gaze out from unless you head southwest towards Haines City, or northeast towards Deland. But Ferrera thinks that the prices at Orlando area courses reflect this shortcoming.

"Florida golf in general, is not going to be that scenic," he says. "But, on our course, for example, we only have homes on one third of the course because the rest of it is environmentally protected. Hey, it's not a misconception that there are tons of golf courses down here with houses stuck right up against the fairways. When they build a golf course down here, they are building it for homes. But we are not priced like Scottsdale courses, in the $250 range in the peak season. You can play great courses here for $100 and under."

Where to Play

Bay Hill (888.422.9445), Arnie's home course, is considered by many to be the top track in Orlando, and one of the best facilities in the state. Bay Hill consists of three 9-hole courses: the Challenger, Champion and Charger. Dick Wilson built the Challenger and Champion courses in 1961, which combined host the Invitational. Bob Simmons added the Charger in 1968. Renovations to the courses by Palmer and Ed Seay in 1989 and in 1997 added length and a new design to many of the greens.

The Legends at Orange Lake (407-239-0000), is named in reference to its founder, Kemmons Wilson, and its architect, Arnold Palmer. The sleepy Orange Lake Resort is located immediately south of Disney World and has always been a comfortable and convenient alternative to the populous and glitzy resorts that harbor most of the vast amusement park's guests. Its original golf course, a 27-hole layout called The Resort Course designed by Joe Lee, winds lazily throughout the villas and ranch-style time-share condos, dotted with lakes and framed by palm trees.

Diamondback Golf Club (800.222.5629) is the course that most golfers don't know about, located about 30 minutes southwest of Disney World in Haines City. Diamondback, opened in January of 1995, is billed as Central Florida's most preserved 18-hole course. Joe Lee designed the course - a prolific golf course architect whose portfolio size rivals that of Donald Ross and Robert Trent Jones. As with most of Lee's courses, including his numerous Florida designs, there is no intention of pure punishment. Solid shots are asked for but spectacular play is not required for decent scoring. And whereas the penalty for straying too far from the wide corridors is severe, there is plenty of green to aim at before the trees interfere.

The International Golf Club (1.800.371.1165) is one of Orlando's most popular plays, due to its proximity to Sea World and its location just off of hotel laden International Drive. But this Joe Lee designed course has much more to offer than convenience. The front nine is wide open, and features some mounding and mild tiering of the greens. The back nine is a bit tighter off the tee, but hardly penal. Miss the fairways, however, and you'll be stuck in the reeds and forced into a penalty.

Grand Cypress Resort is Orlando's golf epicenter - a luxurious resort that houses the North, South and East nines from the original lineup, and the New Course, a Jack Nicklaus designed track that opened back in 1988. The New Course was inspired by the Old Course at St. Andrews, Scotland. Visions of the St. Andrews course appear throughout the New Course, including pot bunkers as deep as 12-feet, seven large, double greens, a snaking burn on three holes, stone walls along the 15th and 17th holes (resembling the Road hole at St. Andrews) and a stone bridge. Grand Cypress is also home to the "Academy of Golf," an equestrian center, and a tennis center.

Where to Stay

The Parc Corniche Condominium Suite Hotel (800.446.2721) is located just off International Drive, right in the front yard of the International Golf Club. General Manager Willie Sanchez describes the Parc as "moderate" upscale, and we tend to agree. Parc has everything you need - work area, microwave, refrigerator, and coffee maker, and the rooms are spacious, but not overwhelming.

You won't be pampered with mints on the pillows, and there's no spa down the hall. But if you are looking for a convenient, practical place to bed down during an Orlando golf binge, Parc is the place. Downtown Orlando is just 20 minutes away, off Interstate 4, and Sea World is literally around the corner. Parc can also arrange golf packages, by way of Golf Pac. Just ask for the golf desk when you call to make your reservation.

Where to Shop

Pointe Orlando is International Drive's answer to downtown's Church Street. Specialty shops like Chicos, FAO Swartz and Art's Original Cigar Factory and Gifts are mixed with staples like Abercrombie and Fitch, Banana Republic, and Foot Locker. Plenty of spots to grub down, too. Dan Marino's Town Tavern is one of the ex-Dolphin's QB's three restaurants in the Sunshine State, but don't expect tavern food. Stuffed Veal Chops, Homemade meatloaf and seared Tuna are the specialties of the house. The Florida standby, Hooters, is also onsite for wings, burgers, and gawking.

Shane SharpShane Sharp, Contributor

Shane Sharp is vice president of Buffalo Communications, a golf and lifestyle media agency. He was a writer, senior writer and managing editor of TravelGolf.com from 1997 to 2003.

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