WINTER PARK, Fla. — I’ve heard of urban golf. I’ve watched videos of players hitting balls off, over and around buildings, trash cans, streets and train tracks. I’ve stared amazed as faraway players use makeshift clubs and balls to get around Mumbai, or some other seemingly distant place.
I guess my conception of urban golf was chaos, an off-shoot of the game eschewing the serenity about it I love so much.
Then I drove into Winter Park, Fla., on the Tuesday of the PGA Merchandise Show. I was coming in a hurry from Nick Faldo’s Bella Colina, on the other side of Orlando, to play in an outing put on by Seasmus Golf and Linksoul. If there’s such a thing as a golf hipster, they’d be there, and if there’s such a thing as a conformist hipster, I might be the poster child. I’m drawn to the new, different and strange, but I also yearn for timeless things. It creates an odd internal conflict, especially in this sport that so heavily emphasizes history, tradition and a pecking order.
Perhaps that’s why I fell in love so quickly with the renovated Winter Park Golf Course or, colloquially, the Winter Park 9.
I had heard about what Keith Rhebb, an associate of Coore and Crenshaw, had done here when the property reopened in Fall 2016. Golf Channel’s Matt Ginella makes the place a regular hang, and he has access to the game’s lone TV platform, so it helps. Ginella has evangelized about what the renovation investment has done for the city-owned course, turning it from a money-loser on the verge of death after more than a century into the embodiment of the modern playability movement in golf-course architecture. I’d not seen many pictures of the work, so a first-hand experience was all the more enjoyable. What I was about to see hadn’t already been spoiled.
Fortunately, the event was a shotgun start, and my friend and GNN mate Mitch Laurance (who took the pictures in this piece) was coming to the first tee with his group. They all welcomed me to make it a fivesome, and we were off on their third hole.
The first thing I noticed about Winter Park is the surroundings. You’re on the city grid. You’re part of it. Winter Park 9 effectively runs in a loop across two streets on four separate plots of property in town. Turn-of-the-century houses that would be large for that time period are across the street from the first tee, shielded by some trees that could halt a nasty first cut of the day.
The opener at the Winter Park 9 is about 250 yards, max. It’s a fantastic short par 4 at an awkward yardage. The clubs in hand varied, but I went with a long iron to leave myself a little short. Despite the friendly neighborhood confines at Winter Park, it’s hard not to feel confidence. With wall-to-wall, fairway-length Bermuda, the course feels bigger than it is. Hit it wherever; just find grass. What freedom.
When you get to the first green at WP9, though, you realize Rhebb made the real star the green complexes. They’re fantastic. They’re not small for an executive-length course. In fact, they’re fairly large given the course’s total acreage. They’re quick, and they have plenty of undulation. Rhebb obviously knew the trick to making a course built suitable for equipment in 1914 could only bring players back if the course never felt the same. With almost endless fairway, save for the occasional pine cluster, and character-overflowing green complexes, you’ll never get bored. Play through the air or on the ground. Play with power or with finesse, but you must play with precision.
We made our first road crossing after the par-3 second, heading to the first of back-to-back par 5s at No. 3. This is the second plot of land, for just one hole. It’s a 460-yard par 5 with one bunker on the left. The landing area feels 70 yards wide, but a golfer can challenge the narrowing space with a driver of pretty much any length. Spray it way right, and you’ll find a yard. Hook it way left, and you might wind up in the adjacent graveyard.
After we finished the hole, whose green complex felt like three separate greens stitched together, we doubled back to where we dropped off our bags and crossed the street again. No. 4 is 500 yards, with a dogleg to the left. There’s a bunker inside the dogleg, and it doubly serves as deterrent and an aiming point — that is, if you don’t want to hit a cut off the edge of the graveyard. Again, there’s room to miss anywhere but on a tombstone, and the green raised green complex makes a potential third shot anything but simple.
Maybe my favorite hole on the course is the sixth hole. It’s about 260 yards from the back box — which is about three paces behind the front box — and has a green complex shielded by the biggest cluster of in-play trees on the course. A longer player can bash a 3-wood or sky-high driver toward the green, but a shorter player has plenty of room to land an iron or hybrid to a desirable number. The pièce de résistance on the property is the lion’s mouth green complex, with two narrow landing areas divided by a pot-ish bunker while the remainder of the green flows for what feels like miles toward the train tracks on the edge of the third plot of cityscape. A lay up forces a potentially devilish approach shot. The power play could land anywhere but where you want it. It’s such a fun hole.
The finishing hole plays into a patio area where golfers can relax after the round, recall all the shots they had and maybe even heckle a few buddies coming in behind them. It’s a vibe reminiscent of a Craig’s Porch at Sand Valley, but it feels more like a city stoop. The common man hangs out here and feels comfortable. The aristocrat feels, at first, too exposed, but quickly realizes the virtues of the feeling of space in a semi-urban environment.
It takes maybe 90 minutes to play Winter Park 9. At its most expensive, a non-resident in peak season has to fork over $19 to walk the place. Play it again to make it a full 18 for $7 more. What a bargain. A place like this is a potentially amazing gateway for beginning golfers to the possibilities of playing well-designed modern golf courses with lots of room to be imaginative but commanding good play inside of 100 yards to score well. For an experienced player, this is a constant reminder that a great golf experience doesn’t have to cost a lot of money, have five sets of tees or be a pariah away from cultural and population centers.
Cities can have great golf courses, right where people live. We as golfers have to explain to municipalities, county councils and other governments that an investment in good, sustainable architecture can do wonders for their tired, listless courses. When golf courses are a place of fun and wonder, they’ll not only be an anchor for the community, but they can inspire a feeling of connectedness that just might pervade.