KISSIMMEE, FL - So maybe you're on a family vacation in Disney World. And maybe the kids, God love 'em, are getting on your nerves just a bit. And maybe, just maybe, the artificiality and obscene prices of Disney World are getting on your nerves more than just a little. What you need is some adult entertainment - and we don't mean those naughty bars in Orlando or the beer garden in Epcot. What you need is golf.
Yes, there are courses right on the Disney property that cater to folks in just this predicament (see www.OrlandoGolf.com for reviews of the Disney courses). However, if you happen to want to take a stand against Prince Mickey and his evil minions and escape Disney Underworld for an all-too-brief round, other options do exist. In fact five courses lie just outside the Disney property, the closest of which is Falcon's Fire Golf Club in Kissimmee. This Rees Jones design is no more than a 15-minute cab ride from most of the Disney hotels, and best of all, it offers a blessed respite from the insipid cuteness of Disney.
Opened in 1993, Falcon's Fire Golf Club is a strictly public course (making the "Club" part of the name a bit puzzling), which caters to both tourists and local clientele. Both winter rates ($130 with cart) and summer rates ($75) are below the local average, and playing conditions and amenities are every bit the equal of the more expensive courses in the area (including those run by cartoon characters). The salmon-pink, Spanish-style clubhouse is exquisitely appointed, and the food in the Falcon's Nest Restaurant is both better and less expensive than Mickey's fare.
Falcon's Fire's pro shop has been voted one of the top 100 in the U.S. several years by GSO Magazine. The course and facilities have also been awarded 4 Stars by Golf Digest, and the 1999 Apex Award as one of America's top tournament facilities. Accordingly, the course has played host to the Oldsmobile Scramble National Finals as well as the Senior PGA Tour Regional Qualifying Tournament from 1993-2001.
With respect to the layout itself, course architect Rees Jones, who has become one of the most respected golf course architects in the business over the last several years, displays his proclivity for dramatic bunkering. And in order to make the flat, rather non-descript parcel of land more appealing to the eye, Jones excavated several ponds and used the earth to create mounding that is nearly over the top. Quite frankly, I haven't seen so many humps since my neighbor's dog attached himself to my leg.
There is a purpose to this seemingly reckless use of earth-moving equipment, however; the mounding creates rather player-friendly fairways, the sloped edges of which tend to keep errant tee shots in play by funneling all but the most dramatic slices and hooks back toward the short grass. Sean, an assistant golf pro at Falcon's Fire, was quick to point this out: "The course is very forgiving off the tee, despite all the water. It has a resort-course feel to it."
Don't take this the wrong way, though: This falcon has a tendency to swoop down and peck at you mercilessly. The Bermuda grass rough grabs at your irons, so even though the rough doesn't look deep, it causes severe trouble. And, as noted by the assistant pro, there's water on 11 holes, including the 163-yard 15th, which is named Watery Grave for a very good reason.
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of the course - at least for this Michigander used to bent grass greens - were the Bermuda greens. Bermuda is tough enough to putt on if you're not used to it, but to make matters even worse, the greenskeepers at most Southern courses overseed with rye grass during the winter months. Bermuda grass goes dormant and turns brown in winter, rye grass stays green. So although the smallish greens at Falcon's Fire were verdant, they were also extremely "grainy" and slow. Again, this isn't a problem if one is used to putting on non-bent grass surfaces. But if you're not, be prepared. In fact, this overseeding process results in a "completely different course" in the winter as opposed to the summer, according to another assistant pro.
The layout, as mentioned, is all tarted up with water, bunkers, and mounding in order to keep players' interest. Let's be honest - the Florida topography can't compare to the splendor of, say, Northern Michigan. So architects around here have to do a bit of window dressing to keep things fresh. The fine conditioning of the fairways, the Spanish moss hanging from the trees, and the risk/reward trade-offs combine to make up for the rather small, uninspiring green complexes and overall lack of natural beauty, however.
At 6,901 yards from the tips with a 138 slope rating, Falcon's Fire offers challenges for players at all skill levels. The first four holes are pretty simple, though, and allow you plenty of time to warm up. And you'll need the warm-up to tackle the hardest hole on the course: the 453-yard, par-4 5th.
At the 5th, players tee off over scrub to a fairway framed by bunkers left and right. The fairway itself rolls and drops several times as it doglegs slightly left, then gently back to the right. And even if you avoid the bunkers and find a not-too-gnarly patch of rough, you're likely to have a wicked uphill, downhill or sidehill lie on one of the dozens of mounds lining this (and every) fairway. The rather dowdy green is a bit of a let down, though - small, flat, and round.
The front nine is solid, but has one short par 5 and only one long par 4 (the 5th). The back is more memorable. The 394-yard 13th is a very tricky cape hole, curving right around a lake. The glinting blue water tempts you to bite as much as possible off the yardage, but accuracy is key here. Over a dozen deep and decidedly unfriendly bunkers line the far side of the narrow fairway, so anything long is trouble. And anything short is wet.
From 13 on, the course really comes into its own. The 550-yard 14th is the first "wild" looking hole (except for the expressway to the left). Here, water runs from tee to green on the right, and the green is tucked coyly behind a sinister marsh. Here, as throughout the track, you're likely to see green herons, egrets, ospreys, and sand hill cranes. The 366-yard 16th features water to the right, water to the left, and a greenside bunker larger than the green itself.
Finally, the brawny 464-yard, par-4 18th leads you down an ever-narrowing fairway toward the green, behind which rises the gorgeous clubhouse, leaving golfers with a richly satisfying, country club feeling.
The country club atmosphere is strengthened by the impeccable service, which includes free valet parking and a locker room on par with any private club. Head Pro Jim Underdown stresses his staff's commitment to service and quality: "Even though it's difficult to compete with Disney, once people know about us, they choose to come back here again and again." Falcon's Fire will also be the preferred golf course of the new Gaylord Palms Resort Hotel (nee Opryland Hotel, due to open in February 2002), so it will have it's own pool of tourists to draw from.
Underdown isn't kidding about the difficulty of competing with Disney. When I came to the lobby of my Disney Underworld resort looking for a cab to Falcon's Fire, Mickey's handmaidens were all smiles and pleasantries...until I said I wasn't playing a Disney course. As soon as they found this out, they turned before my eyes from Cinderella into Evil Stepmother. But a round of solid golf at Falcon's Fire is worth the mad dash out of the stultifying contrivance of Disney any day. It just might give you the strength to go back and face your family - and that six-foot tall, falsetto-voiced rat - again.
3200 Seralago Blvd.
Kissimmee, FL 34746
Head PGA Pro: Jim Underdown
Turf: Bermuda grass tee to green, overseeded with rye grass during the winter
Yardage: 6901 (gold), 6473 (blue), 6080 (white), 5417 (red)
Slope: 138, 132, 125, 126
Rating: 73.8, 71.7, 69.9, 71.6
Rates: Peak season (winter) $130; Off season (summer) $75
Other information: no walking allowed; full restaurant and banquet facilities; corporate outings welcomed; fantastic practice area (range, two putting greens, short game area)
Practice Fac.: A+
Club House/Pro Shop: A+
Pace of Play: B+
Overall Rating: B
December 15, 2001