WINTER PARK, Fla. - At just under 2,500 yards, Winter Park Golf Course - no longer Orlando's best kept secret - is a golf playground that may be influencing the future of the game.
Almost everyone walks. Beers are $2. The dress code is loose at best. And, from tee to green, it’s almost entirely fairway. 'WP9', as the locals call it, has a community feel that blends in perfectly on the edge on Park Avenue, a street with great restaurants and shopping. Plus, at the cheap rate of around $20, it is a must-play when in the Orlando area.
I'm lucky because I live in Winter Park. I played college golf, and even though I grew up competing on much longer courses, I still find WP9 endlessly engaging and enjoyable. I play in its Friday skins game (which anyone can play in) on the regular. At last week's PGA Show, I teed it up in a special outing put on by LINKSOUL and TRUE Linkswear with music, prizes and plenty of fun. Winter Park is a local hang for me, but it's also become a magnet for traveling golfers.
How could a short nine-holer make the big jump to a sort of bucket-list type course? By delivering the secret sauce every club should aspire to offer: a fun, affordable facility with an atmosphere that's welcoming to everyone.
The course has been around for more than 100 years, but turned into a real gem in 2016 after a renovation by Keith Rhebb and Riley Johns. I never had the chance to play WP9 pre-renovation, but it was transformed from a flat, relatively mundane track into what it is today. It attracts golfers of all skill levels having done more than 42,000 rounds in the last fiscal year.
Why beginners love it
For someone who is just getting started in golf, the short layout and hole designs, which allow for even poorly hit shots to roll out a good amount, make it an ideal place to learn the game. Even two par 3s playing less than 100 yards make par or bogey a real possibility (you just need to avoid the deep, challenging bunkers). The only thing that needs to be overcome is the fear of hitting a car on one of the many streets that run parallel to the course. I still wait a beat sometimes on the tee, just so the occasional suspect shot I hit doesn’t destroy the rear windshield of a BMW passing by.
But most important, the welcoming vibe and attitude that golf is supposed to be fun and for everyone makes it less intimidating for beginners, which is something the sport can struggle with. WP9 even has a sign welcoming all golfers, a symbol that's the polar opposite of the warning sign at Bethpage Black.
Why experienced players love it
Mid-handicap and low-handicap players: don’t let the scorecard fool you. The wide variety of shots, well-placed bunkers and unique and challenging green complexes make it great for a casual round or money game. For a par-35 short course, you still get to hit at least three drivers (on holes 3, 4 and 5) and 3 long irons/3 woods on the short drivable par 4s (holes 1, 6 and 9). Even the short par-3 second will often be won with a birdie in the weekly Friday skins game because of its complicated green that requires a precise shot. The greens almost always run fast and true and will test your short game as much as anywhere. Anyone who plays out here regularly will improve that aspect of their game quickly. In the winter months, the elevated greens and tight lies make it an ideal track for all the Texas wedge enthusiasts out there.
WP9's versatility as a golf course can easily be defined by the foursomes I play with out there most. It's either my fiancé, who is brand new to the game, and her parents, or three buddies who all played college golf at a much higher level than I did. Both foursomes always have a good time.