2005: Orlando - North end a practical, peaceful locale

Every now and then, David Buth, director of golf operations at 3-year-old Victoria Hills Golf Club in DeLand, Fla., fields a call from a wayward golf tourist stranded about an hour away along Orlando’s International Drive. The tourist invariably will ask whether it’s worth the drive to visit Buth’s course.

“I always answer the same way,” he says. “I tell them, ‘Please make sure to find me after your round if you think it isn’t.’ ”

Buth engages in his share of post-round conversations, but not to issue refunds. Most frequently, it’s another pleased customer thanking Buth for issuing his “long-drive” challenge. At other nearby courses, it’s a familiar theme: Good golf. Good value.

Which makes playing on Orlando’s north side a very good move.

Quality golf on the top side of the City Beautiful isn’t anything radically new, as those who have ventured to Timacuan and the Legacy Club at Alaqua Lakes in the past decade can attest. But almost overnight, other necessary pieces of the golf destination puzzle have fallen into place. Posh new hotels have risen, and gourmet dining has been added to the mix, putting Disney World (sorry, Mickey) and the hustle and bustle of the tourist-infested south side of town a world away.

Better yet, being stationed north of Orlando, in Seminole or Volusia counties, puts visitors within close proximity of Daytona Beach and the quieter and more resplendent New Smyrna Beach.

“As the word continues to get out, I think people will consider North Orlando more,” said Ron Parris, general manager at the Tom Fazio-designed Legacy Club at Alaqua Lakes in Longwood, located about 20 minutes north of Orlando. “We’ve always had a real good mix of courses from a value and high-end standpoint. But now we have everything else, too – and without the traffic jams.”

The Legacy Club at Alaqua Lakes – not to be confused with its next-door neighbor, Alaqua Country Club – is a solid test, with nary any letup. Holes 5-8 offer a brutal stretch in the middle of the round – with two strong par-4s, the 469-yard fifth and narrow and underrated 449-yard eighth (which boasts one of the trickiest greens on the course) as bookends.

Even in peak season (January-April), golf on the North side barely ranges north of $110.

“It’s really a tremendous value when you compare to other high-end clubs around town,” said Parris. “Our golf course is very fair, and we don’t have five-hour rounds.”

The Legacy Club is on track to build its membership to a point where it will go private, but Parris said public play will be allowed for the next year or two. Play it while you can.

Just as the Legacy Club drew national recognition, so, too, has Victoria Hills (price: $45-$95), which was designed by Ron Garl, who has developed clubs all over the world but has made his biggest signature in Florida. Garl was blessed with a great piece of property that features elevation changes one doesn’t normally encounter in the pancake-flat Sunshine State. To support Garl’s strong design work, the maintenance crew at Victoria Hills keeps the club in impeccable condition, and the inside staff goes the extra mile with its service. It’s a tired cliche that a daily-fee club tries to treat guests as if they were private club members; at Victoria, the staff pulls off this trick.

“We get people from private clubs in Orlando who tell us they get treated better here than at their own club,” says Buth with a laugh. “Sad to say, but a lot of clubs run your credit card through the machine (when signing in) and it’s on to the next customer.”

It’s rare to find a golf course opened post-2000 that measures less than 7,000 yards, but don’t get fooled by the tale of the tape. Victoria Hills measures 6,854 yards from the tips, but it’s a cerebral exam as much as a physical one. The course record of 65 is held by PGA Tour pro Chris DiMarco, but he’s played the course a couple dozen times and shot the 65 on his second visit. Victoria Hills is not tricked-up or dominated by water hazards. Instead, 107 bunkers provide the main line of defense.

Lake Mary’s Timacuan Golf & Country Club is another Garl design, though Bobby Weed did an extensive renovation in 1996. The course offers a couple distinct looks: the front nine has a rolling, linksy, Scottish flavor, and the back nine is played through tall trees, Carolina-style.

Golfers could spend their entire week on Timacuan alone and never tire of playing it. But because of the growing list of options in North Orlando, that’s no longer necessary.

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