Chances are, you’ll rattle down at least one brick road on the way to Winter Park Golf Course in the historic Orlando suburb of Winter Park, Fla. These streets and the regal, Spanish moss-draped live oaks that line them are integral to the personality of a municipal golf course that has been in operation since 1914. The course, only 33 years younger than the city of Winter Park, looks every bit its age.
And that’s a compliment.
Winter Park is a city-operated nine-hole course flooded with walkers and push-carts. Thanks to the protection that comes with its place on the city’s register of historic places, these 40 acres bordered by elegant homes and the prestigious Rollins College will always be occupied by a golf course.
“This is the definition of urban golf,” said Gregg Pascale, the golf pro shop manager. “It’s in the heart of the city.”
Pascale’s office is buried behind a literal layer of history in the small golf shop that sits just off the first tee. Long, thin planks of heart pine preserved from the original Winter Park starter shack cover the wall behind the cash register, and Pascale’s office door is simply an unassuming rectangular cut-out with a “private” placard affixed to it.
When Pascale arrived mid-July 2016, the course was in the final stages of a $1.2 million renovation led by course designers Keith Rhebb and Riley Johns that increased green size two-and-a-half times, updated a 30-year-old irrigation system, added undulation and improved the overall flow of the course. In short, the renovation modernized a flat, dated layout.
Superintendent Ed Batcheller, an 11-year veteran of the Winter Park Golf Course, and his crew helped usher in those changes through “every daylight hour and then some” alongside the design team.
“There’s a lot more shots now,” said Pascale of a course that lures in everyone from beginners to retirees to low-handicappers who come for a speedy round and a short-game tune-up.
Not to be overlooked is the improved aesthetic those renovations brought. This is a course lined by streets and neighborhoods, and residents are looking in just as much as players are looking out.
“From the road, it looks like a nice golf course,” Pascale said. “The conditions are much better and the greens are comparable to any place in town.”
Pascale has been a quick study in the rich history of this place as he helps fill the tee sheet and keep the Winter Park nine relevant. The brilliance of Winter Park’s evolution is the subtlety with which it has aligned with current trends in the golf industry.
As remote, highly touted nine-hole courses come online (think Sweetens Cove in South Pittsburg, Tenn., and The Cradle at the famed Pinehurst, N.C., resort), Winter Park’s stock rises. It doesn’t hurt that croquet courts next to the ninth hole were recently turned into a nine-hole putting course or that there’s public night golf every Tuesday from November to March.
When the golf course came back online on Oct. 1, 2016, it was treated like a new opening. In addition to the physical changes, Winter Park debuted a new online tee time system to replace the old, spiral ball drop that had previously governed the order of play. The course got a sleek new logo, too. As anticipated, rounds have gone up.
Even historic courses have to evolve, but that process has felt natural for Winter Park. Pascale admits that the course doesn’t do a lot of advertising – mostly because it doesn’t have to. More non-residents play this course than residents (at a rate, Pascale guesses, of about 60-40 percent).
It helps Winter Park’s case that golf-centric Orlando is home to the annual PGA Merchandise Show, the Golf Channel and a PGA Tour event. It’s one way to explain the media obsession with Winter Park, but the more likely reason for the traffic? A good layout, an efficient renovation and elegant surroundings speak for themselves.
Julie Williams is a former college golfer and Golfweek writer who teaches eighth-grade English and coaches a high school girls golf team in Cocoa Beach, Fla.