Play the Orlando golf courses that Major League Baseball players favor

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

ORLANDO, Fla. -- As the citrus groves disappeared in Orlando, golf courses sprang up to take their place.

The Legacy Course - Reunion Resort
Reunion Resort, home of Arnold Palmer's Legacy and two other courses, lists major leaguers among its members.
The Legacy Course - Reunion ResortFalcon's Fire Golf Club
If you go

Orlando, of course, has long since abandoned most of its citrus-based economy in favor of tourism -- i.e. Disney World -- and that's fine with the Major League Baseball players who return to central Florida every year for Spring Training.

Baseball is similar to golf in that you get to whack a small ball in open air. More so than most athletes, the boys of summer seem drawn to golf, especially in Florida during springtime, when golf courses are starting to come into their own and the repetitive drudgery of spring training threatens to turn into boredom.

When they were Atlanta Braves teammates, pitchers John Smoltz and Greg Maddux, two of MLB's better golfers, used to brag about getting in 45 holes after a workout in Kissimmee.

With the players come the fans, many of whom share their heroes' passion for golf and are particularly thrilled when they end up on the same golf course with them.

Orlando has a ton of excellent golf courses, and it should come as no surprise that the major leaguers, who probably never give green fees a second thought, tend to gravitate to the better ones.

"Definitely," said Melissa Suttles, general manager at Mystic Dunes Golf Club. "We've had our fair share of Braves and Houston Astros over the years."

Fans like seeing Braves and Astros players have the same trouble they do on the huge, undulating greens at Mystic Dunes. Gary Koch designed the course, drawing his inspiration from Alister Mackenzie, whose name is often attached to these kinds of troublesome greens.

Many resemble Augusta National's greens so closely they could almost wear the brand name. It isn't just the putting surfaces themselves; the surrounds are big and bold, with swales and hollows. Getting up and down is as difficult as facing inside heat from Randy Johnson.

As they're generally long off the tee, major leaguers excel on the course's par 4s, some of which are among the longest par-4s in the state.

Added bonus: You might also see some Orlando Magic players here. Mystic Dunes is the site of Darrel Armstrong's charity tournament.

Players from the Braves and Astros -- and Tigers and Indians, who also train around here -- are also regulars at Reunion Resort, which lists some ballplayers among its members.

A big, sprawling resort with the sort of upscale amenities high-salaried baseball players are used to, Reunion has 54 holes of golf designed by Tom Watson, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus.

Golfweek listed both Palmer's Legacy Course and Watson's Independence Course among its top 40 new courses for 2005. There's also Annika Sorenstam's Annika Academy.

If you really want to catch baseball stars teeing off, though, it might be better to steer clear of the resorts. They get crowded this time of year, and major leaguers don't like to mix with the same people who boo them at spring training games.

According to Orlando golf sources, Falcons Fire Golf Club and Southern Dunes are two spots that offer good player-spotting.

Falcon's Fire in Kissimmee, about a 15-minute drive from Disney World, is a public Rees Jones design with green fees a little lower than average for the area, but with better conditions than many pricier tracks.

Southern Dunes is one of the better-known golf courses in the Orlando area, a Steve Smyers design that features bold movement and the sort of elevation changes seldom seen in Florida.

Tim McDonaldTim McDonald, Contributor

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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