Saturday, November 17, 2012

Orlando report

Five wonderful days in Orlando have almost washed the taste of the election out of my mouth, but only because the weather was beautiful, the courses were great and the service around Orlando was terrific wherever we went.

Pete and I theorized that there must be some sort of "Disney spillover" effect on the whole Orlando area. Disney is famous, of course, for world-class service at all of their parks and resorts and attractions. People in the service industry are often put through "Disney training" to learn how to do things the way they do in the Magic Kingdom.

That same level of service seems to have seeped into the entire local economy. At golf courses, restaurants, shops, anywhere we went, the people who waited on us seemed to be going out of their way to be helpful, chipper and welcoming. Very refreshing.

On to the golf....

Friday we first played something called Harmony Golf Preserve. (Link here.) It's designed by Johnny Miller, and markets itself as a certified "Audubon Sanctuary" with bunches of wildlife running around. We did see a few wild turkeys and sand cranes, but nothing more exotic. The course was nice enough, and it's operated by Troon Golf, which has a reputation as a high-end service provider. We didn't really find that to be the case. When we inquired about an afternoon replay (free with our pretty steep greens fee) we were told nothing was available until late in the day, and no advice about area courses was forthcoming. Finally a couple local in the parking lot turned us on to....

...Royal St. Cloud Golf Links (web site here) just 10 miles or so up the road, where a quick phone call reserved us a tee time and an afternoon rate of just $26. There are so many courses that like to call themselves "links" and promise a Scottish-type layout. Most of them fail, but Royal St. Cloud came through. Few trees, lots of mounding and great conditions. I've paid a lot more to play courses that didn't come close to delivering that links-style experience. First day verdict: Won't go back to Harmony, would go back to Royal St. Cloud if we were in the area.

Saturday was an absolute gem, mostly because it was so unexpected. The course was called Hawk's Landing, (web site here) but it is part of a large Marriott resort known as "Marriott World Center." We've had a number of bad experiences with golf courses attached to hotels, because they often seem to be run as kind of an afterthought. That wasn't the case here at all.

A par-3 at Hawk's Landing
The pleasant surprises began right when we pulled up and learned that we didn't even have to park our car. Complimentary valet parking was the norm, our clubs were whisked away and we were directed to the large pro shop/locker room to change our shoes and get ready. The pro shop folks couldn't have been nicer, directed us to the complimentary coffee and breakfast rolls, then showed us how to get down to our golf cart. Once there, our clubs had been loaded and we were sent on our way to the driving range, where another starter welcomed us, told us how much warm-up time we had and answered all our questions. Really world-class service.

It turned out to be a really good golf course, in great condition, with enough water to make it a challenge, yet still be very playable. We had a nice four-hour round and went into the clubhouse where we were welcomed with "Good to see you again, Mr. Droogsma," and asked if we were interested in playing an afternoon round. We were, and he gave us several available tee times, then directed us to the hotel's food court where we found a great lunch, then went back for our second round. At the end of the day our clubs were cleaned and loaded into the car (after the valet brought it to the front door) and Pete and I both left thinking it was the best service experience we've ever had at a golf resort. The November rack rate is $99, but we booked through a broker and paid just $74 with a free replay. Some of the best golf money we've ever spent, and if you're ever going to golf in Orlando, this is a must-play.

I spent a lot of time in Mystic Dunes bunkers
Sunday we traveled only about five minutes from our condo to a layout called Mystic Dunes. The course describes itself (web site here) as being nine holes of "Carolina low country" and another nine of "British links-style," and for the most part it lived up to the description.

Again, the service was impeccable, our afternoon replay was available - even though we shortened it to only nine holes - and we left thinking this was a track worth coming back to.

Monday we found another gem, just off the freeway south of Orlando at a big resort known as ChampionsGate. (Web site here.) The resort features two 18-hole tracks, both designed by Greg Norman. The "National Course" is described as a "Florida-style resort course" and features a lot of trees, small ponds and smaller greens. The "International Course" is another successful attempt at links-style golf. Almost no trees, huge mounds, massive greens and - on this day - non-stop howling winds that made it a beast to play. Another great golf experience.

So we got in 7-1/2 rounds in four days of play, and by using a broker known as Tee Times USA, our golf costs for those rounds worked out to $336, or a little less than $45 a round for courses that were all high-end, mostly included GPS on the carts and in a couple cases, came with really top-flight service, complimentary range balls and other amenities.

Schedule permitting, next year's trip will likely be back to Myrtle Beach, where the opportunity and variety of having 120-plus courses is really tough to beat, but Orlando has earned a spot in any future trip discussions. 

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