By Jeff Shain, Tribune Newspapers
2:01 PM EST, January 26, 2011
Historically speaking, Orlando got a late start in golf.
The sport didn't arrive in Central Florida until 1893, when English businessman Leslie Pell-Clarke had six holes carved out around the northwest shore of Lake Eola. It only lasted a decade or so, though by 1911 both Winter Park and Orlando had established golf clubs.
By then, 16 U.S. Opens had been played.
The old farming and fishing outpost certainly has caught up. These days, it seems there's hardly a segment of the golf industry that doesn't run through Orlando -- if they haven't sprouted some roots.
Golfers can play at one of the 189 courses in Central Florida, sharpen their games with help from one of the area's big-name instructors or simply watch how some of the PGA Tour and LPGA's best approach the game. Dozens of top pros have come to call Greater Orlando home.
"It seems every player either lives here, knows a player that lives here or has friends and family that lives here," said LPGA commissioner Mike Whan, a Lake Mary resident who commutes to his Daytona Beach office.
From a tourism standpoint, golf helped generate $300 million in spending from Central Florida visitors last year. "It's one of the top 15 things people like to do when they come," said Brian Martin of the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Though a comprehensive economic picture for Greater Orlando is tough to pin down, a PGA of America study showed Florida's golf industry generated a total economic impact of $13.8 billion for the state in 2007.
A separate study for Palm Beach County reported a $1.8 billion impact in that region, which has slightly fewer golf courses and one PGA Tour event.
"We've got to be the only market with two PGA Tour [events] and the LPGA," said Sam Stark, CEO of the Central Florida Sports Commission. "Golf Channel's here, the PGA [Merchandise] Show is here. That alone, I'd think, would put us in one of the prime golf seats in the golf industry."
Why Orlando, though? Golf's historic clubs are clustered around New York and Boston. Southern California and South Florida offer warm weather and a bigger spotlight; Atlanta was Bobby Jones' home.
Orlando's weather and tourism draw are cornerstones, obviously. Developers added dozens of courses during the boom years of the 1990s and early 2000s. Some were good enough to catch the eye of top pros who also didn't mind that Florida assesses no income tax.
And where pros go, other pros often follow. Tiger Woods, for instance, migrated to Isleworth largely because buddy Mark O'Meara already had a place there. Lake Nona, meanwhile, can lay claim to four members of last year's European Ryder Cup squad.
"When Lake Nona and Isleworth came along where money's no object and all these guys moved in -- they said, 'This is great,' " said Winter Park's Richard Moorhead, a Florida golf historian. "You've got great weather here, great competition they can play anywhere they want."
SEVEN FACTORS THAT HELPED MAKE ORLANDO GOLF'S HUB
Location: The geography that lured Walt Disney to Florida 40 years ago also works for golf. Orlando's temperate climate allows for year-round play -- summers might get a little sticky, but rare is the winter day that's too cold to play.
Orlando International Airport not only is among the nation's busiest -- more than 30 million passengers a year -- but consistently ranks among the top six large airports in customer satisfaction.
"The airport is perfect," said Lake Nona's Karen Stupples, a former Women's British Open winner. "You can pretty much get direct flights into Orlando from anywhere."
Orlando, too, is centrally located to many of golf's centers of power no more than a 2 1/2-hour drive to headquarters of the PGA Tour (Ponte Vedra Beach), LPGA (Daytona Beach) and PGA of America (Palm Beach Gardens).
Courses: Golfers will find no fewer than 189 courses within an hour's drive of downtown Orlando, fitting just about anyone's taste and budget.
Enthusiasts played approximately 6 million rounds of golf in Central Florida in 2010, according to figures from the PGA of America's PerformanceTrak database. At an average price of $31 per round, that translates to $186 million in greens fees alone.
"Many people come here for the attractions and such," Martin said, "but a lot of men and sometimes their wives -- want to play golf as well."
They can test themselves where the pros play at Bay Hill (Arnold Palmer Invitational) or Grand Cypress (LPGA Titleholders). Disney World, site of the Children's Miracle Network Classic, has five courses under its mouse ears.
High-end golfers can get pampered at the Ritz-Carlton Grande Lakes or Waldorf Astoria GC. For those trying to stretch their greens fees, 28 executive courses wind through The Villages.
Players: About 40 PGA Tour members call Greater Orlando home, plus another two dozen or so LPGA pros. "It seems someone's winning something every week, somewhere," said Golf Channel analyst Frank Nobilo.
Only Orlando could spawn the Tavistock Cup, where Lake Nona and Isleworth pros battle in a two-day friendly shown to a worldwide audience. Of the 95 players invited to this year's Masters, 11 have Lake Nona connections.
And nowhere else can claim the Great Triumvirate of one-name icons who call Orlando home -- Arnie, Tiger and Annika.
Arnold Palmer first saw Orlando's golf potential some 50 years ago, searching for a winter base where he could keep his game sharp. He became so smitten by Bay Hill that he eventually purchased the club in 1970.
Three decades later, Tiger Woods and Annika Sorenstam put Orlando front and center as they dominated the fairways right after the turn of the century. Woods (Isleworth) remains the only player to hold all four major titles at the same time; Sorenstam (Lake Nona) won 10 majors among her 72 LPGA victories.
Events: Orlando has been a twice-a-year destination on the PGA Tour for four decades now. Bay Hill's Arnold Palmer Invitational now holds the anchor position on the Florida Swing, two weeks before the Masters; the CMN Classic brings the season to an end at Disney.
Now add the LPGA's season finale, which ended the tour's brief absence from the state when it moved to Grand Cypress. "A lot of our players live here, we're here," Whan said. "So why not?"
And those are just the marquee events. Greater Orlando is a hotbed for developmental circuits. The NGA/Hooters Tour and LPGA Futures Tour open their seasons here; the Suncoast Ladies Series and Moonlight Golf Tour play almost exclusively in the area.
Instruction: David Leadbetter, a top-three mainstay on Golf Digest's biannual list of top swing instructors, has an affiliation with Central Florida that goes back to 1982.
Future Hall of Famers Nick Faldo and Nick Price were sweating under Leadbetter's tutelage at Greenlefe Resort in Haines City long before they began winning majors. The England-born instructor later moved operations to Lake Nona before settling at ChampionsGate in 2000.
Mike Bender, based at Lake Mary's Timacuan Golf Club, is No. 9 on the magazine's list and works with former Masters champion Zach Johnson and two-time U.S. Open winner Lee Janzen. Yani Tseng, the LPGA's 2010 Player of the Year, sees Gary Gilchrist at Mission Inn.
The biggest spotlight, though, now falls on Sean Foley. Based at Orange County National, he already was rising fast in the ranks before Woods chose him to revamp a swing that left him with his first winless season as a pro.
Retail: Few locales rival Greater Orlando for shopping around for deals on clubs and other equipment. Beyond the various pro shops at area courses, more than a dozen independent golf outlets have set up shop.
Edwin Watts Golf has six outlets alone, including its National Clearance Center.
Orlando also is where new models frequently get their official rollout at the annual PGA Merchandise Show. Nearly 1,000 vendors, from established names to startup ventures, will be showcasing their wares this week at the Orange County Convention Center.
Open only to industry professionals, the gathering is projected to draw some 45,000 attendees -- an attendance that translates to $50 million in spending.
Media: When Golf Channel first fired up its signal in 1995, plenty of skeptics wondered how any channel could maintain 365-day programming focused on a single sport.
Today, the network is in 120 million homes and broadcasts live from more than 40 PGA Tour events, plus a healthy dose of the LPGA, Champions, Nationwide and European tours. Any significant news in the sport filters through its Sand Lake complex.
Palmer was one of Golf Channel's founders, teaming with cable entrepreneur Joseph Gibbs. Even he admits to some skepticism at the time.
"Do you know how much it would have been worth if I had taken all the stock I could have taken?" he mused while taping a recent segment. "A billion [dollars]."
Golfweek, which began as a regional publication, keeps its offices in Orlando. So does Global Golf Digest, a digital-only entry sent directly to subscribers' e-mails.
Read Jeff Shain's golf blog, The Downswing, at OrlandoSentinel.com/golfblog and e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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