ChampionsGate Golf Resort: A Winner in the Making

By Elaine Gallant, Contributor

ORLANDO - If you are fascinated by the development of a prime golf course environment, then the time is ripe for you to experience Central Florida's newest "must do" complex.

ChampionsGate Golf Resort, designed by Greg Norman and located only minutes south of Walt Disney World, opened October 24, 2000 with two stunningly different golf courses offering equally different experiences. And, while it's easy to have a blind eye to all the construction going on and to ignore the lack of some essential aesthetics, it's much harder to suppress the mounting excitement this world-class complex exudes.

It begins as soon as you take Interstate 4's Exit 24 and find yourself already at ChampionsGate's entrance. Palm-lined, but still partially barren, the entrance alone sets a tone of grandeur. Then, upon winding your way past the 25,000-square-foot clubhouse opening June, 2001, you'll be met by a friendly staff of valet attendants ready to communicate your arrival to the pro shop staff who will greet you by name.

Once you've warmed up your game, attendants will clean your clubs for play, then send you off in the direction of either the National or International courses.

Kevin Perkins, director of golf, describes these courses as superb experiences from both a service and a playing conditions point of view. He adds, however, where the National course is "serene," the International course is a "battleground."

"The National is a traditional American golf course where everything is manicured. It's very relaxing. When it matures in all the areas where the bahiagrass is growing, it will be all green grass, white sand and pine straw," Perkins said. "The International is 225 pot bunkers, sand dunes and windy."

For both courses however, you'll pay a high premium for not staying on the fairway, as the aprons and approach areas are cut lower, allowing, according to Perkins, for the return of the "art of chipping." They also have tifdwarf collars (an actual green's grass) while the greens feature a newly-cultivated floradwarf surface.

"It gives you a sense of how lush the turf is and gives you all sorts of options as to what shots you can play," Perkins said. "In many cases, it rewards you."

The National, which boasts 120 bunkers - most of them large and winding, features closely cut fairways framed by sandy wastelands sparsely planted with a firm-bladed zoysiagrass. Hit out of this area with the wrong club and, for now, you'll only find more of it. In the future, Perkins promises these areas will be less prevalent.

As for the National's front nine, you'll find a gentle welcome from holes one through four with only a slight hint of the difficulty about to unveil on hole number three when the pin is tucked behind a stand of pines. Followed by a narrowly, winding par 4, number 4, it's the 323-yard, par 4 number 5 that finally grabs your attention. In front is a natural wetland; beyond is a dogleg left guarded by trees left and right. Strategically placed bunkers lie in wait.

The back nine offers elevation changes and a more "valley-type" fairway on many of the holes. Cut along the path of an orange grove, this half features a more mature oak and pine forest. Hole number 10, for instance, plays 376 yards from the trophy tees and forces you to think hard about club selection. The heavily treed fairway is pinched in about 90 yards from the green -- a savvy player won't fall for Norman's tease.

National's signature hole, the picturesque, 210-yard, par 3 number 14 fits the bill perfectly. Resembling an island green, this oasis is surrounded by forest and cut off from the tees by a rugged wasteland filled with palmetto, scrub and sawgrass. During rainy season, you can bet on a few lost balls.

The finishing holes are tough and include three par 4's and a par 5 (at number 17). The final hole, a 451-yard dogleg right, feels welcoming in spite of its narrow fairway, its considerable length of wetland, rough and bunkering to the right, and the false back on its green.

The parkland-style National course -- serene? Yes. But not at the cost of a challenge. The National plays 7,128 yards from the trophy tees with a slope / rating of 133 / 75.1; the legends tees 6,427 yards (126 / 72); the champions tees 5,937 yards (124 / 70.9) and the heritage tees 5,150 yards (122 / 69.8).

As for the International course, the motto here is "it'll add at least ten strokes to your game." Considered a British-isle links course with an Australian flair, Perkins explained the "flair" as the plentiful mounding reminiscent of the Royal Melbourne course where Norman often played.

"The International, in my opinion," Perkins said, "is exasperating because you think you're in a wide-open links environment but every hole is framed in its own right. There are no trees. It gives you great clarity on where to strike the ball. It's a very difficult test in a links environment."

The test, of course, begins with the very first hole. If you're lucky, your shot won't be disturbed by a landing helicopter bringing David Leadbetter, Greg Norman or some other touring pro to Leadbetter's 5,000-square-foot teaching facility just behind the tee boxes. Should you maintain your focus, a narrow 459-yard, par 4 fairway with heavy mounding to the left and vast scrub to the right, awaits.

The mounding, as mentioned, continues throughout, but becomes increasingly influential as you drive, chip and charge deep into the course. The International's signature hole, the par 4, 447-yard number 7, will simply take your breath away. Described as "there's no good place to miss this fairway" and "there's no good place to miss the green, either," you'll quickly realize how devastating 40-foot high mounds can be.

Following are two par 5's and four par 4's before easy breathing returns at the 231-yard, par 3 number 14. But even here, miss it long and left, and you'll be rolling into the wetlands.

Of the finishing holes, the 145-yard, par 3 number 17 seems refreshing. Its elevated green runs away from the hazard off the tee and features a soft, pot bunker at its rear. Take it in, because it's the par 5, number 18 that will leave you frazzled.

The advice here is to "play it down the middle," because 18 is framed by rough and wetlands to the right and a 572-yard stretch of 22 grabby pot bunkers on the left. The entire corridor slopes left to right. On the approach, Norman framed the boomerang-type green with three final, but challenging, pot bunkers.

The International plays 7,363 yards from the trophy tees and carries a slope / rating of 143 / 76.3; the legends tees 6,792 yards (137 / 73.7); the champions tees 6,239 yards (132 / 71.2) and the heritage tees 5,518 yards (123 / 72.3).

All in all, from touring pros to the average player, ChampionsGate is sure to offer the right mix of challenge and pleasure. And, as this golf resort's development continues, future plans include a 750-room Omni Hotel, another 18-hole championship golf course, and almost 600,000 square feet of proposed retail, villa, and office space along with timeshare units. Expanded services will also feature caddy and forecaddy service, carts with sophisticated GPS systems and an expanded pro shop and completed clubhouse.

Elaine GallantElaine Gallant, Contributor

Elaine Gallant is a freelance writer specializing in golf, tennis, and travel. Her many experiences with travel and golf have taken her around the Untied States, Europe, Greece, the Caribbean, Mexico, Hawaiian Islands, Australia and points in between.

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