The Secret Sauce: Winter Park 9
PGA Week is, and will be until the day I die, the congregation of pretty much the entire golf industry. Anything and everything is there. Mostly for good, sometimes for a good head scratch, but nonetheless, my first time there in 2023 was about as enjoyable as another other week I have ever had in January.
To close out the week, a return trip to Winter Park 9, the Keith Rhebb and Riley Johns collab on nine holes in the affluent town of Winter Park northeast of downtown Orlando. PGA Show is near Disney, Sea World, and Universal Studios, in the belly of the beast of the Disney adults and screaming babies, Cinderella and Shamu. Detaching from the convention centre and the amusement amalgamation was a worthy cause, and one I was happy to jump on.
I had played Winter Park a year prior, on a golf trip that included the Streamsong trio, Calusa Pines, and World Woods. The plan for the day, alongside seasoned ink-master veterans Rick Young, Robert Thompson, and Jason Bruno, called for a triple dip to compliment my one rip in 2022. In reality, that’s only 36 holes, but four times around seems like a lot and by then, I’d hope to have figured out the secrets of Rhebb & Johns architecture.
By now, my hope is readers of this site are able to sense of the importance what a Secret Sauce selection means to me. They’re sparse and rare, only reserved for golf courses I want to single out for something they do exceptionally well. The articles are formulaic: 10 or 11 paragraphs, with a similar amount of photos. They’ve been a way to show off my drone photos, which are a new addition to my travels as of 2022, but also a way to celebrate golf courses. In total, only six golf courses are included in the series. Winter Park is the first American course to be included.
Its inclusion celebrates numerous things, municipal golf one of them. But to me, that discussion point has been beaten to a pulp. Anyone from Matt Ginella to Rick Young to Golf Club Atlas and more have identified the importance of Winter Park’s revitalization to the future of municipal golf. Rather, Winter Park, to me, is the celebration of low-budget, high-attention renovation work and how that can translate to other properties. The property is, well, poor. Hemmed in my old brick streets that separate every hole other than the 5th-7th, there is zero elevation change other than a quarter club that Johns & Rhebb’s pushed up greens produce. The holes border with homes that remind me of Westchester, NY or Ardmore, PA, railway tracks, or an industrial lot. This is not some A1 piece of ground to work with. In “Doak Scale” terms, it might be a 2 or 3: average, maybe with nothing too offensive, but not good, either.
The golf course is neither flashy nor dramatic in terms of the typical trappings of Instagram-worthy clickbait venues and PGA TOUR hosts. Take Bay Hill, for example. Host of the Arnold Palmer Invitational, about 30 minutes down the Interstate, is far more dramatic to look at, with the large white sand bunkers and big, blue water hazards. Yet Winter Park is able to sit at the table with architecture for the soul; risk-reward options aplenty, gambling shots and decisions looming. Half-par holes are the name of the game, with the 1st, 6th, and 9th being “drivable” par 4’s, whilst the 3rd and 4th are reachable par 5’s, more-so for the former.
It is on these half-par holes that Johns & Rhebb are able to bend your brain’s perception of what par really is. Take the 1st, for example. At nearly 260 yards, I have played numerous par 3’s at that length, an unfortunate byproduct of a golf ball that goes too far. At Winter Park’s 1st, though, the green is severe. It seems to draw inspiration from Pinehurst’s fall offs, with the left side and long dead, while the internal contours make it no easy two putt on a rather small green. On a par 3, one might bicker about fairness or whatever other complaint they might use as they walk off with 5 or 6. As a par 4, there’s enough leeway out of the gate to miss a shot or two and still end up just barely behind the eight-ball.
The same can be said about the par 4, 6th and par 4, 9th, both reachable holes at ~230 and ~220 yards. Yet, they bend the conventional thought on par. Both holes are a regular long par 3 these days, but in order to “drive” the green on the 6th, an aggressive tee shot must cut the corner over the trees on the right before navigating the Lion’s Mouth green. On the 9th, the ever-so-slightly gentle bend to the left narrows against Out of Bounds on the right, while he green tapers towards the back edge. Not an easy feat, but a par 4 provides that wiggle room to mess up a shot and still feel okay about the hole from a pure score standpoint. I know us architecture geeks like to pretend score and par doesn’t matter, but it does for most golfers. Whether that be trying to shoot a personal best, or deciding how many shots they need to take to get to the green, it plays a role in the game of golf.
In truth, the real star of the show at Winter Park are the green surfaces, which could be best non-Seminole set I’ve seen. Granted, it becomes difficult to evaluate nine holes versus eighteen. After all, variety is far easier with half the product, and building something that stands out when you can pack a punch into two hours is much easier than four. This is something we’re dealing with right now as we look ahead to our 2024 Top 100 as we add nine hole courses to the ballot, and right now, we have no solution. But here, at Winter Park, most of the greens sit slightly elevated from their surroundings—assuming for drainage purposes. Some fall off on the sides, like the 1st, 2nd, 5th, and 7th. Others collect, like the bottom tongue at the 4th or the feeder slope off the right on the 8th. They might wrap around a bunker like they do at the Lion’s Mouth 6th or the loosely inspired Road hole 9th, but whatever they do, they never feel stale or contrived. Not once did the contours feel boring or bland, and for that, Winter Park itself is a must-see.
While the Arnold Palmer Invitational runs on TV, or LIV Golf’s event at Orange County National in a couple weeks, just remember: Orlando golf is not entirely void of character or architectural interest. At Winter Park, an architecturally significant, community asset awaits those who step away from the overwhelming tourist traps of Orlando. Truth be told, I’d rather spend an afternoon in Winter Park without golf than Orlando; the golf just so happens to be there, and boy, is it worth the $25 green fee.