ORLANDO, Fla. - If there's one thing that drives golf rounds more than warm sunshine, it's tourism, and you'd be hard pressed to find a golf destination with a more prolific combo of the two than Orlando.
Although Walt Disney World is the catalyst for tourism in Central Florida, Orlando's portfolio of approximately 150 golf courses does its part. And it's not just visitors who play golf here; many of the world's best pros call Orlando home, including Tiger Woods, Arnold Palmer and Annika Sorenstam.
The general theme in Orlando is resort golf, meaning courses are part of a hotel or housing development. Resort courses are characterized by forgiving fairways, big greens and young trees, with difficulty in the form of lakes and bunkers.
The climate is generally warm and humid, with two distinct seasons. June through September is hot and rainy while October through May is balmier, with less rain. As you might expect, golf and hotel rates are highest in the dry season whereas deals are easy to find during summer months.
Here is a rundown of the top places to stay and play in Orlando:
TOP PLACES TO STAY
Orlando has the most hotels and the second-most hotel rooms in the country (after Las Vegas). The huge supply is due not only to booming tourist attractions Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando and Sea World, but also the Orange County Convention Center, which draws thousands of business travelers to the area each year.
If you're in town mainly for golf and you're looking to keep a low profile, then consider the 70-room Bay Hill Club & Lodge, which has a private, country club feel. The golf course, which is open only to club members and overnight guests, is highly regarded, serving as annual host of the PGA Tour's Arnold Palmer Invitational. Though Bay Hill is less than a 20-minute drive from Disney, its location within an exclusive neighborhood protects it from the hustle and bustle.
At the south end of Orlando's I-4 corridor is Omni Orlando Resort at ChampionsGate, another hotel that's more for golfers than theme park-goers. This 16-story, 720-room hotel stands tall amid two 18-hole golf courses and a nine-hole lighted par-3 course. ChampionsGate also serves as world headquarters of the David Leadbetter Golf Academy.
For a high-end option in the heart of Disney, check out Orlando's finest hotel, the Waldorf Astoria Orlando. With elegant decor and devoted staff, it features all the sophistication of the New York original, and it's a mere five-minute drive from any of the Disney theme parks. The adjoining Waldorf-Astoria Golf Club is classically designed and expertly maintained.
TOP GOLF COURSES
With 150 golf courses you might expect wide variety in style, but Orlando's inland location and low-lying topography put limitations on even the most creative golf course architects. The biggest draw here is the sunshine, and if you can brave the summer heat you'll be rewarded with steep discounts.
Bay Hill Club & Lodge is one of the area's best courses. Owned by golf legend and local resident Arnold Palmer, Bay Hill has a distinct country club feel because it essentially is one — only club members and guests of the adjoining Lodge are permitted access.
Arnold Palmer Design reconstructed the course in 2008, flashing bunker faces higher to make them more visible. In addition, greens were flattened to allow for more pin placements close to the jagged rock-lined lakes that are Bay Hill's signature.
If you hear Mickey calling your name, there's plenty of golf in the heart of Disney, most notably the four Disney courses.
Opened in 1971, Disney's Magnolia course was Orlando's first true resort play. Forty years later it's still one of the area's most popular layouts. But don't let the resort tag fool you, Magnolia's thick trees, deep bunkers and tricky greens give it plenty of bite. Stretching to 7,500 yards when it hosts the PGA Tour's Children's Miracle Network Classic, it's easily the longest of the four Disney courses.
In addition to Magnolia, Disney's Palm golf course serves as co-host of the CMN Classic, and the more forgiving layout succumbs to low scores by the world's best. The Lake Buena Vista course and Osprey Ridge course round out the golf offerings at Disney.
Just east of Disney are two solid stand-alone courses with well-known designers. The first is Celebration Golf Club, which is nestled within the affluent and quaint Celebration neighborhood and was designed by the father-son team of Robert Trent Jones and Robert Trent Jones, Jr. The other is Falcon's Fire G.C., the first Rees Jones design in Orlando, which recently reopened after a renovation that improved its greens.
If you're a diehard looking for a 36-hole day, some of the best multi-course facilities in Orlando include ChampionsGate and its two links style layouts, International and National. Orange County National has two 18-hole courses, Crooked Cat and Panther Lake, which have teamed to host the final stage of PGA Tour Q School.
For a family-friendly resort golf experience check out Orange Lake Resort, which, in addition to condo-style accommodations, has two 18-hole courses — the Legends and Reserve — as well as two nine-hole, par-3 courses.
For the best chance of avoiding the tourist crowd, check out the Johnny Miller-designed Harmony Golf Preserve, the semi-private Windermere Country Club or the competitively priced Hunter's Creek Golf Course.
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