May 31, 2007

Long Weekend

A drive down Interstate 4 in Central Florida leads to great golf

The 12th hole of the Jack Nicklaus Tradition Course at Reunion Resort.

The 12th hole of the Jack Nicklaus Tradition Course at Reunion Resort.

Interstate 4 from Tampa to Orlando, known to Floridians as the I-4 corridor, is a boring drive, but for golfers, all it takes is a couple of turns off the highway and you're at some of Central Florida's best courses. Even better: Though the Tampa area is overrun with beachgoers and Orlando is a sea of mouse ears, somewhere between the two you might find some peace and quiet.

About 10 miles south of Disney World off exit 58 on I-4 are Reunion Resort Club and ChampionsGate. These resorts offer upscale golf and practice facilities. ChampionsGate has two Greg Norman Courses,

National andInternational ($187, championsgategolf.com), and is home to the David Leadbetter Golf Academy, where many top pros stop by to practice. Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus each designed a course at Reunion ($155, reunionresort.com), and play is open only to guests of the expansive development. All three courses are good, but the Watson is our favorite. Later this year Annika Sorenstam will open her golf academy at Reunion.

Just down the road is one of Florida's best courses where there's rarely a crowd,

Southern Dunes Golf Country Club ($115, southerndunes.com). Make sure to bring your sand game. It has more than 180 bunkers. Also worth your time areDiamondback Golf Club in Haines City ($69, diamondbackgc.net) andThe Club at Eaglebrooke in Lakeland ($79, eaglebrooke.com).

Visit here: You're not far from the theme parks if you want to venture into Orlando, but a better attraction—especially for grown men who want to be kids—is Fantasy of Flight (fantasyofflight.com) just off I-4 (exit 44). It has one of the largest collections of vintage aircraft this side of the Smithsonian. Admission is $27.

Eat here: The Omni Orlando Resort at ChampionsGate has three good restaurants—the Italian-themed Trevi's is our favorite. For more casual dining, you have to order the Flatbread (think thin pizza) at Reunion or venture down to Lakeland for one of the best barbecue restaurants in Florida—Brother's Barbecue.

Stay here: Your best bet is to stay in a villa at Reunion because that allows you access to its courses. Four golfers can stay in a three-bedroom villa from $210 a night, including a round and use of practice facilities. The Omni at ChampionsGate's lowest rate is $220 a night.

Travel advisory: Tampa (TPA) features perhaps the best airport in the country in terms of ease of use, but flying in and out of Orlando International (MCO) is better because you're only about 25 minutes away from Reunion and ChampionsGate. From Tampa International, the area courses are about 45 minutes to an hour away.

Star Rating Explanation

Course ratings are derived from the exclusive 5-star Golf Digest Places to Play scale. A single star represents "basic golf." Five stars indicates "golf at its absolute best." Golf Digest's Best Places to Play guide, based upon the ratings of tens of thousands of readers, is available for $24.95.

Basic golf.

Good, but not great.

Very good. Tell a friend it's worth getting off the highway to play.

Outstanding. Plan your next vacation around it.

Superb. Golf at its absolute best. Pay any price to play at least once in your life.

The equivalent of one-half star.

If a course has no star rating, it means that the course did not receive a minimum of 10 ballots, either because it is very new or simply was not visited by a sufficient number of Golf Digest readers. If you've played one of these courses and would like to rate it, click here.