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Monday, January 26, 2015

Don't Miss Central Florida's Mission Inn

For an Orlando golf vacation without the traffic, hassle, and crowds of Mickeyland, Mission Inn Resort & Club in nearby Howey-in-the-Hills is an excellent choice.  The friendly, casual resort offers two fine golf courses as well as a full menu of other activities--and the Orlando attractions are only 30 minutes away if you absolutely have to spend the day with Pluto.

Mission Inn traces its beginnings back to 1917. That year, the El Campeon course was laid out by George O’Neil, one of America’s first native golf professionals and course architects. It was part of the original hotel complex built by William “Bill” Howey, who tried developing that part of central Florida for land sales.  After a fire destroyed almost everything in 1920, a new hotel was built and the golf course renovated by Captain Charles E. Clarke, a native of Troon, Scotland. By the time of its reopening, the course was being declared “the sportiest in Florida.”

Renamed “El Campeon” in 1992, the course today still retains its old-school classic lines.  It's a little shorter than its sister course, Las Colinas (6601 vs. 6829 from the blues), but carries an equivalent slope of 135, indicating it can be just as difficult for the bogey golfer.  Members consider it more of a shot-maker's course, which is probably a good assessment.

It also, though, could be considered a scuba-diver's course, since water is found on thirteen holes--almost always in play!  Even when the hole is dry, well-placed bunkers keep you from flailing away with no regard for direction.  The signature hole on El Campeon is the seventeenth, "Devil's Delight," a 538-yard par five that threatens your immortal soul (or at least your scorecard) with both sand and water.  You'll find both, actually, on your approach to the tiny green, which is fronted by a bunker and a pond.

El Campeon is also one of the oldest courses on the newly formed Florida Golf Trail.

Las Colinas is an excellent example of a resort course that's also challenging enough for enjoyable play by members who see it frequently.  It's long but not brutally so, well-blessed with water, trees, and bunkers but not so many you can't avoid them, and the greens are contoured markedly but not roller-coasterish. The original Gary Koch design was updated by Ron Garl in 2007.

The basic strategy for playing Las Colinas is to take an extra half-club on most approaches  Don't go a full one, though, because you'll want to stay below the hole whenever possible. The greens roll true and fast--surprisingly fast for a resort course.

It's also a good idea to take advantage of the front side's scoring opportunities because it's shorter and less demanding than the back, playing almost 40 yards less per hole on average.  There are also several good birdie opportunities like the 488-yard par-five fifth hole and three par fours under 400 yards on the front.

The back nine is a different story.  It's longer and tougher with a couple of real round-wreckers on the way home.  The tough holes include the eleventh, a 196-yard one-shotter that plays almost entirely over water, and the 218-yard fifteenth, which has a massive tree blocking, not just guarding, the right side of the green--the place you'll find the pin most often.  It plays a bit uphill, too, so don't be shy about your club selection.  The 468-yard twelfth hole looks like a birdie opportunity on the scorecard, but "Alligator Alley," as it's known to the locals, has some serious teeth.  The chute through the trees off the tee is no more than thirty yards wide and if you miss it, you'll be in jail.  The second shot has to thread another pair of fairway-blocking trees just to give you a chance to aim at the flag for your second or third.

The Mission Inn, home to the two courses, is a charming, friendly place that offers not only a good golf experience but several restaurants, a marina, spa, tennis, fitness center, trap and skeet shooting, and the nearby Yalaha Bakery, which is not to be missed.

Among many other books, Dave Donelson is the author of Weird Golf: 18 tales of fantastic, horrific, scientifically impossible, and morally reprehensible golf

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