Road Holes - Orlando, Florida

Orlando's Orange County National, Host of 2010 PGA Tour Q-School FinalsPeak vacation season had come and gone, but Orlando was still a glut of humanity during the second week of an unseasonably warm October. Central Florida’s biggest city is like Las Vegas for children. If you’re parents didn’t pack up the family sedan and take you to Disney World, the Magic Kingdom, Universal, Sea World, or any combination of the above, you should feel unwanted. The only obstacle slowing families from enjoying the wholesome, rite of passage goodness is the traffic. I think they should call it the traffic kingdom.

Venting on the bumper-to-bumper impasse aside, Orlando is the kind of place that makes you feel more American. Vacation is a shared activity that Facebook hasn’t completely transformed.

Golf is a vital part of the Orlando experience. A good portion of accomplished players, like Tiger Woods and Paula Creamer, reside here. This year the city will host the pressure-cooker that is PGA Tour Q-School for the fourth time, and the Children’s Miracle Network Classic at Disney.

Critics routinely recite the talking point that “all Florida courses are the same,” but this is wildly untrue. If Orlando is any indication, Florida golf is misunderstood. I spent five days sampling some of the city’s best layouts and came aware very impressed with the quality and variety. The traffic was tolerable at best.

THURSDAY

11:30 a.m. – A Walk in Winter Park

Winter Park Country Club dates back to the beginning of World War I. There was a time when the club was 27 holes, making it one of the largest golf facilities in the Southeast. Nearly a century later (Winter Park CC will celebrate its centennial in 2014), only nine remain, and they’re randomly woven into the surrounding community. By the time you arrive at the par-5 fourth hole, which borders a crowded cemetery, you’ve already crossed three roads and passed an old Baptist church. This is all done on foot of course. Head Golf Professional Brendon Elliott says Winter Park is the definition of a “throwback” golf course. This 9-hole loop is no pitch & putt though. It’s almost 2,500 yards from the teal tees and reminds Baby Boomer transplants of courses from their childhood. Sam Snead, Gene Sarazen and Walter Hagen all played here.

“Sarazen didn't think too much of the course,” Elliott said. “He referred to it as a shooting gallery because it's so narrow and tight.”

Today, it’s a favorite of Winter Park resident Nick Faldo and the Golf Channel crew. You don’t need Faldo’s money to play it though. A non-resident green fee will only set you back $14. Step out of your car, onto the first tee and appreciate this unique stroll in the park, where you’ll encounter neighbors tending to their lawns and a soundtrack of train whistles and church bells.

Winter Park's Briarpatch

1:30 p.m. – Briarpatch Uber Mac

Brick-paved Park Avenue is lined with ritzy boutiques and art galleries, and populated by students of nearby Rollins College, professionals and a handful of trophy wives. Winter Park eschews many of the Florida stereotypes, and is distinctly Southern. This elegant main drag is evidence of that. It’s complemented by a quaint public park and is shaded by Live Oaks overhung in Spanish moss.

Hungry? The charming Briarpatch is the place to be seen for brunch or a mid-day meal. The menu makes liberal use of filet mignon, and there is always something appealing among the list of daily specials. Among the chef’s recommendations is the Uber Mac and Cheese, a zesty take on an American classic.

7:30 p.m. – A New Day at Midnight

Take your family or significant other out for a little night golf at Legends Walk, one of four courses at Legends Resort. This executive is no pushover and proof that golf doesn’t need to be played a certain way or at a particular time of day to be enjoyed. 

FRIDAY

9 a.m. – Breakfast Cub

In the interest of investigative journalism, I had to scope out one of more infamous theaters of the Tiger Woods’ infidelity scandal. The Perkins off of Conroy Windermere is where Woods allegedly helped himself to the help. Nobody inside seems particularly concerned about this newfound notoriety. You’ve got to admire Tiger’s determination. After a heaping breakfast of three buttermilk pancakes, a side of crispy golden hash browns and a ham & bacon omelet, the last thing I want to think about is a covert sexual encounter. I’ll skip straight to the nap thank you.  

Waldorf Astoria Golf Club

2 p.m. – Luxury Links

Modeled to mirror the class and style of big brother on Park Avenue in Manhattan, the world’s second Waldorf Astoria has upped the ante for luxury resorts in the Magic Kingdom. To Floridarize the franchise, Rees Jones built a golf course. The staff at the Waldorf Astoria Golf Club, a plush green patch of land laced with menacing bunkers, really treats you as if you were a descendent of businessman John Jacob Astor. Your tee time includes complimentary valet parking, locker room access, unlimited range privileges and a sleek Waldorf Astoria bag tag. Shop around, and there are greens fees available for under $100. 

SATURDAY

2 p.m. – Card Carrying Members

Orlando’s Orange County National golf complex is the closest thing to Bandon Dunes you’ll find in the state of Florida. OCN will host the final round of PGA Tour Qualifying School in early December. It will be the fourth time the Central Florida facility has welcomed a full field of hopefuls for the gut wrenching six-round grind toward a Tour card.

Far enough removed from the gridlock of Disney, OCN is golf as it was intended to be played. Eighteen-hole Panther Lake, 18-hole Crooked Cat and the 9-hole Tooth course all unfold over rolling terrain once used as a citrus orchard, and there are no homes in sight. The layouts open up in front of you, and many holes offer tee to green views. Stress levels max out during Q School. The other 51 weeks of the year, the mood is peaceful and serene (as long as you keep pace). You might even spot anglers casting on the lake that runs parallel to Panther Lake’s par-3 15th.

Like Bandon Dunes, players can stay on-site at the Lodge. Warming up for a round of golf has never been so enjoyable. OCN’s practice facility is among the best in the nation. In 2010, the readers of Golf World ranked OCN as the No. 1 public course in Florida, and No. 2 in the U.S.

The Blue Man Group performs at Universal Orlando

9 p.m. – Percussion and Ponchos

CityWalk at Universal is madness. To begin the evening, you’re herded into the Taj Mahal of parking garages, which is fittingly cordoned off into superhero sections. Of course you feel stupid writing down Spiderman 452 before you leave your vehicle. There are abundant sources of entertainment. You can jam out at the Hard Rock Café or ease your mind at Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville. I opted to take in a Blue Man Group show at the Sharp Aquos Theater. Oddly enough, my $80 seat was labeled poncho row CC.  I quickly discovered that my proximity to the stage would require a plastic overcoat for protection from paint splatter. What an exceptionally odd yet entertaining evening. The performance involves marshmallows and dancing bronze statues. You have to see this fusion of music, Improv comedy and social commentary at least once. 

SUNDAY

9 a.m. – Grande Appetizer

Given the opportunity, I’ll take golf as my Sunday appetizer to a full plate of NFL football over the pompous pre-game punditry of Terry Bradshaw and Chris Berman. The Central Florida climate is good for this year-round; even when the tundra has frozen over less fortunate quadrants of our country. Marriott’s Grande Pines Golf Club is at Disney’s doorstep, but the crowds tend to sleep in on Sunday morning, making for a quick and painless commute to the course. The wildlife-laden layout is primarily tree-lined, reminiscent of a North Carolina course, and has some very fascinating green complexes. You’ll need to play at least twice to have a shot at navigating the sloping putting surfaces. Prepare to encounter plenty of unique shots. Designer Steve Smyers presents a good mix of length, visual obstacles and approach angles.

The new Amway Center in downtown Orlando

6 p.m. – Dwight’s New Digs

Resident NBA man child Dwight Howard’s body mass grew so large, that his team and city had to construct a brand new building to contain him. The Orlando Magic hosted the New Orleans Hornets in the first game at the $480 million Amway Center on 10-10-2010. Topped with a 180-foot spire that creeps into the skyline, the building covers 875,000 square feet and took 9.4 million pounds of steel to build.

The beautiful, state-of-the-art arena is magnificent to look at. The main entrance is a wall of glass, giving it a very crisp, clean and open feel. Crowds can overlook the downtown district from the Gentleman Jack Terrace, which sits directly above the entrance and underneath the blinking spire. Downtown businesses are expecting a boost in sales receipts, and I assume that will happen judging by the palpable enthusiasm associated with the team. Downtown Orlando is actually very impressive. It reminded me of San Diego.

Inside the Amway Center, you’re inundated with video walls and corporate signage – Cold Stone Creamery, the Budweiser Baseline Bar and the Coors Light Mountain Bar. Keeping with an emerging trend in professional stadiums, there’s a lot of open space where you can grab a beer and socialize while keeping an eye on the game at the same time.

For a preseason contest, the rather attractive crowd was dressed to impress, even Magic Head Coach Stan Van Gundy. His mock turtlenecks were recently targeted by the tyranny that is the NBA’s new dress code. Orlando won handily, 135-81. The first bucket in the new Amway Center was a 3-pointer by Orlando’s Quentin Richardson.

MONDAY

10 a.m. – Bring on the Bermuda

Bunkers abound at Southern Dunes Golf & Country Club

Southwest of Orlando in Haines City is a very popular public layout – Southern Dunes Golf & Country Club. This is another Steve Smyers design, and it’s a clever concoction of tumbling terrain, ornamental grasses and bold bunkering. It’s funny how a subtlety like cart paths that disappear as you pass the last tee box and don’t’ pick up until you close in on the green can create a more organic environment. Even though it’s lined by houses with the traditional enclosed pool, Southern Dunes has a true links feel.

The management made a sudden decision to install Champion Bermuda turf in late May, and after being closed for the majority of the summer, Southern Dunes re-opened with fresh putting surfaces. As would be expected from greens so young that grain hasn’t taken hold yet, they putted beautifully. Speed and conditioning were the best I encountered.

The layout here is terrific. It’s imaginative, but fair. A great example of the brilliant architecture of Smyers is the short par-4 5th hole. A cluster of bunkers dead straight in the fairway must be avoided to set up a delicate second shot to a smallish green protected on the right by a large pond. 

Editor's Note: This article was first published in the inaugural issue of Golfer's Guide Lifestyles. To get a copy of the new full-size magazine, visit your local Golf Galaxy.  

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