It's a Golf World After All

TIMES STAFF WRITER; Paul Lieberman is based in The Times' New York bureau

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.

There's also an on-site Arnold Palmer Golf Academy, with programs from half a day to five days long. But just when you think Arnie's club is all about golf, you learn that the classes run only from 8 a.m. to noon. That's in part, explains marketing director Gary Lorfano, so "people with families can take them over to Disney in the afternoon."

If you're really worried that you're going to be kept off the links by the pull of the theme parks--whether Disney, the new Universal Studios or the others--another option is to head down the road, a little farther from their gravity force.

A half-hour southwest on Interstate 4 is the Grenelefe Golf and Tennis Resort, whose three courses are frequently used by the PGA's brutal "Q School," where the world's aspiring golfers compete to qualify for the lucrative American tours.

The showpiece is Grenelefe West, designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr., a looonnnggg course through oaks and pines--local pros say they'd push it as a site for the U.S. Open if not for Florida's heat in June, when that event is held.

The 750 units here are family-size one-bedroom suites, but if families come, it's largely for golf or tennis. The three Grenelefe courses chalk up 140,000 rounds a year, says golf director Tom Donahue. He figures a good chunk of guests are "business guys looking to get away." The others? The average stay is two nights, three days, and he concedes that "on one of those days, they usually go . . ." You know where.

Which brings up that other, very plausible option for golfers--staying right in the belly of that squeaking beast.

The first day of my exploration, a sign in front of the clubhouse for Disney's newest courses (next to sculptures shaped like huge tees) boasts that the empire itself offers "99 holes of golf."

That includes a nine-hole "walking course" suited for beginners and children. But the others are prime Big Boy playgrounds, the sort that have a way of seducing the legions who come here for corporate retreats or conventions or--they swear--for quality time with the kids who have been begging all year for a few days here.

It's just in case the impulse strikes that Disney stocks an astounding 250 sets of rental clubs. They're not throwaway sets, either, but top-of-the-line Callaway Big Berthas in black pro-like golf bags.

Two of those rental sets are on the cart of Dan and Chris, the 30ish fathers from New York who, with their few days' growth of beard, look like fishing bums, but turn out to be an investment banker and an advertising exec.

Though they started out swaggering like manly men, explaining how they knew all along they'd get in some golf--kids and wives or not--they confide several holes later that they sort of, well, had permission.

"See, we've been here five days," explains Dan, a John Belushi look-alike, complete with cigar. "We've been to Magic Kingdom, Epcot, MGM Studios, Sea World. Once you've done all that, it's pretty easy."

"You don't even get an argument," pipes up Chris. "They're sick of you. My daughter's comment was, 'Good, Mom, now we can go shopping without him.' And that suits me fine."

"What was that you said yesterday?"--Dan again--" 'Enough of this happy stuff! Let's go play golf!' "

"Right. Let's get our edge back."

Though there's no question that most of the golfers out here are men--whether playing with permission or not--Disney has been working to make the golf welcoming to the rest of the family. It's loaning clubs to kids 17 and under and inviting them to play free all summer on the starter course.

In addition, it's planning a promotion with Orlando's women's basketball team to get more of that sex playing, while touting the female pros on staff and how the new courses, in particular, were designed as "woman-friendly"--to be just as interesting from the front set of tees as the ones farther back, which the men use.

"They're really the only segment [of golfers] that's growing," noted Disney's golf director, Lee Rawls.

But ours is clearly a foursome of single-minded males--none more so than Mike, the grandpa.

About the nine hole turn, he gives a convoluted justification for having hit the course as soon as he hit town. He mutters how he and his wife lived here from 1992 to 1996 "and for 19 months straight we had guests." I gather that's why he couldn't play enough golf then, but soon he's talking about having lived in Iran, too, while working in the "defense security" field.

It seems wise not to press him--his golf umbrella may be tipped with cyanide. Besides, he's proven useful as a naturalist, pointing out the egret sunning on a sandbar in the lake by the second green, the cormorant by the 11th and the towering platforms for the nests of the hawk-like ospreys that give the course its name. There's not an inkling that we're near a theme park that counts 17 million turnstile entries a year.

Osprey Ridge, opened in 1991, is a typical Tom Fazio design, featuring large traps and water placed just where you're tempted to hit. Three of the par-5 holes offer "risk-reward" shots--a good player has a chance to hit them in two, and get a birdie, if he dares to go right over a hazard. I do just that on the par-5 16th, but it's still not enough to win the hole.

I had initiated a skins game--some cash goes to the low scorer on each hole--hoping to earn back some of the afternoon's expense. The round is costing me--$140 prime season greens fee, $5 for a bucket of range balls and $18 more for a "Mickey Golf" hat.

Dan and Chris pay lower greens fees because they're staying on Disney grounds, but must cough up $35 for the rental clubs. This escape doesn't come cheap.

Adding to the cost is the fact that Mike, our secretive naturalist, has finally conquered his slice and manages a par on the 16th hole. Since he had seemed so helpless, I'm giving him a stroke each hole. Here, that lets him tie me.

Then he makes a great sand shot--helped no doubt by his time in Iran--on the par-3 17th hole over water. And he produces another miracle out of the sand.

As we head for the clubhouse, the unrepentant golfing grandpa puts our money in his pocket and says, "You're all playin' again tomorrow, aren't you?"



Tee'd Up in Orlando

Getting there: Delta and United fly nonstop from LAX to Orlando, with round-trip fares starting at $298.

Where to stay and play: Families whose primary purpose is to visit the Walt Disney World theme parks will find it convenient to stay on the vast Disney property (thousands of rooms in all price ranges) and get deals on playing the Disney golf courses. For information about lodging and packages: Walt Disney World, Guest Information, P.O. Box 10040, Lake Buena Vista, FL 32830-0040; telephone (407) 934- 7639, Internet

Disney has five 18-hole courses and one nine-hole course, all available to outsiders. Greens fees for prime hours run as high as $100 through October, then rise in the cooler winter months. For golf reservations and tee times, tel. (407) 939-4653.

The area's luxury destination is the Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress, 1 N. Jacaranda, Orlando, FL 32836; tel. (407) 239-1234, Internet Only guests of the resort can play the 45 holes, co-designed by Jack Nicklaus. Golf packages range from $166 to $251 per night, per person, meals not included.

Less luxurious--and smaller--is Arnold Palmer's Bay Hill Club and Lodge, 9000 Bay Hill Blvd., Orlando, FL 32819; tel. (888) 422-9445, Internet Golf packages range from $125 to $215 per night, per person.

Golfers who want some distance from the theme park frenzy--and a less expensive vacation--can head 30 miles down Interstate 4 to the 750-unit Grenelefe Golf and Tennis Resort, 3200 State Road 546, Haines City, FL 33844; tel. (941) 422-7511. Golf packages cost between $129 and $139 per person, per night, and include breakfast and dinner. The greens fees for outsiders range from $25 in summer to $130 in prime cooler months.

For more information: The Orlando/Orange County Convention and Visitors Bureau publishes directories to theme parks, hotels, resorts and golf courses; tel. (407) 363-5800, Internet

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World