HOWEY IN THE HILLS, Fla. -- Not long after you veer off the Florida Turnpike northwest of Orlando towards the town of Howey in the Hills, you can practically feel the clock begin to tick backwards.
When you arrive at Mission Inn Resort & Club, tall palms and winding roads lead to Spanish-inspired architecture. It's quiet here, there's no neon lights or high-rise towers, and things are just a little more civilized, like you'd imagine Old Florida to be.
The main reason discerning golfers pass scores of courses between Orlando Airport and here, is for El Campeon. It's the rarest of Florida designs: showcasing not only history (it dates back nearly 100 years), but also 85 feet of elevation changes. The design lends itself to thrilling tee shots and some tough greens. It remains relevant enough today to serve host to top amateur golf events all within a whiff of the vacation and golf mecca of Orlando.
El Campeon's combination of terrain and history is entirely unique to Florida -- which is saying something considering no state has more golf to offer.
Golf at Mission Inn: Approaching 100 years
In 1916, William J. Howey purchased 60,000 acres of central Florida real estate with the intention of building a horticulture empire, particularly with citrus. The following year, Howey commissioned golf course architect George O'Neil to build a golf course, named Florida Chain-o-Lakes Country Club.
Imagine if you will, sun-starved Northerners making the long trek down from Chicago or the northeast to this remote orange grove. Observing palm trees and alligators, and playing golf in January for the very first time.
The stock market crash of 1929, plus a deep Florida freeze soon after, ended Howey's dreams of a citrus empire.
Later, in the 1960s, the resort and course, then named The Floridan Country Club, had been neglected, and Nick Beucher, a Chicago businessman, scooped it up. He added a resort in the Spanish Colonial style (which he become fond of during a horseback ride through Mexico in his earlier years) that exists today. Today, Beucher's children and grandchildren run the property, and will see the resort through its 100th anniversary of opening next year.
El Campeon golf course at Mission Inn
The routing of El Campeon, laid out originally by O'Neil in 1917 and later in 1926 by Scotsman Charles E. Clark, is unmistakably Golden Era. It's a park-like setting, void of any interior real estate, and it flows between densely-wooded, hilly and more watery holes. You get a nice stretch of elevation changes on both nines, yet a few knee-knocking shots to holes guarded by water (like the island-green 16th) on each nine as well.
Those not expecting the elevation change as they walk to the fourth hole are likely floored by what they see: an elevated tee shot over a pond to a fairway that heads well uphill to the green. This roller coaster ride is in effect for the next several holes, and then the hills come back into play for a stretch on the back nine.
The hills are interlaced with more traditional Florida shot values: an island green on the 16th and two peninsula greens on par 3s.
El Campeon remains a true player's course to 21st-century golfers. Just over 7,000 yards from the tips, it's a repeat NCAA Championships host, and challenges the game's best young players.
Las Colinas golf course at Mission Inn
There's no replicating a Golden Era gem like Mission Inn, but the Las Colinas Course, opened in 1992 and designed by Gary Koch, is a pleasant complement. Spanish for "The Hills," there are still plenty of them to navigate on this side of the property. It's certainly worth the added night in the hotel to play before or after (or in between) rounds at El Campeon.
"Absolutely a local gem of a course," lshendricks after playing a round in August. "The entire resort has a very pristine feel. A great variety of holes and a really great alternative to El Campeon, which is one of the best courses you will ever play."
Mission Inn Resort & Club: Stay and play
What makes Mission Inn a great buddies trip destination is how different it is from the lion's share of more commercial and family-oriented properties in the Orlando area.
Adults come first at Mission Inn. The pool area is quiet, a collection of nice bars and fine dining are on site, as well as outdoor areas to enjoy cigars. A full menu of treatments at Spa Marbella adds to the adult-themed offerings. There is even a nearby shooting range for skeet enthusiasts.
Yes, a vacation here removes you from International Drive and Disney World far beyond the 30 miles or so it takes to travel here, and that's precisely the point.
This content was sponsored by Mission Inn Resort & Club.