2005: Grande Pines refuses to soften challenge

Orlando, Fla.

"Marriott doesn’t do resort golf.”

That’s how Bob Waller, CGCS, director of grounds for Marriott Golf, explains his company’s refusal to dumb-down its golf courses for the tourist trade.

In a city like Orlando that teems with visitors and convention goers, it’s tempting for course owners to simplify contours and not let casual golfers get bogged down by silly things such as steep bunkers and pronounced contours. According to conventional industry wisdom, a complex, challenging layout will slow play and lead to a reduced round count. Better to keep the tourist turnstiles humming and save the sophistication for the private club market.

Marriott Grande Pines Golf Club bucks that trend. Instead of pandering to the itinerant golfer, it offers them an intelligent test and asks that they rise to the occasion. What a pleasure for tourists.

The location of Grande Pines certainly is a plus – off International Drive, only two miles south of the Orange County Convention Center. Price, too, isn’t bad for the market, with green fees ranging from $62 to $130, including optional cart. The course is easily walkable. More importantly, it’s engaging, well-designed and offers a surprising degree of shape, contour and angle.

That wasn’t always the case for this golf course. It debuted in 1987 as The International Golf Club, a Joe Lee design that was your basic mid-Florida yawner. It also had awful drainage. The course eventually became ragged, with common Bermudagrass and Brazilian pepper trees invading everywhere. In January 2003, Marriott hired course architect Steve Smyers and asked him to remake the entire place.

It’s amazing what you can do with an army of bulldozers and a $7.5 million budget. Of course, having creative ideas helps. When the newly rechristened Grande Pines reopened in January 2004, it sported an additional 400 yards, more trees, plus an amazing amount of ground contour that included steep bunkers and boldly shaped putting surfaces. The course also was regrassed with TifEagle greens and Tifsport fairways and tees.

Smyers, based in Lakeland, Fla., is known for his bold, diagonal bunkering and the ability to make courses that are playable for everyday golfers yet challenging for scratch players. The problem with this site, admits Smyers, is that he had to work within the existing hole corridors since the property is squeezed on all sides by real estate, resort property, service roads and wetlands.

To raise the fairways, Smyers and his design associate, Patrick Andrews, created lakes and removed dirt. He also relied upon deep bunkers and grassed the faces for a more traditional look. But what makes the course unique are roly-poly greens that were propped up in classic parkland fashion – very different from the normal low-lying Florida style.

Smyers was worried the countour of the greens would look too extreme. That’s when Kevin Hammock, Marriott Golf’s vice president for development, pointed to Kraken, a roller coaster at nearby Sea World, and said, “You see that? There’s a 45-minute wait to get on. If it were flat, nobody would be lined up to ride it.”

Smyers said Waller also was supportive from the beginning.

“Bob knew that if there were some roll to the greens,” said Smyers, “he wouldn’t be under constant pressure to make them roll at 11 or 12 on the Stimpmeter. He could keep them interesting without having to stress them.”

At an average size of 7,120 square feet, the greens are large enough to take the contour and still provide plenty of hole locations. And the greens are segmented so that you can always feed the ball from one area to the next.

The old-fashioned ground game comes into play, thanks to fairways that provide angles of play and greens that accommodate shots from different positions, depending upon that day’s hole location.

The best example of that comes at the the 339-yard, par-4 seventh hole, a dogleg left that entices even mid-handicappers to try to reach the green. The hole offers numerous options off the tee, including a bail-out to the right, a bold line that threads wetlands and central fairway bunkers, or even a direct shot at the green that appears inviting. But the hole cants dramatically, and there is a steep dropoff behind the green. There’s lots of seductive charm here, but precious little margin of error.

The course still gets jammed up a bit in spots – most noticeably at the parallel par-4 ninth and 18th holes, as well as the tee shot at the par-5 11th. But overall, this is a surprisingly inventive test in the heart of tourist country.








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