Kissimmee Golf Safari

By: Doug Kelly

Lace up the spikes, grab the sticks and enjoy many of Florida’s best courses – all within minutes of each other in central Florida.

Looking down the fairway from the first tee, I felt as insecure as a diamond-cutter with cataracts. But remembering the remarkable concentration powers of Jack Nicklaus, who can focus on the business at hand even if encircled by a bevy of belly dancers, I calmed myself and hit a decent drive. A punched 8 iron left me with a long putt but I managed to get my par - a comforting start at any unfamiliar layout.

Par For the Course

I was playing the National Course at ChampionsGate, designed by tour legend Greg Norman. By day's end, grass stains were visible on all my irons, a clear sign of the shot variety presented.

On Hole 2, the cart GPS read 203 yards to the pin but it looked much closer to 170. Silly me to doubt the satellites - my 6 iron flopped short of the green with all the authority of a badminton bird, and I disgraced myself further with a cheesy chip and putrid putt that begot a bogie 4.

"You sure chopped up that hole," deadpanned my son Michael, a golfer in his own right. He drove over from Tampa post haste after I called from my balcony at the Omni Orlando Resort at ChampionsGate. With 720 rooms, an awesome fitness center and jillions of first-class amenities, it took no salesmanship whatsoever for him to join me after hearing a poetic description of my view below: pools, waterslides, a hot tub, an 850-foot "lazy river" and the sun-kissed glow of the ChampionsGate courses beyond.

But I digress. Recalling the determination that Tiger Woods summons when under duress, I renewed my spirit and teed up at the third hole. But I'm no Tiger Woods. I skied the drive to the left, leaving me a downhill lie with about the same degree of angle as the Zuchspitz. I bladed a 3 iron but got it close enough to spin a nice wedge shot close to the hole. I glanced triumphantly at Michael and playfully stuck out my tongue.

The National presents a formidable challenge with three double doglegs and fairway-long bunkers on some holes. An amazing par 3 is the 14th, with a picturesque wetland fronting a green framed with tall pines.

Considering the rust on my swing, a 77 wasn't as heartbreaking as feared. And we ended the day at sunset in front of the clubhouse, where a bagpiper in a full kilt outfit played familiar refrains. Another unique feature: This is the home of David Leadbetter's world-renowned Golf Academy.

The second leg of my Kissimmee golfing safari was a 12-minute drive away. Celebration Golf Club proved quite special, with a unique water driving range that was prophetic of my round: I spent more time than a water snake around edges of ponds.

Designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr. and Jr. and with five sets of tees, the layout is set among a natural wetland environment with oaks, pines and magnolias.

My favorite hole turned out to be the 14th, a par 4 heavily wooded to the left off the tee but offering ample fairway room. I crunched my best drive of the day that started at the right edge of the fairway and drew to the middle. Hitching my pants a la Palmer, my 7-iron approach shot was more than decent, and a rare one-putt added a birdie to the otherwise uninspiring scorecard.

An 81 was downright embarrassing but my playing companions suppressed any snickers, and we all agreed that Celebration is a top-caliber course.

I drove literally minutes before arriving at Mystic Dunes. Mystic Dunes boasts a beautiful clubhouse, friendly staff bedecked in knickers, and the best driving range I've ever seen. The range tee is huge so practice areas can be rotated to allow excellent portions of turf to be available at all times. Golf carts come equipped with the latest GPS technology, even with close-ups of each green with real-time pin placements.

I played with Head Pro Rick Smith, a delightful fellow with a nice swing and an equally nice disposition. I went birdie-birdie the first two holes and Rick looked a bit worried. But my true colors came shining through thereafter and, after a litany of bogies, he perceived that I posed no danger to the course record of 63.

Mystic Dunes instantly became one of my favorite courses ever. Lots of doglegs, a mixture of wide and narrow fairways, some of the longest par 4s I've ever encountered, fabulous course condition from tee to green, and a unique setting amid orange groves, clumps of cord grass plants within sand dunes, wetlands and hardwood hammocks. Not to mention the most incredible greens this side of Augusta National.

The first green contains humps so severe it appears as if three huge elephants were buried just under the surface, and the 15th hole has a 9-foot difference in height from front to back. It's quite a design accomplishment on the part of Gary Koch, who competes on the Champions Tour and serves as a TV broadcast golf analyst.

My play was so inconsistent I couldn't even get in the golf cart the same way twice. But that's the price of spending too much time trying to coax a snook into hitting a top-water plug rather than beating balls on the range. Even so, Rick eased home with a nice 71 and I kept the score under 80 - barely. But I will definitely return for another crack at Mystic Dunes.

Although playing any of these courses for just one day is worth the drive from anywhere in the Sunshine State, it's far more sensible and enjoyable to play several during the same trip - just be careful not to drive into me if I'm up ahead, will ya?

Plan Your Own Kissimmee Golf Safari

Check out the following list of area courses. Be sure to contact those that interest you for any updates on facilities and course conditions. Unless noted, all are 18-hole courses with a pro shop, clubhouse, practice facilities, lockers, showers, restaurant/bar, lessons, rentals and softspikes required.

Celebration Golf Club, Celebration. 5,181 to 7,038 yards from five tees.

ChampionsGate, ChampionsGate. National and International courses, designed by Greg Norman, 5,150 to 7,128 yards from four tees.

Falcon's Fire, Kissimmee. Designed by Rees Jones, 5,417 to 7,012 yards from four tees.

Harmony Golf Preserve, Harmony. Designed by Johnny Miller, 5,408 to 7,417 yards from five tees.

Mystic Dunes Golf Club, Celebration. Designed by Gary Koch, Par 72, 4,665 to 7,012 from five tees.

Reunion Resort and Club Wyndham Grand Resort. 18 holes designed by Tom Watson, 18 by Arnold Palmer, and another 18 by Jack Nicklaus.

Sponsored listings by VISIT FLORIDA Partners

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