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DESTINATION: FLORIDA

It's a Golf World After All

How to sample the family-fun capital's wealth of world-class greens without guilt

July 25, 1999|PAUL LIEBERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Paul Lieberman is based in The Times' New York bureau

ORLANDO — As they say in the homicide interrogation room, it'll be easier if you confess.

So my three playing partners do just that, right on the first tee of Walt Disney World's Osprey Ridge Golf Course. They are, they admit, no-good cheating bums who will abandon their loved ones--even here in the family vacation capital--for the allure of 18 holes.

The confessions come in response to my simple question, "What brings you to town?"

"A 2 1/2-year-old," says Dan, who is about 35 and from New York. His pal Chris is here because of a 10-year-old, "to take her to the land of the Mouse, of course."

Mike, who is a generation older, arrived from Maryland the day before with his wife to look after their grandkids while their son goes on a romantic cruise with his spouse.

Noble intentions all. So what are they doing on the golf course?

"Your wife doesn't mind if you take off the first day?" I ask Mike.

"I'm gonna take off every day," he replies.

With that, he tees off--slicing his ball across a cart path and into the trees, a clear dose of justice if ever there was one. That I hit my own drive down the middle also is justice. For in this group, I alone can claim the moral high ground. I'm in town on business. I'm only cheating on my job to enjoy an afternoon on a course that's both a nature preserve and, as they say, a "solid test."

Although Florida as a whole has long been a natural for golfing, the Orlando area didn't have tournament-caliber courses until 1971, when Walt Disney World opened with two--the Magnolia and the Palm--on its vast property. (So what if one had a sand trap shaped like Mickey's ears.) In 1980, no less than Arnold Palmer added his personal touches to the Bay Hill Club up Interstate 4, setting the stage for another yearly pro tournament in town. Then Jack Nicklaus crafted two showpiece courses for the opulent Grand Cypress resort. And on it went. Today there are 125 courses in the Greater Orlando area.

This is also home to some of the biggest names in golf, including Masters champs Tiger Woods and Mark O'Meara. (They live in the gated Isleworth golf community, along with other sports celebs such as Shaquille O'Neal and Ken Griffey Jr.) While Florida's friendly tax laws are Incentive No. 1 to live here, the private Isleworth course, which includes a replica of Augusta's notorious Amen Corner par 3, is another magnet for the rich and famous. It even has Henry Moore sculptures.

If Orlando is good enough for the pros, it figures to have enough high-level courses to tempt the amateurs here for family time. Indeed, 2% of the people visiting the area with their children do squeeze in some golf, according to the Orlando/Orange County Convention and Visitors Bureau. That may not sound like much, but it translated into a quarter of a million rounds at the five Disney courses alone last year.

So, on my visit this past spring, I set out to find strategies for teeing off without making rounds of park-visiting out of bounds.

The fanciest choice, without question, is the Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress resort, which is a virtual cart ride from the Disney complex yet a world unto itself. It has a high-rise with a rain forest in the atrium and 147 villas set on 1,500 acres that include an equestrian center, a lake for sailing, a heliport . . . and 45 holes of Nicklaus-designed golf, good enough to have hosted the Tournament of Champions for the women's pro tour.

Maybe you can't get on Tiger's home course at Isleworth across town, but here you can play Jack's "New Course." Opened in 1988, it's modeled after Scotland's Saint Andrews, the birthplace of the game, complete with the trademark pot bunkers, stone bridges, undulating double greens (shared by two holes) and a replica of the legendary Road Hole.

You do have to stay in the resort to play, and it can be pricey--a golf package for two during prime winter months runs more than $500 a night. You don't have to worry about that nasty Scottish weather, though, and there are those other attractions close by. One of the pros, Doug Middleton, says that even the golfing fanatics here are probably "coming to see Disney, but they don't want to stay on Disney property."

"If they're purists, they're going to find a way to play," is how he sums it up.

Even more for golfing purists is Palmer's Bay Hill Club and Lodge, for it's not as close to the theme parks and really is built around the game. It's basically a private golf club with rooms (64) for outsiders. The accommodations are rustic, almost bare-bones compared with the Grand Cypress' digs--you wouldn't stay here and not golf.

This is one of those places where you can play the very holes you see the pros tackling on TV. The water-guarded 18th at Bay Hill is always one of the toughest holes on the PGA tour.

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