ORLANDO, Fla. -- In 2000, David Harman had the opportunity to design a golf course in one of the greatest pure settings to come available in a decade. Kauri Cliffs, in Northland, New Zealand, is an almost mythic golf location where every hole seems to have an extraordinary view of the Pacific Ocean's limitless horizons.
No matter where the next job after Kauri Cliffs was, it was bound to be a let down. But to go from designing holes that cliff dive and canyon jump along the dramatic coastal precipices of New Zealand -- a place so nearly beyond the scope of Earthly beauty that, in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, it convinced a world of moviegoers that it indeed wasn't -- to a dead flat wetlands site in the middle of Orlando, well, talk about back to reality.
Which isn't to disparage Shingle Creek Golf Club. It's not vying for the same accolades or even necessarily the same golfers as a breathtaking oceanside resort. In fact, it's one of the Shingle Creek's strongest attributes that it knows what its market audience is. And odds are it will be able to satisfy them as much as Kauri Cliffs hopes to satisfy globetrotting, helicopter-flying adventurist types.
Harman's Shingle Creek design, opened in December 2003, may lack spectacular vistas but it makes up for it with good-natured functionality. The property is the latest asset of the growing empire of investor Harris Rosen, whose company, Rosen Hotels and Resorts, owns and manages six hotel properties in Orlando including The Rosen Centre and The Rosen Plaza on International Drive. Shingle Creek Golf Club, located roughly one mile east of International Drive on Universal Boulevard, will be the featured amenity to a massive resort and conference center set to open in September 2006.
In a town that lives off convention and transient business -- the gargantuan Orange County Convention Center is just a few hundred yards down the street -- the concept of building a resort and even a golf course that caters specifically to this demographic shouldn't seem so novel an idea. Yet Shingle Creek is one of the few facilities, if not the only one, that markets itself almost exclusively to large groups and conferences. The adjacent 1,500-room Shingle Creek Resort, with 250,000 square feet of meeting space, will specialize in hosting business gatherings while the golf course, with a broad, athletic but amicable design, is ideally suited for large groups and team-building events.
Kauri Cliffs notwithstanding, Harman is accustomed to building golf courses on flat sites, both as a designer and construction specialist for other name architects. His Magnolia Plantation Golf Club design in Lake Mary is an example of a course so lacking in topography that it's completely dependent upon the architect's ability to manufacture features.
Set amid a wetlands area of the same name, the Shingle Creek property is more or less a wide treeless basin with the golf course built up on top. This "building up" is something those familiar with Harman's regional designs -- Magnolia Plantation, Orange County National Panther Lake, and Plantation Palms in Land O' Lakes -- might recognize.
The golf is presented on horizontal levels -- flattish fairway platforms bordered by either sunken troughs of rough or containment mounds. The greens are elevated and cut into distinct tiers, and the flat-bottomed bunkers are generally set below the putting surface grade. It adds up to a layered, angular quality that works within the context of the site and the distant perimeter of pine trees.
It also works well for the clientele: everything is visible and there are no hidden elements. While numerous water hazards outline many holes, few come into immediate play. In fact the fairways are extremely wide and playable and for the most part there's little advantage to challenging the hazards off the tee. The par-4 fifth, 450 yards from the back tees, offers a smattering of small circular bunkers invading the right half of the landing area. The temptation is to take the drive over them but there's no reason to try since the green opens up to a left-side fairway position.
The terrific 405-yard 12th offers the most unsettling drive of the round. The fairway looks ominously slender with bunkers left and water bordering the entire length of the right. A tall pine guards the aggressive line across the corner water on this sharp dogleg right, forcing most golfers to play a conservative shot a the back fairway bunker with an iron or fairway metal.
The real relish at Shingle Creek comes from protected green complexes set at angles to the line of play, and a strong set of par-3 holes. Most players will be able to safely get to the front and middle hole locations but accomplished player will enjoy trying work the ball back to deep pins.
All four par-3s are staged over hazards; three behind water and one over a depressed series of grass craters. The 14th is the longest, a 230-yard champion's blast over a massive bunker to an elevated and shallow green. Less muscular but more intriguing is the 200-yard sixth, which requires a carry over a sliver of water to an even shallower, angled green.
An ad for Shingle Creek states, "Location Is Everything. No Lie!" And that's the truth. Not only is the complex near the happenings of International Drive, it's also offers easy access from Orlando International Airport with what seems like its own exit off the Beeline (Toll Road 528) at Universal.
That counts for a lot. Shingle Creek may never vie for the most beautiful or the most highly rated golf course in Orlando, but it gets top scores for conditioning and function. It's hard to imaging a more versatile and accessible operation, or one that more ably serves its clientele. When the Rosen Center Resort opens, this currently quiet spot in the middle of Orlando may become one of the busiest.
March 2, 2004