Review: ChampionsGate Golf Courses, FL

The best conditions in town
 When picking a place to play there are a variety of factors, the price, the location, the other amenities and the overall rating.  One thing that can make or break any course is the conditions.   My experience at ChampionsGate was enhanced by the immaculate conditions and the recently improved green complexes.  I played 20 rounds while I’ve been in Orlando and the three rounds at ChampionsGate were played on some of the finest conditioned public courses in town.
 ChampionsGate is another giant complex in Orlando with hotels, condos and houses.  The one aspect of this resort that was nice is the fact that with all the lodging and amenities, the courses themselves still felt natural.  The holes didn’t feel woven through a housing development.  A few holes of the International course play near the hotel, but still it didn’t feel so claustrophobic like many resort courses.  Along with a great range and putting green, there is also the Leadbetter School on site to improve your skills.  Overall Greg Norman designed 36 great holes of golf and the staff keeps them in great shape.
The "New" International Course
It have been 4 year since I first played the International Course at ChampionsGate.  Many of the holes I remembered quite well and many of the assessments I made at that time still hold true.  The “new” part of the course is the renovated green complexes.  The renovation was a rejuvenation project which yielded improved playing conditions with a complete restoration of 18 greens and all green-side bunker complexes to the original size, look and feel. Greens were restored with Champion Bermuda replacing the original Floradwarf turf.  These new greens make for a better playing experience.

While ChampionsGate is relatively close to Disney, you feel very far away on this rugged “links” style course.   The International Course certainly has a different flare and feel compared to many courses in the area.The rough areas are left pretty rough which gives the course a little less resort feel compared to many course in Orlando.  It is a nice touch on this tough Norman design.  The new green complexes aren’t drastically different in appearance, but they play much better.  The greens are still hard on approach shots, but roll much truer and smoother now.  The bunkering is also much cleaner and consistent from hole to hole.  Be prepared to hit the front edges of the greens with irons and wedges so that you  don’t bounce off the back.  If you try to drop it right on the flag, it won’t hold.  There were only a couple shots between our entire group that stuck close, most shots need to be played properly to roll out toward the hole.

Don’t expect to  shoot your career low score when you show up at ChampionsGate, especially if you play the back tees, but with proper tee selection and a solid game, you can enjoy a unique experience in Orlando.  The International course is fairly wide open, linksy style golf, and has much improved green complexes, yet will test your entire bag.  The variety of holes, overall length and options will give you a real challenge.

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The International Course (2013)
Surprisingly Tough.
I was lucky enough to get the first tee time for Monday morning at the International course.  It was nice to get out in front of the crowds of other golfers and have the course to myself.  While the scorecard said it was tough according to the numbers, at first glance it didn’t look tough.  The international course has a very wide open almost links like feel with numerous water features.  The first hole starts off with a long par 4.  

Thankfully, the fairway is generous enough to make even the most nervous of golfers comfortable off the bat.  The elevated green with bunkers left and right was big to accept long approach shots, but I found the firm green conditions needed some game adjustment.  The 2nd hole is a simple par 3 that is a basic “what you see is what you get.”  The 3rd hole is a solid par 5, which is going to be tough to reach in 2.  The green is well guarded and hard to hold a long approach.  The 4th hole is short, but not easy by any means.  It doglegs right around a marsh and a bunker.  The 5th hole is another long par 3 with wind coming into play because of the wide openness of this hole.  The 6th hole is very difficult, not only because of the length, but also the waste areas and bunkers to navigate.  The 7th is no walk in the park either.  It has water on the right side to avoid.  The 8th hole is one of the easiest on the front side.  It is just a straight hole at the front of the resort.  The 9th hole shouldn’t be too difficult, but if you find a pot bunker, your score can get big quickly.

The backside opens with a challenging tee shot over water, while not too long, the approach is tricky too.  The 11th is a long 3 shot par 5.  The 12th is a short par 4 that might even be reachable for some big hitters.  The par 4 13th hole is a solid test, but again being fairly open, makes it manageable.  The long par 3 14th is a good test of distance control.  The par 4 15th is a solid test again with length and accuracy needed.  Hitting into the elevated green is also difficult to get just the right yardage.  Another long par 4 is the 16th hole that needs another accurate approach shot.  The short par 3 17th hole is fun with its elevated tee and enclosed feeling.  The finishing hole is a tough par 5 that slopes from left to right and is all about navigating some of the bunkers and hitting the green in regulation to finish with a par.

 After the round got done, it struck me how tough the course was.  I didn’t feel like I was playing poorly, but the subtleties of the course didn’t allow me to go low on the scorecard.  It is just a long, solid test of skills; it is surprisingly tough.

The National Course
Awesome Variety of 18 holes
While the National Course wasn’t technically open the day I played it because of the maintenance, the staff was kind enough to let me play between the maintenance staff.  I did my best to stay out of their way so they could do their job.  The first couple holes have a similar feel to the international course with the wide openness of the land.  But once you cross the road and hit the 3rd hole you start to get a very different feel of the course.  This short par 5 can be a 2 shot hole if you have decent length.  It is followed up by a par 4 that is almost as long and I think is a tougher hole with all the sand and trees down the right side.  The 5th hole is a great risk reward because it is short enough to try and drive the green, but dangerous enough that it might not be the best choice.  The 6th hole is a long hitting out of the tree par 3.  The 7th was one of my favorite holes on the course with its valley like feel up and then down to the green.  The par 5 8th hole is kind of a plateau hole and the 9th hole is a solid par 4 to finish.  At this point you are about as far away from the clubhouse as possible, the turn is just right to the next hole.  

The 10th hole runs parallel to the 9th hole with OB on the right side.  The 11th is a simple par 3 uphill into a large green.  The 12th hole is a great bunkered hole that also plays valley like.  The 13th is a really long par 5 that plays flat, but just has a very nice look to it with the single tree out near the fairway.  The 14th hole is one of the hardest par 3s on the property.  It has length and is surrounded by trees.  The 15th hole is a solid par 4 that again really takes the approach into account.  The 16th hole is again risk reward short par 4.  Hitting 3-wood off the tee was my choice on this hole that turned out great.  The 17th hole is a very challenging hole because it is the longest hole on the property and the 3rd shot needs to find the green and not the water on the left.  The finishing hole is another long par 4 that is tough to get par on.

The National Course felt like it had the best variety of 18 holes.  Every hole felt different, some were wide-open, narrow, long, short, risk/reward, tough and simple.  While some courses fit a certain mold and the holes tend to feel the same, the National Course is just simply a great variety of holes and a test of all your golf shots.  Even though the maintenance was on the course while I was playing, the conditions were outstanding too.