There’s a theme park in Orlando for adults and it’s on a golf course.
It’s a bumpy ride from tee to green at the Grand Cypress Resort’s New Course in Lake Buena Vista. Hop on board and zigzag your way around 143 bunkers; up, down and through a bewildering collection of swales and over narrow, but lethal, creeks. Just when you feel it’s time to descend into a medieval torture chamber, a double fairway or double green opens up before you instead.
This Hyatt property’s 18-hole odyssey through golf’s primordial soup emulates to terrific effect the linksland layouts of the Scottish coast. It was conceived by Jack Nicklaus, who has never concealed his passion for the history-laden courses of the British Isles. Little matter that foreboding gloom rarely hangs in the Orlando sky. This idea works magnificently.
Nicklaus also designed the resort’s other three nine-hole layouts. These courses are particularly challenging, with long carries over water, gnarly tropical vegetation and greens shallow enough to triple jump over. During our stay, the entire golf complex was in immaculate condition.
In addition to and engrossing 45 holes of golf, the Grand Cypress offers a spectacular array of comforts. The gleaming, broad-shouldered high-rise hotel contains 750 rooms of luxury.
But it is the resort’s 146 villas, all spacious and amenity-rich, that are likely to appeal to golf-minded guests. Positioned quietly around the north course and harmonizing beautifully with the natural surroundings, they offer lovely views of verdant fairways and reflective ponds.
The bi-level rooms are done in attractive beige tones. On a misty morning French doors open to waterfowl puttering and dunking in a still pond, which later in the day will double as a dismaying hazard for approaching golfers.
As the less difficult of the two complexes, the New Course is a more sensible starting point. Whereas the nine-hole courses can be nerve-wrackingly challenging, the wide-open New Course is great fun as well as being deceptively difficult. The course will flatter your stats for fairways hit, but wreak havoc with your putting average.
The course sports two grand par fives. Each requires fancy navigation to achieve the green in regulation. A blind tee shot over a burn and scattered quasi-gorse bushes marks the beginning of the 514-yard second hole. Laying beyond the foreground distractions, however, is an enormously wide fairway. The hole epitomizes the value of course knowledge as it presents a succession of obstacles. No less than 21 bunkers lurk, a good many of them mischievously placed, eager to gobble up shots that looked good off the club. Particularly anguishing is the experience of hitting the very top of what appears to be a facing greenside bunker, having your shot roll down the steep slope into the sand and then discovering you’re still 60 yards from the center of the green with an enormous swale in between. Once on the elevated green, you might look backwards and shake your head, but all these irritants somehow add up to an exhilarating hole.
The 496-yard par 5 sixth again challenges perceptions and preconceived notions of where to hit. The safe drive is a slight fade skirting a string of bunkers lined up along the middle of a terraced fairway. A conservatively played second shot finds sanctuary in wedge range. On the other hand, long hitters thinking two-shot hole will be defied by a diamond-shaped bunker complex fronting the green and will pay for their greed if the traps aren’t carried. If they are, a generous double green will hold a big fairway wood.
The back nine starts off with a quintessential linksland hole. Three tiny fairway bunkers manage to stand tall against straight hits off the tee. Guarding the green is a moat, not a burn, so treacherous is its crossing. Only the most dexterously played approach shot will do here, as the shallow green slopes toward the burn, with a deep, five-step bunker off the back edge. Though only 330 yards, this is a stern hole.
Wily number 14 is just 371 yards and so on its second shot seductively offers a bump and run, that staple of linksland golf. A low-running mid-iron at least appears to be an easy way in, as the bunker munchkins took this green off. But they have friends. In this case a steeply sloped false front, which will prove insurmountable for all but the most searing low runners.
The course’s second monster par 5, the 570-yard fifteenth, contains a stone hedge paralleling the right side of the fairway. Should your drive nestle next to it, don’t look to the scorecard for relief . . . there is none to be had. A well-placed tee shot, however, is treated generously, as a grip-it and rip-it second shot is unlikely to find trouble. But the approach is another story. If played from off the fairway, it is likely to call for a semi-blind high-iron home. The green is elevated and fronted by a yawning facing bunker. Three skillful shots are required to achieve the putting surface on this stirring hole.
Steeped in legend is the famous seventeenth hole at St. Andrews, the road hole. The Grand Cypress pays homage with a replica on its 17th, though at 485 yards it’s designated a par 5, unlike its Scottish counterpart. Uncommonly narrow for the New Course, this is nonetheless one of the least threatening holes on the day and raw power and accuracy will net a good opportunity for birdie.
Eighteen is a bit of a letdown, the mirror image of number 1. Short and wide, not the kind of hole to dramatically decide matches.
Small matter, though. This wonderful course, tucked away in the middle of Central Florida, is a most convincing mirage. Nicklaus’ declaration of love for linksland golf is passionate, his design distinctive and the level of difficulty comfortable for the average golfer.
After such an exhilarating round of golf, one thing is certain to be on everyone’s mind: water. Not only to drink, but to soak in. The villa provides just the antidote with a deep, two-person Jacuzzi in a highly spacious bathroom.
After getting lost in your thoughts in the Jacuzzi, you can get lost period should you choose to cool off in the resort’s pool up at the hotel. With a waterfall, cozy coves with whirlpools and a series of subterranean grottos, all that’s missing is a school of tropical fish to tickle your toes. Naturally, the poolside staff is most accommodating with towels, lotions, snacks, and beverages.
If your culinary passions run deep, your fun at the Grand Cypress has only just begun. The haute cuisine La Coquina is an epicure’s delight. Among the highlights were the Caesar salad in baguette crouton, thin potato and caviar stack. This starter was deserving of twin medals for delectability and architectural grandeur. Equally sublime was sautéed red snapper on spinach leaves with rock shrimp, phyllo eggplant strudel and slivered garlic. Our server was professional, good-humored and properly acquainted with the wine list.
Almost in recognition of an indulgent previous night, the North nine starts out a bit tepidly, with gaping vistas and minimum-security tee shots. Toward the middle holes, though, it picks up steam. Number 5 is a bearish par 4, 451 yards from the back tees with a two-tiered green split by a vicious fault line.
Another long par 4, the 423-yard seventh hole is pure risk / reward from all tees. A dogleg right with water and a ribbon of sand traces the short side. How much of the hazard to bite off? As it turns out, even the most heroic of tee shots must confront the water again on approach, as the hole nearly boomerangs, so sharp is its dogleg. The hole is regarded by Golf Magazine as one of the 500 greatest in the world.
Next is a good par 3 of 188 yards, with a double green. It’s imperative to hit this green because of the protective panoply of sand traps lateral to the hole, ranging from pesky pot bunkers on the left to a massive waste area on the right. The green is shelved in front, forbidding run-up shots.
The north nine concludes in scintillating fashion, with a 435-yard tester. Water runs unrelentingly down the left side, with sculpted, vegetated dunes saying “unh-uh” to the right. The second shot must carry all the way home or risk being snatched by the paint-pot sized grass bunkers rippling in front of the left side of the green.
In slight contrast to the North course, which on one hole is saddled with a backdrop of flailing hammers and highway traffic, the East nine exists in an utterly tranquil, woodsy setting. It’s a bit shorter as well, but a good deal tighter. Like the North, however, it does reward patience.
The East offers a number of prudent take-the-long-way-home strategic solutions. A prime example is number 2, 428 yards from the tips. A wicked dogleg right seems to offer a clean shot at the pin if you’ve turned the corner. But a kidney-shaped green provides only a thin sliver to shoot at in the back right, where the pin figures to be much of the time. What’s more, should the approach shot fall short it will lie stranded in a deep, mounded swale. The chip up requires maximum delicacy. Play the hole to the left and take your chances on a lengthy two-putt.
The par 5 third, with water running laterally along the right presents a Hobson’s choice of sorts after a safely played tee shot. At 280 yards the fairway bends sharply to the right, requiring a lengthy carry over the hazard to be in birdie territory. To take the alternative route is to contend with Orlando’s most intimidating shot blocker since Shaquille O’Neal. A lone pine stands tall in the middle of the fairway 100 yards beyond the bend, swatting away power fades with Kong-like ease. Pick your poison.
The potential for the highest score at the resort belongs to the hole with the shortest distance. The par 3 fifth comprises a mere 153 yards . . . with a big but, namely an island green. If the wind is up, with nary a drop area in sight, this can get ugly in a hurry.
The ninth here is another superb finisher. A big drive over water, de rigueur over much of the course, is called for here again. Lumps of pinball mounds lie in wait 65 yards short of the green, eager to deflect a low-iron or fairway wood. Best to lay up in pitching wedge range and attack with the putter, as water and sand zealously guard the slightly elevated green.
By the way, if staying at the Grand Cypress for several days, aside from the great golf you might note that there is an entertaining theme park a couple of mouse ears away . . .