2006: A work in progress: Championsgate

I’m not a spa snob. But last month when I headed off to the Omni Resort at ChampionsGate near Orlando, Fla., to get my deepest tissues massaged, little did I realize how much I’d need it. Simply put, Greg Norman’s International Course beat me up.

Tourists looking to avoid the hustle and bustle of Disney World will find peace and quiet at this Central Florida escape. But you’d better bring your “A” game along with your toothbrush. This isn’t relaxing resort golf.

The two ChampionsGate courses – International and National – opened in fall 2000 along a desolate stretch of Interstate 4, which ties Tampa to Daytona.

The accompanying, 730-room Omni Resort opened in fall 2004.

One thing that separates ChampionsGate from other Orlando resorts is that it houses the world headquarters for the David Leadbetter Golf Academies. Where else can you schedule a lesson with a Leadbetter protege at the pool’s towel hut?

I kicked off my stay at the 10,000-square-foot European-style spa, where the staff was congenial and the atmosphere relaxing. One nitpick: add a door to the locker room. Slipping into a comfy white robe with folks in the waiting area situated directly across the hall can be a little awkward.

With a few hours to kill before my first tee time I headed out to the pool area, where there’s something for everyone. Got kids? The family pool features water slides and an 850-foot lazy river complete with canyons and tunnels. Those looking for a little more peace and quiet can lounge around the neighboring formal pool. Even the towels seem fluffier on this side of the deck, which is lined with Christmas tree-shaped topiaries and flanked by eight fully-loaded cabanas.

When planning your golf, I’d suggest starting on the National Course. It plays nearly 6,000 yards from the white tees (7,128 yards from the tips) and offers a good mix of holes. The 225-yard, par-4 16th was reachable from the tee, a welcome ego booster before the two water-lined closing holes.

The International Course, by contrast, is a grind even for better players. When a gentleman behind the pro shop counter informed me that the International carried one of the highest course ratings in Florida, I gulped. From the black tees, it’s an eye-popping 7,363 yards with a rating and slope of 76.8/143. Good thing I’m a girl.

I ended up playing both rounds with Bill Russell, a 76-year-old real estate developer I met on the first tee at the National Course. After using the GPS system to keep score and measure distance during the first round, we were surprised when the starter at the International Course told us the following day about a glitch in the system. Apparently distances are 10 to 14 yards off when the GPS scorecard system is activated. In other words, don’t keep score if you want correct yardages.

With just enough wind to do some damage, five par 4s on the well-manicured International Course played more than 400 yards that afternoon and two par 3s exceeded 200 yards. From the white tees.

Pot bunkers coupled with large waste bunkers set up a nice game of beach ball for wayward drivers. Water comes into play enough on the links-style layout that it’s easy to forget to exhale.

Simply put, it’s 18 holes of defensive golf.

“I’m a 6 (handicap) and I didn’t enjoy playing it,” Russell said. “I just thought it was an extremely penal course.”

Not to worry. The ChampionsGate property offers another track that’s sure to restore confidence: the Omni’s lighted nine-hole par-3 course. For $15, guests can rent a pencil-thin bag with a couple of Callaway wedges and a putter or bring their own sticks. Most holes are in the 60-yard range and feature plenty of sand. It’s the perfect way to cap off an evening and hone the short game.

While Norman’s tracks have had a few years to mature, it’s clear the relatively young Omni resort still has a few kinks to work out. Russell ordered eggs Benedict one morning at Trevi’s, one of five restaurants on property. He waited 30 minutes for his breakfast to arrive before finally heading to the buffet. When it came time to pay, his missing waiter never reappeared so he left cash on the table and hurried to the first tee.

When Larry Miller and his wife, Ann, made dinner reservations for 8 p.m. that week at Zen, an upscale Asian restaurant, they were shocked to find the restaurant closed when they met a business associate at the front door. No one bothered to let them know.

The hotel staff scurried to get the Miller party a table at David’s Club, a sports bar and grill that offers fantastic views of the pools and courses below. While the plasma screens and plush leather chairs are ideal for watching a ballgame, it’s hardly the environment the Millers had in mind for a business dinner.

“The hotel itself was very nice, but the staffing and servicing was just poor,” said Larry Miller.

Guests looking to dine off property might want to take advantage of the Omni’s rental-car desk. A private car runs about $40 each way to Downtown Disney and a cab costs about $30. Renting a car from Hertz for the entire day, however, rings in at $66.

From the outside, the Omni is a striking building with impeccably manicured grounds. But the inside appears a work in progress, perhaps understandable given that it’s not yet 2 years old.

The bottom line: Book a tee time, then a massage.

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