Where else can you enjoy the work of everyone from Arnold Palmer to Mickey Mouse?
The scouting report on the Orlando golf scene can best be summed up as quantity over quality. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t courses worth schlepping your clubs along for the ride when joining the masses coming to the most-visited destination in the U.S.
6 COURSES — 48 MILES — $1,330
Dubsdread Golf Course is the oldest public layout in central Florida, dating to 1924, and thanks to a facelift in 2008 still a local favorite for the budget conscious ($60). The Tap Room is a popular spot for lunch—try the burger—but an equally good option is to head just a mile south (you can even walk) to College Park, where clustered along the main thoroughfare are gastropubs, hip boutiques, and vintage stores.
The Winter Park 9 was my jam long before 2016, when the architecture team of Keith Rhebb and Riley Johns transformed the 9-holer with creative green complexes and strategic bunkering. This is affordable golf ($25) that can be enjoyed by all levels of golfer, and I bet one trip around won’t be enough. Make sure you check out the “Back 9” putting course, which is free to play.
When you’re done, walk along North Park Avenue (it borders one side of the course), the place to be and be seen. For eats, try The Ravenous Pig and 4 Rivers Smokehouse, where I’ve stood in an hour-long line on a 39-degree night—in Florida—the BBQ is that good.
Hop on I-4 and head southwest about 20 miles to tackle the traffic and Bay Hill Club & Lodge ($475 for hotel guests), where you used to be able to see Arnold Palmer pounding balls on the range. The home of the Arnold Palmer Invitational runs along the shores of the Butler Chain of Lakes and includes a dramatic closing stretch. The water-guarded 18th is perennially one of the toughest holes on the PGA Tour.
Need an emergency nine? The 9-hole Charger course was made for such occasions. Have lunch at Bay Hill’s Grill and order the oyster soup, Mr. Palmer’s favorite, and—of course—an Arnold Palmer to wash it down. In the evening, nearby Sand Lake Road is restaurant row and the dining options run the gamut.
Located about 15 minutes southeast of Bay Hill in the Williamsburg section of Orlando, Shingle Creek Golf Club at the Rosen Shingle Creek Resort ($200) is arguably the most scenic course on this list. I wasn’t a fan until 2016 when Palmer’s design group re-shaped the greens and bunkers to deliver a more interesting course full of angles, strategy, and recovery options.
If the kids are calling the shots, Lake Buena Vista, 20 miles west of Orlando, is dominated by Walt Disney World, Animal Kingdom, and Epcot, which includes a taste tour across six continents. (An ex-girlfriend raves about the steakhouse in Canada.)
But my favorite thrill rides are the nearby Tom Fazio-designed Tranquilo Golf Course at Four Seasons Resort ($325), where the LPGA plays annually and is open to hotel guests, and the Waldorf Astoria Golf Club ($245), where the front door is 50 yards from a Rees Jones-designed layout (no stay required for a tee time). Jones turned a flat piece of land into a very atypical Florida layout with design features from the Golden Age of architecture, notably at the par-three 7th, where the Biarritz green has a significant dip in the middle, and the drivable par-four 14th, which has a Cape feel to it.
Disney World, of course, has its own set of courses, the best of which is the Magnolia, with a bunker shaped like Mickey’s ears, but is currently undergoing a renovation. For now, any of these other courses will provide a magical experience.