Ready for prime time: Five underrated Orlando golf courses

By Derek Duncan, Contributor

Orlando is known as one of the great public golf regions of the United States, but many visitors still have difficulty finding a good, affordable, round of golf.

Knowing only to what friends tell them or what magazines print, Orlando seems like a city of about eight fashionable golf courses, none of which can be played for less than $100.

The truth is that there are at least 20 golf courses in and around the city that would merit consideration as one of the top courses in the majority of American cities, but in this competitive market, a dozen of these are jilted by reputation and advertising dollars. We hope here to unveil some of these underrated courses, showing them to be direct alternatives to their more popular and expensive counterparts. Here are five Orlando golf courses that easily hold their own against the brightest resort courses while costing but a fraction to play.

The Old Favorite or The Old Unknown?

Ask anyone who lives outside Florida to name the best course in Orlando and Bay Hill Club and Lodge will likely be mentioned. Why? Good question, sort of.

In one way the answer is obvious. Bay Hill is Orlando's most visible golf course because it hosts a high profile PGA Tour event and it's owned by Arnold Palmer.

Off the record, however, insiders will tell you the course is vastly overrated and not all that distinctive. In fact, numerous courses in Orlando offer everything that Bay Hill does, except a nationally televised tournament.

One of these is Errol Estates Country Club, 30 minutes northeast of downtown in Apopka. Errol Estate might not at first seem comparable to Bay Hill, but the two have more than a few things in common. Dick Wilson, built Bay Hill in 1962, also mentored Joe Lee, who built Errol Estates Country Club in 1973 (in fact Lee worked on Bay Hill and was responsible for completing much of the troubled architect's later work). In the beginning, both courses featured Wilsonian influences, including large, often elevated greens angled behind open-faced bunkers, and frequent doglegs (Palmer has since modified Bay Hill to look more like one of his own designs).

Three distinct nines - the original Lake and Highland nines (1973), and the Grove (1975) - give Errol Estates Country Club variety beyond what Bay Hill can offer, and the notable elevation changes also set it apart from the more famous course. Each course is ideally maintained and accompanied by tasteful housing, yet it is Errol Estate that seems the more quiet and natural.

Errol Estate has a PGA heritage as well. Charles Coody was the club's Director of Golf in the early days, and Kathy Whitworth owned a share of the pro shop. Who knows? If a PGA Tour event had been held in the early 1970's at Errol Estate rather than Bay Hill, perhaps the fortunes of the two courses might be reversed.

Little Slices of Scotland

Grand Cypress Resort is Jack Nicklaus' 54-hole tribute to St. Andrews (particularly the Grand Cypress New Course, opened in 1988). These low-profile golf holes (located in old citrus groves near the massive Hyatt Regency) come replete with gumdrop mounds, large double greens, hidden pot bunkers, and a meandering burn. Golfers have never been to Scotland might be fooled, but the resort reeks of money, exclusiveness, and high maintenance, three characteristics decidedly not St. Andrews.

A more homey and playable St. Andrews-esque course is found in St. Cloud, a town about 30 miles southeast of Grand Cypress on Highway 441/192. What Royal St. Cloud Golf Links captures that the lush Grand Cypress Resort misses terribly is the collective "town" feel of The Old Course. Teeing off in St. Andrews is one of the defining experiences in all of golf, and while St. Cloud, which opened in 2001, can't quite replicate that, is does embody the small town atmosphere that can only be produced by, well, a small town.

It plays as similar to The Old Course as Grand Cypress does, just in different ways. There are no double greens, but the fairways are endlessly wide and without a blade of rough, humping and bumping links-like over the rippling terrain, blending smoothly into giant, quickly moving greens. Furthermore the ground is firm and ideally suited to the running shot, especially when a good central Florida breeze is up.

St. Cloud is the antithesis of a posh and sexy golf course like Grand Cypress, and many high society players will fail to find the charm in this modest yet earnest golf course. But St. Cloud is golf in a way that Grand Cypress isn't, and it costs a good bit less.

International Flavors

Greg Norman's ChampionsGate opened to much ado when it debuted in late 2000. Located a mere 10 miles southwest of Disney World, its 36 holes were hyped to the max, with the majority of props reserved for the International course, a tough and barren 18 modeled in part after the Melbourne Sand Belt courses of Norman's native Australia.

Turns out that the hype was mostly just that. The wind-swept appearance of the International, its feisty greens and modern sand "dunes", only serve to make the course seem unfinished and play more brutish (their motto is "It'll add 10 strokes to your game").

A more authentic sand-based course is Highlands Reserve Golf Club, just a few miles west of ChampionsGate off of Highway 27.

Unlike the International, Highlands Reserve is built on authentically hilly terrain, yet the course is a manageable walk (in fact they encourage walking here, a rarity for Central Florida). Where Norman's course appears manufactured and is currently surrounded by a resort and development, Mike Dasher's course fits the property, roaming back and forth between modest homes, open country, and a pine forest. The large sandy areas and undulating terrain are utilized more for their strategic impact than for show, and the wild, hard-breaking greens are every bit the match for the International course.

Highlands Reserve does not try to emulate faraway idols, and despite its robust appearance it's not nearly the punishing test that the International course can be. A walk around Highlands Reserve feels like golf in a natural state with plenty of heroic shots available for those who want them and alternatives for those who don't. It'll also save you about $100.

Tom Fazio or Clifton/Ezell/Clifton (Who?)

For those staying at the Walt Disney World Resort, rounds at any of their five championship courses is probably too convenient to pass up.

The premier venue is Tom Fazio's Osprey Ridge course, located in the Bonnet Creek complex. For the record, Osprey Ridge is everything expected of a Fazio course. It's photogenic with every hole "framed" and impeccably maintained, the holes are balanced and none too severe. The routing takes you through attractive native vegetation and highlights large, blown out sand hazards and plenty of water. It all seems the perfect compliment to the Disney World entertainment machine.

Yet if you do want something slightly less packaged, Forest Lake Golf Club of Ocoee, located in a serene suburb 20 miles north of Disney, is unbeatable. Opened in 1994, Forest Lake was designed by the ubiquitous local design team of Clifton/Ezell/Clifton, who have done their best Fazio imitation in creating a vividly framed golf course that shows off the site's rich vegetation and interesting topography, often creating more interesting holes in the process.

The courses are similar in that they are entirely preserved - no homes intrude on either routing. Sure, a turnpike bisects Forest Lake but this is no more distracting than the colorful billion-dollar accouterments just outside of Osprey Ridge. The undulating greens at Forest Lake alone are worth the visit, and the procession of holes, 13-17, are as good as any other five hole stretch in town. The two par threes in this string, fourteen and sixteen, are as much as any golfer could want, playing a combined 439 yards in length from the rear tees, both directly over water.

Is Forest Lake a poor man's Osprey Ridge? If so it's due only to the price.

Toned Down or Amped Up?

If there's time for another day of golf, the other course at Disney's Bonnet Creek, Pete Dye's Eagle Pines course, might be a logical choice.

The excitement of a Pete Dye design would typically be enough of an attraction to anyone, but Eagle Pines is one of his more sedate offerings. It's a pretty course with plenty of standard Dye treatments, but missing is some of the gusto and quirk that his best courses possess. Perhaps Eagle Pines was toned down a little for the Disney World crowd?

A better option exists back up in Apopka not far from Errol Estate Country Club. Rock Springs Ridge Golf Club is another Clifton/Ezell/Clifton design and here they held nothing back.

Originally an 18-hole course set on one of the better properties around, the course suffered as the first nine became compromised by housing. Last year the team installed a third nine that now, combined with the old second nine, gives Rock Springs Ridge one of the strongest 18 holes sets in the region.

The rough, virgin landscape of RSR's best "course" has nary a peer in the region. The old second nine was already a memorable place, undisturbed by homes or humans while the elevation changes produced inspiring golf shots. Now the new nine is cut from similar terrain. The greens are less undulating than those at Forest Lake, but the undisturbed habitat, exciting elevations, and aggressive bunkering make Rock Springs Ridge a rare treat in Orlando golf.

Rock Springs Ridge's North Nine, West Nine and South Nine are 30 minutes from Disney, but the green fees are a fraction of those at Eagle Pines.

Special thanks to John Conley for help with this feature.

Derek DuncanDerek Duncan, Contributor

Derek Duncan's writing has appeared in,,,, 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.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment