Places to Play: ChampionsGate International, Orlando, Florida

The International is a broad sweeping links style layout designed by Greg Norman and a favourite of the Fairways Bunker Squad.

Course: ChampionsGate International

Location: Orlando, Florida

Architect: Greg Norman

Opened: 2000

Type: Semi-private / Resort

Course info: Par 72 / Yardages range from 5,618 to 7,363

Background

The International course is part of a very strong one-two punch at ChampionsGate Golf Resort along with its sister course, the National. Both were designed by Greg Norman but that’s about where the similarity ends. The National is more of a traditional Florida style golf course with tree-lined fairways and smaller greens well guarded by bunkers, wetlands and ponds. It’s target golf. The International, on the other hand, is a links style course that is wide and bold and demanding. The broad sweeping fairways are very susceptible to the ever-present wind and the mounding and water adjacent to each hole, plus 150 bunkers, make it a formidable challenge.

The greens are huge and generally drop off on at least two sides to closely mown chipping areas with lots of deep bunkers or into water. Many times a well executed bump and run shot is preferable to hoisting a wedge shot high into the air, especially if the wind is howling.

The International was in excellent shape when we reviewed it and played particular firm and fast like a good links course should. The areas away from the main line of play and around wetlands were left in their natural state giving the course a wilder look than its sister course and presenting an even greater challenge when shots strayed too far.

The two ChampionsGate courses are part of the Omni Orlando Resort which is also home to the David Leadbetter Academy. Practice facilities are first rate. The Clubhouse isn’t large but more than adequate to service members and guests in a friendly “clubby” atmosphere.

ChampionsGate International Hole No 10

The Bunker Squad

ChampionsGate is the winter home for one member of the Bunker Squad and a favourite for the rest of us who make it to Orlando for regular winter escapes and events like the PGA Merchandise Show. It’s probably a coin toss as to which is the preferred course but I’ll state for the record that I prefer the International. It might have something to do with three years in the wilderness without a clue where my drives were going. The wide forgiving fairways of the International helped keep me somewhat in the game.

Generally the Squad plays the White tees at 6,239 yards which is more than enough length, especially when the wind is gusting. Several holes have long forced carries on approach and none of us are smashing the ball 300 yards so we need all the help we can get off the tee.

Even at the shorter distance, the International is tough. The greens are huge and the run-off areas are tricky. Add in lots of deep bunkers and sometimes bogey is a good score. But it’s a fun course to play and very fair. The Internationally is always rated as one of the top courses in the Orlando area.

Our Favourite Holes

#4 is a short dogleg par 4 and big hitters would probably have a go at the green. It’s only 284 yards from the white tees and less on a straight line. The hole wraps around a pond on the right and features a massive bunker between the pond and the putting surface. The left side of the fairway runs into mounds and pot bunkers and scrub grass. The prudent play is a hybrid or fairway metal to the fat part of the fairway, then a wedge into this very flat green. But who among us is prudent on holidays? Hand me the big stick!

#7 is the number 1 handicap hole on the course for good reason. It’s long enough at 388 yards (white tees) but basically there’s nowhere to miss either your tee shot or your approach. The second shot is over water all the way to a shallow green that hugs the shoreline and the green itself is no picnic.

#8 (my personal favourite) is a mid length par 5 that is probably reachable if the wind is right. However, it features a skinny fairway bordered by a pond down the entire right side and mounds and pot bunkers on the left. The long narrow green is raised and sloped, running off into water on one side and a deep swale on the other. Should be a reasonable birdie opportunity but I find myself fighting to save par more often than not.

#12 is another short par 4. This one bends left around a natural area. There are trees and bunkers to think about but as they say, “Fortune favours the bold”. However, it’s usually the timid guy who lays up with an iron that comes out ahead on this neat little hole.

#15 has a couple of pot bunkers in the middle of the fairway. They’re not exactly hidden but easy to overlook because the fairway looks really wide from the tee. Provided you miss the pots, you still have a long approach that has to carry a large bunker in front to get to this heavily contoured green.

On our Must-Should-Would-Could-Don’t scale, we rate ChampionsGate International as a Should.

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Rating Scale

Must: fake an illness, skip your wife’s birthday, pay any amount they ask but this is one you have to play.

Should: this course will be one of your highlights. You won’t ever be disappointed playing here.

Would: preferable to most other courses in the area. Definitely worth a return visit.

Could: nothing special but OK to play here.

Don’t: go to a movie, wash the car, this course is not worth the time or money.

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