In 1917, toward the end of WWI, the greens of Winter Park Country Club’s golf course echoed with baaing and bleating. In response to the wartime meat shortage, golfer cleats had given way to hooves: the course’s links, designed by John Dunn of Scotland just 17 years earlier, became grazing pastures for sheep and goats.
This was just one of many course reinventions during its more than 100 years of history, which has seen Winter Park’s fairways expand from 9 to 27 and shrink back to 9 again. Perhaps the course's greatest claim to fame has been the legendary figures who have graced its narrow, tree-hampered fairways, including players with surnames such as Hogan, Snead, and Sarazen.
Players of all stripes, from greenhorns to green-jacket holders, must deal with difficult design and terrain, as showcased on the course’s signature fourth hole, whose dogleg left and tight out-of-bounds areas lead a troubling path to a green situated behind two large bunkers and a massive oak tree. The biggest challenge, however, may reside on the par 3 seventh hole, whose deceptively simple 165-yard length leads into a hard-to-read green with a shape-shifting flagstick.
Course at a Glance:
Ventura Country Club unfurls its par 70, 5,659-yard course around the edge of a meandering body of water, challenging golfers with narrow fairways and sporadic trees engulfing projectile easements. On the seventh hole, an honor guard of water hazards and bunkers allows only the most precise shots to enter its elevated green, followed by the 467-yard 13th hole, an imposing gauntlet encompassing a sharp dogleg left dotted with palm trees that yearn to swat down careless strokes. Three sets of tees ensure that players of every skill level can thoroughly enjoy the course's intricacies. Before circumnavigating the links, golfers can warm up on the driving range with a bag of range balls apiece, practicing long-range shots or revealing their mannequin-leg sand wedge. Two bottles of water replenish sweat lost during intense putts, and a pair of hot dogs either cures postgame hunger or acts as meaty makeshift tees.
The 18-hole course at Winter Pines Golf Club was first drawn up in 1968, and continues to surround golfers in a Technicolor terrarium marked by brightly flowered landscapes and deep emerald turf as it celebrates its 45th birthday. The front nine presents a traditional, par 36 layout that stretches to 3,026 yards, complete with two par 5s just upwards of 470 yards apiece but still well southwards of the 100,000-yard distance at which holes can apply for statehood. Golfers having trouble with the par 5s will find a respite on a par 31 back nine stocked with five par 3s—including four in a row from holes 14 through 17. Those hoping that these indicate can-of-corn iron shots and no-hands aces will come to a rude awakening, however, when they find themselves staring down tee shots of more than 210 yards on holes 12, 15, and 17.
Volcano Island Miniature Golf’s 18 holes wind through an immersive landscape of volcanic crags and life-size dinosaur statues. A towering brachiosaurus welcomes visitors to the complex, its neck extending far above a canopy of palm trees that casts shadows on the course’s emerald corridors, tropical tiki huts, and camped-out dinosaur-rights activists. As golfers putt through the jungle, course-side plaques aim prehistoric factoids into their brains to fill holes in dinosaur trivia. A dazzling eruption spews from a volcano to celebrate holes in one on the final green, sending golfers and stranded hot air balloons on their way home.
The Links at 434 snakes a par 3 course over open fields dotted with sand traps and towering lights that provide an illuminated course as late as 10 p.m. Before taking the course, golfers can warm up by chipping onto a practice green and rifling off range balls from natural-grass tees or one of 10 covered hitting bays that shield players from the pressure-inducing gaze of the moon. From the first tee, golfers' short- to midrange games are tested by narrow fairways and difficult approach shots onto greens reminiscent of Mother Earth's curiously shaped amoebas. The longest hole stretches to 185 yards, putting added pressure on short-iron play, and three sets of tees help to make the course playable for golfers of all abilities.
Faldo Golf Institute’s 27-hole, resort-style golf complex, practice green, and driving range serve as a haven for duffers and a training ground dedicated to the teaching principles of six-time major champion Sir Nick Faldo. Designed by Faldo and golf architect Steve Smyers, the institute’s 18-hole Grande Pines course invites golf balls to wrap around groves of natural timbers, settle into pillowy bunkers, and practice splash-free dives into water hazards across a challenging, 7,012-yard layout. The adjacent nine-hole course was designed to foster the development of novice golfers, although the water-kissed, 2,300-yard layout still packs enough challenges to keep aces interested. A staff of Faldo-certified instructors roams the stately grounds, imparting advice in lessons while helping each unique swing find its titanium soulmate with Trackman club-fitting technology. Partnered with Marriott’s Grande Vista Resort, the Faldo Golf Institute offers overnight stay-and-play packages for dedicated duffers or those hoping for a romantic getaway with their 9-iron.
During a round of golf in this region, it’s not uncommon for players to see the occasional alligator sunning itself on the banks of a fairway pond. The same, however, cannot be said for miniature-golf courses, unless you’re playing at Congo River Golf, where the civilized sinking of putts coexists with the visceral carnage of live-alligator feedings. More than 25 alligators wait for patrons to feed them morsels of gator food in an exhibit beside the course. Though the course offers no chance for an encounter with the ancient, scaly species, it enchants players with waterfalls, safari-themed artifacts, and towering rock faces. In addition, Congo River Golf encompasses an indoor arcade and a gemstone-mining station, where guests dig through dirt for fossils, arrowheads, and Neanderthal’s kindergarten time capsules.