(UPDATED: November, 2023)
They call it "The Happiest Place on Earth," and for many golfers, let alone their Disney- and Universal-loving children, it can be hard to argue.
Orlando is full of possibility for golfers. It's easy to get to from anywhere - by plane or, for millions, by car - and once you're on Central-Florida terra firma, it's a choose-your-own-adventure town. GolfPass ranked Orlando and Central Florida 28th among the World Top 100 Golf Destinations earlier this year.
You can find cheap-and-cheerful motel accommodations and bop around to any number of equally budget-friendly courses for several days and fill up on decent golf. You can also go all-out and stay in the lap of the gods, playing pristine courses around town or on-site. There is, of course, a lot of middle ground.
Living 100 miles southeast in Vero Beach for the past seven-plus years, I have had the opportunity to play the majority of the Orlando area's best courses. Here is my personal top 10, plus some cut-missers/honorable mentions and a quick list of courses I've yet to get to.
(Note: For the purposes of this list, I'm excluding the courses of Streamsong Resort. If I were to include them, they would occupy the top three spots in the following order: Streamsong Blue, Streamsong Black, Streamsong Red.)
My top 10 Orlando golf courses
1. Southern Dunes Golf & Country Club - Haines City
Millions of people visit Orlando every year with the desire to be transported to some fantasy realm at the likes of Disney World and Universal Studios. Here, Steve Smyers pulled off a similar trick on golfers, drawing inspiration from the golf courses of Australia with heaving bunkers guarding perched-up greens. A diverse mix of hole distances and elevation changes make this my favorite area layout. Max green fee: $135.
2. Winter Park Golf Course - Winter Park
Those in the know know this course as "Winter Park 9" or, simply, "WP9." Though rebuilt primarily for locals, its legend has grown quickly thanks to the efforts of architects Keith Rhebb and Riley Johns, whose stars are rising in the course design industry as a result of the giggly-fun greens and bunkers they brought to this 2,400-yard neighborhood gem. At $20 to walk nine holes, it's one of the best deals in golf. $25 (9 holes).
3. Shingle Creek Golf Club
The movement on and around the putting surfaces here, courtesy of a 2016 renovation by Arnold Palmer Design's Thad Layton, turned the green complexes of a well-kept but otherwise straightforward resort course into something altogether unique and memorable, which is tough to do on an otherwise dead-flat piece of property. Kudos to the Rosen Resorts folks for letting Layton run wild, because the end result is an experience that is more memorable than that found at any of the other big-time resorts in town. $239.
4. Arnold Palmer's Bay Hill Club & Lodge
Bay Hill is something of an enigma. Its annual TV exposure to millions of golf fans via the PGA Tour has made its closing holes iconic, but I actually favor the front nine, especially the terrific downhill par-3 second hole. The closing trio is good, but the awkwardness of the par-4 15th hole blunts it somewhat. Nevertheless, Bay Hill should always be seen as a bucket-list stop for serious golfers who want to pay homage to The King. The on-site lodge itself is one of my favorite places to stay because of the quiet contrast it offers to the nearby Orlando hustle and bustle. $300+, must stay on property.
5. Deltona Club - Deltona
If you're the type of golfer who requires immaculate conditions to love a course, you'll have to forgive me here. Deltona can be scruffy, but Bobby Weed's work here blending inventive sandscapes, exciting greens and some excellent elevation changes rewards a look beyond the surface level. There are very few golf courses you can play for less than $60 with this level of design sophistication. $54.
6. Grand Cypress Golf Club (Links)
This course's days are likely numbered as the former Grand Cypress gives way to the upscale Evermore Orlando resort, but until then, I will remain fond of the way Jack Nicklaus went all-in on shaping a faux-links that, in the dry spring time, actually kinda-sorta plays the way it looks, double-greens, pot bunkers and all. $170.
7. Grand Cypress Golf Club (Cypress)
Open only to guests of the nearby Hyatt Regency resort until Evermore Orlando Resort debuts in early 2024, this is a total redo of the original Grand Cypress course. Nicklaus Design reduced that particular layout from 27 to 18 holes in order to make way for more than 1,500 rooms spread across a Hilton Conrad hotel and vacation rental houses of widely varying sizes. Gone are the old 1980s Nicklaus traits of tiny greens, long rough and tons of mounds. The new course has more of an Augusta-inspired look: all short grass, large and undulating greens, clam-shell bunkers and water on 14 holes. The front nine and final 3 weave through the overwhelming development, with several circuitous cart drives from greens to following tees. But the stretch from 10 through 15, on their own contiguous (and quiet!) paddock, across a busy road from the rest of the course, form the heart of the course, and fun as anything in town. One wishes the Nicklaus Design team had been allowed to route the other dozen holes in similar fashion. Oh well - it's still a solid upscale resort play practically next door to Disney.
GRAND CYPRESS G.C. (CYPRESS)— Tim Gavrich (@TimGavrich) November 3, 2023
Nicklaus Design, 2021-23
Holes 10-15, on a broad paddock, shine. The other 12, very well-executed, suffer slightly from tortured routing thru Evermore mega-resort development. A top-7ish Orlando-area public/resort play. pic.twitter.com/4vz61k9SPX
8. Reunion Resort & Club (Nicklaus Course) - Kissimmee
Bobby Ginn's star burned hot in the pre-Great Recession years, and before his spectacular financial collapse, he developed Reunion, with three golf courses and hundreds of impressive villas and homes within arm's reach of Disney. The Nicklaus course here is typical of the Golden Bear's designs: long, challenging and grand enough to make you want to return and do a better job the next time around. $225, must stay on property.
9. Tranquilo Golf Club at Four Seasons Resort Orlando
Playable only by club members and guests of the upscale surrounding resort, this Tom Fazio redesign has a friendly feel accentuated by several greens with gathering features. That makes it particularly well-suited to higher handicappers and more occasional golfers. And, for those who are inspired by their round, the practice facility is tough to beat. $325, must stay on property.
10. Ritz-Carlton Golf Club, Grande Lakes
The annual host of the PNC Championship gets its turn on TV each year, which raises its profile, as does the fact that unlike many area courses, there are no houses bordering the holes. And while the Greg Norman design is pleasant enough, it takes low-profile shaping to the extent where one wonders if it's a little too quiet to be truly memorable, at least until the closing few holes. Still, it's always in terrific shape, and the on-site JW Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels are among the best around. $395.
Honorable Mention: 6 other recommended Orlando golf courses
(In alphabetical order)
Celebration Golf Club - Celebration
Billed as Robert Trent Jones, Sr.'s final design, I find the front nine here to be the stronger of the two sides. The integration with the surrounding community is interesting, too. $149.
ChampionsGate Golf Club (International) - ChampionsGate
Greg Norman's open-plan design has been refined over the years and remains a solid example of links imitation in a decidedly subtropical setting. $270.
Harmony Golf Preserve - Harmony
This long Johnny Miller design was toward the forefront of the recent movement to drastically reduce bunkering, both for playability and maintenance reasons. Conditioning can be uneven here, but catch it on a good day and it's an excellent value. $130.
Mission Inn Resort (El Campeon) - Howey-in-the-Hills
This Old-Florida mainstay is dripping with charm, and El Campeon is now in its second century of life, making it a rarity in Florida golf. Elevation changes throughout the course will remind northern visitors of home and while the 17th is an unfortunately awkward hole, the combination of value and enjoyable golf here makes it a worthy stop. $115.
Orange County National (Crooked Cat) - Winter Garden
Very long from the tips and typically in good shape, this is a pretty straightforward test that benefits greatly from the wetlands that come into play in the middle of the back nine. $199.
Waldorf Astoria Golf Club
The preponderance of flanking bunkering and straightaway holes here holds it back from cracking my top 10 in town, though the conditioning is typically pristine and the neighboring Waldorf Astoria hotel is luxurious. $275.
Wish List: 5 Orlando golf courses I'd like to see
1. Bella Collina Golf Club - Montverde - I'm fascinated by pre-Recession golf design, and Bella Collina, with its enormous clubhouse complex and epically bunkered course, seems like the pinnacle of that recently bygone era. It used to be more open to the public, but now reportedly only offers two non-member foursomes per day.
2. Reunion Resort & Club (Watson Course) - Kissimmee - I'm also keen to see the Palmer course here, but having enjoyed Watson's work at the Conservatory at Hammock Beach, I'm particularly eager to see what he and his team came up with at Reunion. $225, must stay on property.
3. Disney's Palm Golf Course - Arnold Palmer Design Company's Thad Layton, who led the redesign of Shingle Creek, also renovated this course in 2013. That makes it my top target at Disney. $155.
4. Hawk's Landing Golf Club - A recent renovation here by Robert Cupp, Jr. (son of the prolific late architect Bob Cupp) has been well-received. $139.
5. Victoria Hills Golf Club - DeLand - At about 45 minutes from town, it's on the border of what can fairly be considered "greater Orlando," but due to its reputation for fun land movement, I'm counting it. $54.