2005: Features - Golf soars along with Midtown surge

When Shingle Creek Golf Club opened off Universal Boulevard in December 2003, golfers never got the feeling they were only a couple of minutes from one of Orlando’s main tourist drags. Native grasses waved in the breeze, the gentle waters of the namesake creek flowed quietly in the distance, herons and egrets flew overhead, and the sound of silence was all around.

A year and a half later, the breezes, creek and at least some of the birds remain, but the sounds are of development, something that is in full swing in Central Florida. Here, the post-9/11 slowdown has disappeared, and the number of visitors is soaring as fast as area home prices and the high-rise luxury condos on the downtown Orlando skyline.

All over midtown – which stretches from the trendy Thornton Park area downtown toward Orlando International Airport to the east, then south to International Drive and Sand Lake Road – signs of the ascension are apparent. It is midtown, after all, that offers a little of everything to everybody – locals and visitors alike.

Want to avoid Orlando’s nongolf attractions altogether? Make your base north of the city. Want a little Mickey mixed in with your rounds? Go south toward Disney. If you want a nice blend of both worlds, however, midtown offers an array of fine courses, unique eateries and, if the heart desires – or allows – the region’s most-rollickin’ rides. (You can start with Revenge of the Mummy at Universal Studios, The Incredible Hulk at Universal’s Islands of Adventure and Kraken at Sea World.)

Visitors also have their pick of fine accommodations, from the swank Westin Grand Bohemian downtown and the unpretentious comfort of Arnold Palmer’s Bay Hill Club and Lodge (see p36) to a variety of upper-tier hotels near I-Drive and Universal.

Few places, however, spotlight the recent Orlando boom better than the Rosen Shingle Creek Resort, where a 1,500-room hotel is rising just a few feet from the golf clubhouse. The hotel, to open in fall 2006, will include a 250,000-square-foot conference center, even though the sprawling behemoth called the Orange County Convention Center is only a 3-wood away.

The resort, developed by Orlando hotelier Harris Rosen, gets its name from the nearby creek that forms the headwaters for the Florida Everglades. Adjacent to the resort, on 20 acres that Rosen provided (along with an additional donation of more than $10 million), is the gleaming new campus for the University of Central Florida’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management – fittingly being used by students eager to one day provide service to the region’s seemingly neverending stream of visitors (approximately 48 million in 2004 alone).

Despite all that’s going on around it – the beeping of trucks and rumbling of construction equipment are almost constant in the background – the Shingle Creek layout is a welcome respite, a golf oasis just minutes from the hotels, restaurants and tacky T-shirt shops of I-Drive. Designed by the late David Harman, the 7,228-yard course winds through a wetlands basin and features undulating fairways, contoured greens and interconnecting waterways bordered by oaks and pines.

Wherever you are in midtown, enticing golf options are less than 30 minutes away.

Eagle Creek (2004), a Ron Garl/Howard Swan collaboration 10 minutes from Orlando’s airport, is touting that location with the slogan “Save the Best for Last.” The effort to get visiting golfers to make the course their final stop on the way out of town includes a first-class clubhouse, upgraded shower facilities and arranged transportation to the airport.

If you only have time for nine holes before your flight, ask to play the back. Eagle Creek’s initial seven holes are fairly mundane, but beginning with the par-3 eighth, things get better in a hurry. Swan’s European influence can be felt in the rectangular tee boxes, compact greens and the numerous revetted bunkers that are used to great effect on the final nine, especially on the 217-yard 11th, where the tee shot must carry an imposing swath of sand filled with native grasses and avoid a trio of tricky bunkers surrounding the green.

Also close to the airport is North Shore Golf Club (2001), a Mike Dasher design that bills itself as two courses within one. The front, called the Modern Nine, has a links feel, featuring wetlands, dunes, native grasses and liberal mounding – along with a few power lines and freeway overpasses. The Classic Nine is the real joy, winding gracefully through groves of old, moss-laden oaks that give it a distinct Deep South feel. The par-3 14th (170 yards) and par-5 15th

(525 yards), a narrow dogleg left, are protected by ponds left and front of the green and provide a difficult back-to-back challenge.

Back near the attractions, less than 10 minutes from Universal Studios, is MetroWest Golf Club (1987), perhaps one of the truest examples of Robert Trent Jones’ trademark style, with large greens, plenty of bunkers and ample landing room off the tee.

Many locals consider MetroWest one of Orlando’s best, and will tell you it features one of the area’s toughest finishing tandems. No. 17, a 226-yard par 3, requires a tee shot over a creek to a putting surface protected by bunkers front and right. Those who survive to play the 413-yard 18th face a demanding approach over water to a deep, narrow green.

Of course even MetroWest can’t match nearby Bay Hill for fantastic finishes. The 219-yard 17th features an angled green protected by a trio of well-placed bunkers and a wide lagoon in front that narrows before continuing around the right and back of the putting surface. The approach on the 441-yard 18th can be a watery, rocky grave for those in contention in the PGA Tour’s Bay Hill Invitational – just ask Vijay Singh.

Fortunately, Bay Hill guests – only those who stay at the lodge can play there – always have the option to lay up short and left and avoid the water.

Just one of many choices for golfers in midtown.

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