I’ve lived in Orlando for many years and until recently I had never heard of Mission Inn. A friend of mine who recently began an affiliation with the club invited me out to tour the facility and write a golf course review on one of their two courses, El Campeon.
The facility is located about 45 minutes northwest of central Orlando in Howey in the Hills and while it’s not technically an Orlando golf course review, it’s close enough to be classified as such. Besides, who would read a review entitled “Howey in the Hills Review?” 🙂
Let me begin by saying the experience at Mission Inn Resort & Club is well worth the drive. Getting there is an adventure in itself. The drive takes you through a variety of rundown, ramshackle and bedraggled areas and at the end, the club shines like the last beacon of hope in a dying world. 🙂
I arrived on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, driving through very impressive Spanish architecture on my way to El Campeon. The first thing I notice upon my arrival was a massive putting green that was impeccably maintained. While spending some time working with the short stick, I was told about the course, who’s modern appearance belied it’s extensive history.
The origins of Mission Inn date back to the early 1900’s, when the Florida citrus industry was in its infancy. The course was originally created in 1917 by George O’Neil, who was a master of the game and had staked out his place among golf’s upper echelon for his abilities in architecture. The course he created boasted rare tee to green elevations of 85 feet, towering forests and sparkling, spring-fed lakes.
In 1924, the area was expanding so rapidly that Charles E. Clarke of the famous Troon Golf Course in Scotland was commissioned to further enhance the El Campeon golf course. Five years later, the stock market crash of 1929 lead to the Great Depression. That coupled with one of the worst freezes in Florida history, put an end to El Campeon’s owner, Mr. William J. Howey’s citrus empire.
Forty years later, in 1964, successful businessman, Nick Beucher of Wilmette, Illinois responded to a Wall Street Journal ad and acquired the Floridian Country Club, which consisted of an 18 hole golf course and a 1950s clubhouse, in Howey-in-the-Hills. He spent the first few years renovating and expanding the clubhouse, as well as completely restructuring the badly neglected 18-hole golf course.
In 1969, the decision was made to create a captivating, Spanish Colonial golf resort complete with overnight accommodations. So, building began on a hotel and the name was changed to Mission Inn Golf and Tennis Resort.
In 1992, a second championship golf course, Las Colinas was built. Designed by former PGA Tour player, Gary Koch, Las Colinas features wide open fairways and gentle rolling hills creating an inland links design.
Over the years, members of Nick’s family have joined the business and continue to actively operate the resort. The resort you witness today is a direct reflection of the vision and tireless effort of Nick Beucher, his six children and their dedicated staff.
El Campeon is the third oldest golf course in the state and boasts an impressive 7003 yards from the tips. The scenery is impressive and at times breath taking. I experienced this for the first time on the fourth hole, your tee shot is over a lake to an uphill sloping fairway that’ll leave you feeling small and insignificant.
With a course rating of 74.2 and a slope of 136, be sure to bring an ice pack to sooth the ache caused by the beating you’re about to receive. It’s a traditional golf course that rewards smart, accurate play. It’s not a course that randomly punishes good shots. What I mean is, if you aim for the center of the fairway, it doesn’t throw a random sand bunker out there for any other reason than to make it tougher than it already is.
It doesn’t need to..
With it’s 85-foot elevation changes, El Campeon requires demanding tee shots and many of your approaches are to double and triple-tiered greens.
There’s plenty of challenges to the course, island greens, sloping fairways, inconvenient lakes and rivers, trees that seem to reach out and grab your ball, soft sand and of course, one very mean double dogleg 538 yard Par-5. This beast is called “Devil’s Delight” and it’s the signature hole on El Campeon.
It begins as a harmless dogleg right that quickly shifts to a dogleg left, with the devil himself taking the shape of an ancient oak tree that blocks your approach shot, which,by the way, is over a canal about 10 feet wide to a protected green guarded by a beach side bunker.
I played this hole incredibly well until my landed in the shadow of the “El Diablo” oak, sitting two with about 90 yards to the green, I flubbed my pitch and my ball went for a swim. The rest, is… too painful.
The course was a blast to play and overall, in great shape. The one exception to this was the greens. The greens I experienced during the golf course review left a little bit to be desired. It was apparent on more than one hole that they had seen better days.
This was about two months back, however and I’ve heard that it’s since been corrected, I can’t confirm this, as I haven’t played the golf course since the review.
Mission Inn El Campeon golf course is ranked in the top 10 of Florida’s 1500 courses. In addition, the conference and golf facilities have been the recipient of such national honors as the Gold Key Award, Gold Tee Award, Planners’ Choice Award, Pinnacle Award and Greens of Distinction. They’ve also been mentioned in several Golf Digest “Best Places to Play” in North America, as recent as 2008/2009, and ranked by Zagat as one of “America’s Top Golf Courses in 2003”.
If you’re in the market for a challenging, change of pace, I strongly encourage you to make the trip to Mission Inn El Campeon. If you go, please give my regards to El Diablo.