Home » Feature Story

Orlando golf resort guide: Don't miss these great golf courses

Tim McDonaldBy Tim McDonald,
Grande Pines
View large image
| More photos
Grande Pines is the more challenging of the Marriott Orlando golf courses. (Tim McDonald/WorldGolf.com)

World-class golf courses at places like Reunion Resort, Grand Cypress and Walt Disney World make Orlando a golfer's paradise. WorldGolf.com has your round-up of great Orlando golf resorts.

ORLANDO, Fla. - Orlando has been pretty successful in recent years at presenting itself as more than just a Mickey Mouse tourist destination.

The area has a ton of excellent golf courses. In fact, that can be a problem. Which courses do you play? If you want that resort, vacation experience, but still want to be close to good golf, you may want to go with a golf resort.

Here are some of the best the areas has to offer.

Orlando golf resorts

The Ginn Reunion Resort has three courses, by Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson.

Watson's Independence course was his first in Florida, and the American brought a little British influence, with the course's deep pot bunkers.

"It looks intimidating, but it's fair," said Jerry Thompson, vice-president of Ginn Golf. "The drive zones look narrow, but you step them off and they're not. He does that with different tools, like subtle bends in the fairways. You can have a hole with a left to right bend, but it slopes right to left. It gives you a bunch of shots that aren't level."

The first thing you notice at Palmer's Legacy course is the preternatural green of the course. Not just the fairways. The mounds and hills that rise to either side of the fairways, and the grass bunkers and collection areas around the greens, are the same texture, color and feel, giving the course a seamless, unified look.

Nicklaus' Tradition layout is a smooth, flowing parkland track, without the hills of the other two. Nicklaus built some interesting risk/reward situations, trying to lull golfers into hitting risky shots with potentially big rewards.

The resort has one, two and three bedroom villas, many overlooking the golf courses. It also has 13 pools, including a water park, personal concierges, tennis courts and a spa.

Grand Cypress is all Jack all the time: 45 holes of Nicklaus-designed golf.

The New Course at Grand Cypress Villas is Nicklaus' homage to the Old Course at St. Andrews, and for the American golfer used to being led around by the nose by many modern architects, the New Course can be a little disorienting at first.

The course is set down in the middle of an open meadow and, aside from the deep pot bunkers and stone walls and bridges, there are also long, grassy mounds and burns. Very little water and even fewer trees - just like the grizzled old Scots like it.

The North-South course, the original layout of the 45 holes of exclusive Nicklaus design, has tall, shaggy mounds and elevated, turtle-back greens that often overlook sand and water.

"A lot of dirt was moved making these courses, a lot of mounding and a lot of undulation through the fairways, and not too often do you get that straight lie," said head pro Jason Tomaras.

Stay in the golf villas to be close to the courses, and you'll never have to get in your car; otherwise you'll have a short drive to the courses.

The The Walt Disney World Resort has six courses, featuring two of the best resort courses in the state in Tom Fazio's Osprey Ridge and Pete Dye's Eagle Pines.

Eagles Pines is known for its low, dish-shaped fairways and huge sand beds, and pine straw and sand rough. Sixteen holes feature water.

Osprey Ridge is a long, links-style layout very different from Osprey Ridge, with dramatically elevated tees and greens. It has rolling fairways and high mounds protecting the greens.

The pros rate the Magnolia, the longest of the Disney courses, as the third-hardest Disney course.

The Palm course was designed by Joe Lee, as was the Magnolia. Oak Trail is a nine-hole walking course designed by Ron Garl.

What can you say about staying at the Walt Disney World Resort? There's four theme parks, two water parks, a sports complex, a race track, 20 resort hotels and enough shopping, dining and entertainment options to stuff Saudi Arabia.

Mission Inn is in Howey-in-the-Hills: Yes, it's a funny name for a town. Yes, it's a little far from Orlando. And yes, you should definitely play El Campeon at the Mission Inn.

It's one of the oldest courses in Florida, and with that history, it's no surprise the course has an "old-school" feel to it. No GPS in the carts. No fancy landscaping or modern gimmicks. No mammoth, new-age greens. Just a fun-tough, scenic course in the hills.

EL Campeon isn't a unique Florida course with its natural elevation changes as much as 85 feet, but it is certainly atypical.

"It plays longer than the yardage because of the elevation," head pro John Viera said of the 6,923-yard layout.

Las Colinas is the favored venue of the resort crowd, flatter and friendlier. Las Colinas is a fun, scenic course, not as challenging as EL Campeon. Most of the members, about 80 percent, opt for Las Colinas because they don't particularly enjoy being roughed up by El Campeon.

The inn has a quiet, relaxed feel. It has 131 rooms, 45 suites and 13 villas - all on about 1,000 acres of land; thus it has an intimate feel.

If you're doing a little mini-tour of Marriott golf in Orlando, you can do it the easy way or you can do it the hard way. Or, you can have it both ways.

You can golf Hawk's Landing at the Marriott Orlando World Center Resort - easy - or you can tee it up at Grande Pines - hard -- the other Marriott course right down the street. The savvy golfer will use Hawk's Landing as a warm-up. Or maybe a cool-down.

Whereas Hawk's Landing is a perfect example of a resort course, with immaculate grooming and a player-friendly layout, Grande Pines might ruffle your feathered pillows if you're looking for an ego boost.

Grande Pines was designed by Steve Smyers, who did the superb Southern Dunes a half hour away in Haines City. Nick Faldo, who has worked with Marriott Golf since 1997, was a player consultant on the course.

It is dramatically different from Hawk's Landing, both in visual appeal and challenge. It is longer, first of all, at 7,012 yards from the tips, compared to Hawk's Landing's 6,600 yards.

Whereas the fairways at Hawk's Landing are wide and inviting with gentle mounding and little rough to speak of, you'll maybe find yourself a little hot and bothered standing on the tee box at Grande Pines.

"These are tough fairways to hit," said Richard Walker, of California. "You have to shape your shots. You have to start everything over trouble and bring it around. There are a lot of fairways out here that run out."

There are several Marriott properties in Orlando. The World Center Marriott has six pools and six hot tubs, a spa, fitness center, volleyball, tennis and more.

Only members and guests at the Bay Hill Club and Lodge can play the 27 holes of golf here. It is, of course, the home of Arnold Palmer, and the three nines sweep across 270 acres along the shores of the Butler Chain of Lakes.

The Champion and Challenger nines host the Bay Hill Invitational, held since 1979. The Charger nine is the shortest at 3,409 yards.

This is one of the most prestigious, semi-private clubs in the world, with its own forecaddies.

The 64-room lodge also has tennis courts, meeting rooms and a health club and spa.

Mystic Dunes Resort and Golf has only one course, but it's one of the top-tier Orlando tracks, among the very best this golf-crazed area has to offer. The greens are huge and wildly sloped and undulating. The approach shots are hazardous and tricky and standing on its tee boxes can be disorienting. Throughout, the conditioning is pristine, something locals say is a year-round deal.

The course slashes through the rolling hills of a former orange grove and natural, protected wetlands. The fairways bend, twist, shake, rattle and roll. Railroad-tie bunkers, some of them in the middle of the fairways, spice up the visuals and can swallow even well-struck drives.

The resort, located on over 600 acres of rolling hills, is close to all the tourist attractions, and has spacious villas, four pools - including the newly expanded Dunes Lagoon recreation area - mini-golf, tennis and more.

More photos

Mystic Dunes

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Jerry Thompson

    Joan Adaskin wrote on: Sep 30, 2007

    The best golf lesson that I have ever had was the playing lesson I had with Jerry Thompson at PGA National in the early nineties. He knows more about the golf swing and the rules of golf than any other person I have met.
    Joan Adaskin
    San Diego CA