Magnolia Plantation Golf Club: A Stylish, Natural Composition in North Orlando

By Derek Duncan, Contributor

Lake Mary, FL - When it opened for play in November of 2000, Magnolia Plantation became the Orlando area’s newest, upper tier golf attraction.

The addition of the course to the Lake Mary community means that this upscale area in the northwest corner of the city now features three marquee courses (along with Timaquan and The Legacy Club at Alaqua Lakes) that should draw their share of play away from the golf-heavy south side near Disney World.

Magnolia Plantation is a high-end development situated east of Interstate 4 in the Wekiva River Basin. The golf course is set toward the back of the community amid the dense forest and extends through a type of landscape that exists at the opposite end of the spectrum from the majority of courses in neighboring Orange County.

It’s a beautifully secluded property, much more private and natural than The Legacy Club at Alaqua Lakes, the fine Tom Fazio design located just a few drivers to the south, but misleadingly billed as a golf course/nature preserve. Homes will eventually be built on the site but only in specific areas, and much of the course will remain shrouded in woods.

Architect David Harman routed the 7,175-yard course through the forest and wetlands, linking holes together using a recurring theme of pines, tabletop greens, and water.

“We kind of got to go where we wanted to go there,” Harman notes of laying out the course. “I think it’s a better property than Alaqua Lakes. It’s got better trees, large oaks and pines, and it’s one of the last pieces of property in this region that has that kind of timber coverage.”

As opposed to the more rolling courses of Lake, Marion, and Orange Counties, and even its neighboring courses to an extent, Magnolia Plantation is dead flat, bearing more resemblance to the courses to the south and west of Jacksonville than to any in Orlando.

“There’s not much elevation on the site,” Harman understates. “There’s only six feet of fall across the entire property.” The Magnolia Plantation golf experience is similar to playing on a billiard table, both figuratively and slightly literally as well.

From the staggered markers, the holes, generally isolated from one another with none laid parallel, appear as verdant slate lined by thin pine. The fairways pitch and ripple gently, often squared off at the sides, but the overall impression cast is of linear green. The lack of defined targets from the tee makes for exciting shotmaking, but the lakes and hollows that blend into the contours can also provide for surprising ends to otherwise well-struck shots.

Some redistribution of land was necessary to provide what relief there is across the level expanse, but the heavy machinery imprints are tastefully understated with more dirt removed or cut away than piled up. “We tried to carve the course into what was there,” Harman said. “I tried not to make it look like ‘Earth Moving 101.’”

Magnolia Plantation is Harman’s first design in Orlando since his two nationally acclaimed designs at Orange County National (Panther Lake and Crooked Cat). In this design, he proves that he is adept at creating holes of interest on quite variant topographical properties. Whereas at OCN, Harman benefited from wonderful natural contours, elevation changes, and influential winds. Magnolia Plantation gives him little to work with other than a forest, and here he’s had to manufacture the interest and variety. This course can basically be viewed as Harman’s interpretation of how to construct a golf course on flat land.

The type of course Harman has created is one that rewards bold play at certain points and conservative precision at others. Consequently, Magnolia Plantation alternates between exciting, daring risk/reward character holes and exacting holes of rather frightful and penal nature. Water is directly present on 12 approaches, employed alternately as an opportunistic challenge and a punishing hazard.

With such a preponderance of water, the circumvention of the numerous lakes is the key to negotiating Magnolia Plantation. Slow starters and those not in full control of their swing will quickly find themselves embattled as the course opens with five holes with greens fronted by water.

The first, were it placed anywhere in the round but where it is, would be considered a prime pay-off hole of only 500 yards from the championship tees (475 for the men) and a par of five. As it stands, the chancy second shot, after one of the most forgiving drives of the day that must avoid being severely hooked, must also fly the inlet of water on the right front of an elevated green fronted by a singular, elderly tree. Going for it this early can be a perilous decision with the outcome likely to set the tone for the round. There’s plenty of room to lay out safely to the left of the green, but the allure of starting off in red figures is nearly too great a proposition to pass up.

The second, third, and fourth holes all require carries over water to large, flattish greens slightly beveled at the edges with one or more prominent tiers. Then comes the 550-yard, from the championship tees (504 for the men) fifth, one the most heroic holes found in Orlando.

The field appears wide and disjointed from the tee, and the player knows there is water out there somewhere, although it can’t be seen. A powerful drive of over 250 yards played straight will approach the lake and leave a tantalizing view of the green directly across it. The slender fairway bends to the right around the lake, but the direct route over the hazard cuts the distance significantly to the 200 to 240 yard range into the square green ringed with bunkers.

The option of a full-throttle blast is complicated (or made easier) by the fact that the lay-up to the fairway right of the green is probably one of the most difficult second/safe shots in the area as well. Just to play conventionally, the player must still carry it 175 to 200 yards to a thin, angled stretch of fairway with bunkers long, and that’s after a good drive. Poor drives turn this into a four shot approach with at least one carry over the water. This is the essence of the risk/reward golf hole, where difficult alternatives may prompt, or goad, the player into attempting the glorious rather than the conservative shot.

Water fronts or borders the greens at 8, 9, 10, 11, 15, 16, and 18 as well, so it’s fair to say that part of Magnolia Plantation’s defense is psychological—it’s difficult to ever become comfortable over the ball knowing the slight margin for error ahead.

The rewards for the overall tee-to-green treachery are the modestly bunkered, rather box-edged greens of mild contour (with the exception of the silly 18th, a multi-tiered boomerang-shaped green with a distinct lower level in the crook, severely out of place with the rest of the course). These large, rather geometrical putting surfaces typically show defined tiers and gradual slope rather than busy undulation.

Fans of strategic golf will appreciate the green orientations of the eighth, ninth, and eleventh; the partially blind green at the bunker-less 173-yard seventh; and the several great driving holes, notably the fade taken off the four bunkers on two, the decision between conservative iron or hearty blast over the bunkers at the 410-yard sixth, and the fade into the trees on ten.

Among the more recent additions to Central Florida golf, Magnolia Plantation is a unique and stylish course. It’s a thoughtful variation of flatland golf with plenty of bite and demand, where the intrigue of the opportunistic par-fives is just enough to counterbalance the sometimes penal nature of the par fours.

Certainly visitors to Orlando will want to spend two or three days in the Lake Mary area to experience its trio of natural, stand-alone courses. Their landscape and comfortable regional character offsets the sensory overload that can occur at the other end of town at the glitzy, crowded (not to mention pricey) resorts.

Directions: Take I-4 to Exit 50 and turn west on Lake Mary Boulevard. Drive one mile to Markham Woods Road and turn right, then proceed 1/2 mile to the Magnolia Plantation entrance on the left.

Derek DuncanDerek Duncan, Contributor

Derek Duncan's writing has appeared in,,,, LINKS Magazine and more. He lives in Atlanta with his wife Cynthia and is a graduate of the University of Colorado with interests in wine, literary fiction, and golf course architecture.

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