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Travelers arriving in Orlando International Airport might have noticed a dichotomy among fellow passengers. There are frazzled parents bringing amped-up tykes to see Mickey Mouse. Then there are middle-aged men, anxious to retrieve their golf bags.
Orlando, particularly the southwest side of town between Universal Studios and Walt Disney World, is a target-rich environment for avid golfers. Several of the city’s top resorts annually host the major professional tours when they’re not welcoming Joe Six-Handicap. The latter can expect to pay $250 a day or more during the premium winter months, but prices drop considerably during the shoulder months - September/October and April/May -- and dirt-cheap bargains are plentiful during the moist summer season.
Here are a few of the best golf options in what locals like to call the City Beautiful.
Greg Norman designed both of the courses here, though the layouts are starkly different. The International reflects Norman’s love of links golf (he won two British Opens), with few trees but plenty of pot bunkers scattered among the more than 160 sand hazards. The National is a parkland layout played through woodlands and, occasionally, across wetlands. Swing guru David Leadbetter headquartered his golf school here. The resort is just off I-4, 25 miles from downtown. The AAA Four Diamond Omni hotel and villas are a good, and surprisingly affordable, stay-and-play option.
Grand Cypress is home to 45 holes of golf, the most entertaining being the New Course, Jack Nicklaus’ paean to Scotland’s Old Course. The North and South nines will be used in November 2011 for the LPGA’s inaugural Titleholders tournament. This Four Diamond property is a good place to stay if you want to be near, but not on, the Disney property. Grand Cypress benefited from a 2008 modernization of the 121 key villas -- which are ideal for buddy trips -- and a recently completed $45-million renovation of the 750-room Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress.
OCN’s two 18-hole layouts serve as the biennial host of Qualifying School, the 108-hole torture chamber that players must survive to qualify for the PGA Tour. Both courses play over rolling terrain with elevation shifts that are unusual for Orlando, but the similarities end there. Panther Lake is a tighter target course with prominent wetlands, while Crooked Cat is a largely treeless layout with generous fairways. For golf junkies, OCN is worth visiting just for its circular, 42-acre practice facility, one of the country’s best. Play here, but don’t stay here. OCN isn’t convenient to dining or other attractions, and its lodging might best be described as akin to luxury Army barracks.
Disney has volume, with 4 different 18-hole tracks to choose from. They lack the whiz-bang theatrics that you’ll find inside the Magic Kingdom, but they’re all solid Florida fare, particularly Magnolia, the main course used when the PGA Tour visits in November. A fifth course, the year-old Waldorf Astoria Golf Club, is located on property next to its namesake, the swank, 1,001-room hotel. If you’re staying on site -- and, yes, there is plenty to do even if you don’t bring the kids -- use Disney’s shuttle system. Even long-time Orlando residents routinely get lost in the Mouse’s maze.
Arnold Palmer’s home course is one of the anchors for the PGA Tour’s Florida swing, always drawing one of the year’s best fields. The boomerang-shaped par-5 sixth hole around a lake is the quintessential Florida golf hole, and Bay Hill’s 3-hole closing stretch is the most demanding in central Florida. The resort is only 3 miles from Orlando’s Restaurant Row, 4 miles from the convention center, and also close to downtown. The lodging is comfortable, if not necessarily elegant. Best part: There’s a good chance you’ll meet Palmer, who often hangs around the lodge.