Handicapping GolfNow raters' Top 10 courses in central Florida

By Ed Schmidt, Contributor

As a resident of Orlando since 1989, I've played the great, good, bad and ugly golf courses in central Florida.

Waldorf Astoria Golf Club - hole 11
Waldorf Astoria Golf Club tops the GolfNow Top 10 in the Orlando area.
Waldorf Astoria Golf Club - hole 11Bella Collina - clubhouseMission Inn Resort & Club - El Campeon Course - hole 17Juliette Falls golf course - hole 14
If you go

After all, there's a lot to choose from with more than 100 layouts within a 45-mile radius of downtown.

Since launching last fall, GolfNow golfers have selected their Top 10 favorite courses in Orlando and the central Florida area.

As with any Top 10 -- whether it's college football teams, NFL cheerleaders or barbeque joints -- there's going to be some disagreement. Everybody has a strong opinion, especially when it comes to golf courses.

That said, here's mine:

GolfNow.com raters' Top 10 golf courses in central Florida

1. Waldorf Astoria Golf Club: Uh oh, disagreement already. While this Rees Jones design is one of my favorite resort courses, my no. 1, Red Tail Golf Club, is buried way down the list at no. 9. Presumably the 30-minute drive from downtown turns some golfers off to Red Tail, but they're missing a lot. Adroitly designed by the late Dave Harman, an unheralded Orlando course architect who also fashioned Shingle Creek Golf Club, Red Tail has, arguably, the best natural setting in the area. Moreover, there are very few homes near the course, which enhances the experience. I'm not surprised Waldorf Astoria Golf Club is no. 1, though. It has lots of eye candy features set in a wetland preserve, attentive service and top-notch maintenance standards. When you play there, you're treated like a welcomed guest, not like some tourist that will never return.

2. Bella Collina: No argument with this ranking. GolfNow golfers obviously relish the uber-private club ambiance and a Nick Faldo layout with hills, undulating greens and stunning vistas. Better still, after the round at Bella Collina you can relax in the $40 million, 60,000-square-foot, Tuscan-style clubhouse. I don't care how many bogeys and double bogeys dot your scorecard here, you'll walk away knowing you've had one of the best golf experiences in central Florida.

3. Mission Inn Resort & Club El Campeon: I would elevate the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club, Grande Lakes to this spot. The Ritz course, a Greg Norman design, is the way all resort courses should be designed. The user-friendly layout encourages fast play with wide, easy-to-hit fairways, no out-of-bounds stakes throughout the course, short rough and tightly mown green complexes. Norman doesn't design courses for himself. Rather, he wants every golfer, low- or high-handicapper, to enjoy the experience. There's a lot to like about Mission Inn's El Campeon Course, though, and it does merit a high ranking. The resort is family owned, so you get a folksy, friendly brand of service compared to a contrived, heavily trained corporate style. For exciting golf, there's nothing else in Florida that looks and plays like El Campeon. It has tee-to-green elevations up to 85 feet, two peninsula greens, one island green and one island tee.

4. Candler Hills Golf Club: My choice at no. 4 is Juliette Falls in Dunnellon, which is no. 8 according to GolfNow golfers. I'm a sucker for fast, firm courses that are drop-dead gorgeous and Juliette Falls fits the bill. With four waterfall features, rock formations and wild flowers everywhere, the visual appeal is outstanding. Add to that some superbly designed holes by architect John Sanford and you've got a great setting to spend four or five hours. I think I know why Candler Hills Golf Club is rated so high. Its design by Gordon Lewis is first rate. He gives golfers everything they want like generous landing areas off the tee, bump-and-run opportunities on some green complexes and well-placed bunkers that'll make you think before you hit.

5. Grand Cypress Resort North/South/East: Given the choice, I would probably play the New Course at Grand Cypress (no. 6 on the GolfNow list) before the 27-hole North/South/East configuration. It has nothing to do with the quality of the courses, however. I love Scottish links golf and the New Course is the closest thing in Orlando to what you might find in St. Andrews or Turnberry. Jack Nicklaus' tribute to links golf at Grand Cypress features everything from stone bridges and walls to a starter's hut, five-foot flag pins and deep pot bunkers. There are also bump-and-run options on some greens, which is great for altitude-challenged linksters. The North/South/East layout is understandably always highly ranked in Orlando golfer surveys. It has a distinct design personality with exotic mounding, terraced fairways and plateau greens that demands creative shot making. You might want to channel the Golden Bear or Lee Westwood on some holes because you'll need pinpoint approach shots for any chance at birdie.

The rest of the Top 10

6. Grand Cypress Resort New Course

7. Stone Creek Golf Club

8. Juliette Falls

9. Red Tail Golf Club

T-10. Eagle Creek Golf Club

Ritz-Carlton Golf Club, Orlando, Grande Lakes

T-10. Deer Island Golf & Lake Club

Central Florida honorable mention

A few courses omitted from the list that deserve an honorable mention in my rankings are Victoria Hills Golf Club in Deland, a Ron Garl design with roller coaster-like fairways and wild undulations; MetroWest Golf Club, a hilly, wide-open layout managed by Marriott that's spending $1.5 million enhancing its greens and bunkers; and Shingle Creek Golf Club, a resort layout that's a favorite with many locals.

Ed SchmidtEd Schmidt, Contributor

Ed Schmidt, publisher of The Golf Travel Guru Blog, is the author of two books on Florida golf and more than 2,500 articles and columns on golf resorts, courses and destinations around the world. Follow Ed on Twitter at @golftravelguy.

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