Private golf courses in Orlando you can play to escape the tourist crowds

From Arnold Palmer and Annika Sorenstam to Ian Poulter and Charles Howell III, the list of golf icons and PGA Tour players who choose to live in Orlando is impressive.

These golf luminaries enjoy the private golf club lifestyle at well known communities such as Bay Hill, the Country Club of Orlando , Isleworth, Lake Nona and Interlachen .

The unfortunate truth is you must have rock-solid member connections to tee up at any of the aforementioned clubs with the exception of Bay Hill , which allows outside play to guests who stay on property at its lodge.

Non-members can also walk the fairways as a spectator at Isleworth during the Hero World Challenge, a tournament hosted by Tiger Woods staged in early December. (2014 is the inaugural year of the event.)

Don't despair, though, there are several excellent golf courses in the Orlando area where you can immerse in the private club experience. Away from the sometimes maddening theme-park crowds, these bastions of well conditioned courses and top-notch service welcome non-member play at a less-hurried pace.

Private courses you can play: West Orlando

In Montverde, 20 miles west of downtown Orlando, Bella Collina offers tee times on its scenic and hilly Nick Faldo-designed course. Once an uber-private golf club, it was hit hard by the recession in 2008 and is currently available for limited public play. After a round, you can luxuriate at the $40 million clubhouse, which looks like a massive Italian mansion.

The upscale residential area of Windermere, which is located between several lakes in the Lake Butler chain, is home to the Windermere Country Club . Situated between Lake Crescent and Lake Roberts, the Wade Northrup design is a wonderland of lakes, wetlands and tiered, undulating greens.

A few minutes away in Winter Garden, the West Orange Country Club , a member-owned private country club that opened in 1967, is a fully mature, tree-laden Lloyd Clifton design. Known for its challenging and scenic par 4s, the course has a parkland ambiance that'll make you feel like your hundreds of miles away from the theme park attractions.

While Bay Hill is private, it offers special play privileges to guests at the on-site 70-room Arnold Palmer's Bay Hill Club & Lodge . Better still, guests essentially become temporary members during their stay and can utilize all of the various amenities such as the Members Lounge and main dining room. Bay Hill is home to the PGA Tour's Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard.

Private courses you can play: North Orlando

About a 20-minute drive on Interstate 4 from downtown Orlando, you'll find two venerable private clubs with welcome mats for non-member golf play.

In Longwood, just off Markham Woods Road, the Alaqua Country Club course is a naturally beautiful layout sitting adjacent to the lush Wekiva Preserve State Park and the Little Wekiva River. Designed by Gary Player, the course has large oak trees dripping with Spanish moss, tall palm trees and water that comes into play on 16 of the 18 holes.

Near Apopka, the Sweetwater Golf & Country Club has been a private club mainstay in the area since 1972. Designed by Lloyd Clifton, the course has spectacular mature tree growth framing the fairways and medium-size greens with subtle undulations. Sweetwater's members take pride in their speed of play, and with no forced carries, slow play issues are kept to a minimum.

Private courses you can play: East Orlando

One of Orlando's earliest exclusive golf courses, Rio Pinar Country Club has been a private golf club for more than 50 years.

It hosted PGA Tour tournaments from 1966 to 1982, including the Florida Citrus Open, which later became the Bay Hill Classic and Arnold Palmer Invitational. Rio Pinar is the antithesis of the wide-open, palmetto-dotted central Florida golf course. By contrast, it has tall pine and palm trees, massive oak trees and cypress trees.

Private courses you can play: Near Orlando

For Donald Ross-design fans, Lake Wales Country Club , approximately a 55-minute drive from downtown Orlando, has been one of central Florida's more influential private clubs since opening in 1926.

While the course has been renovated and refurbished through the years, it has stayed true to the original Ross design and provides a traditional golf experience in a private club setting.

Ed Schmidt, publisher of The Golf Travel Guru Blog, is the author of two books on Florida golf and more than 2,500 articles and columns on golf resorts, courses and destinations around the world. Follow Ed on Twitter at @golftravelguy.
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Bay Hill Golf Club & Lodge holds a unique place in Orlando as a private club that also doubles as 70-room lodge open to visitors. It's combination of intimacy and luxury is tough to find in Orlando, where courses are either ultra-exclusive or huge golf resorts.
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Private golf courses in Orlando you can play to escape the tourist crowds
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