We had the great fortune to visit Mission Inn Resort, the 36-hole golf and sports complex that is located 40 minutes from Orlando and one-half hour from The Villages this past winter.
Howey-in-the-Hills is the town where the resort is situated. Hills is the key word as you play the famous El Campeon course designed by George O’Neil in 1917 and enhanced by Charles E. Clarke of Scotland in 1926. It is one of the two courses on the property and one of the oldest golf courses in the South.
The town was named after William Howey from Illinois who purchased 60,000 acres of prime land in Lake County, Fla. with the intent of creating the largest horticultural empire in the world. The area and climate were perfect for citrus growth with its sandy soil, excellent drainage and protection from frost due to the 100 square miles of surrounding fresh water. He planted 48 citrus trees per acre and hired a 200-person sales force to sell oranges across the southeast.
In 1924, the 75-room Hotel Floridian was constructed on the Howey plantation to provide lodging for visiting investors. The area expanded so quickly that a golf course was built, but the stock market crash in 1929 and one of the worst freezes in Florida history crushed Howey’s citrus empire.
In 1964 Nick Beucher, also of Illinois, a former top executive for Morton Salt and then a huge broker in the meat industry, saw an ad in the Wall Street Journal and bought the Floridian Country Club that had been badly neglected. He retired from the brokerage industry in 1973 and he and his wife, Margaret, moved to Florida to develop the Mission Inn Resort on the neglected property.
Over the years, members of Nick’s family have joined the business and actively operate the resort that now sits on 1,100 acres and provides outstanding tennis courts, a fishing area with a huge pavilion and marina, beautiful hotel with 176 rooms, some villas and condos, four restaurants, a trap and skeet range, conference center, beautiful grounds for walking as well as the two excellent golf courses.
El Campeon is the third oldest resort course in Florida, and is recognized as one of Golfweek’s “Classic Golf Courses of America” and Las Colinas, the other course on the property that was designed by Gary Koch and opened in 1992 was nominated by Golf Digest as “Best New Resort Course”. The courses are used every year for the Florida High Schools Championship.
We loved El Campeon. The fourth and the 13th holes are almost mirror images as they both require tee shots over a lake and then go straight uphill to hidden greens. There is quite a bit of water on the course, but none as intimidating as the double-dogleg par 5 17th hole that requires either the second shot for very long hitters, or third shot for most of the rest of us, to carry a huge pond that sits in front of a very sloping back to front green. There is a huge tree in front of that pond and center of the fairway that increases the difficulty of the hole
Number 18 is a risk/reward par 4 that doglegs right over a pond. The more you cut off the dogleg, the closer the green, but the tee shot is all over water. There is plenty of water and also huge trees that line most of the fairways. It is a great challenge.
We played Los Colinas the second day. It is a tamer course, but fun to play. It is a links-style course with many open fairways, but still has plenty of fun holes. The second hole is an excellent par 3 with water on the right and a huge bunker left and behind the green. A few holes require threaded shots between huge trees. It is a much flatter course and easier for many of the hotel guests.
We have many friends who live at The Villages who visit the courses monthly when they are down in Florida for the winter. Staying at the property is a delight, however, as there is always something to do. The sprawling property has activities for everyone, and with the $2.5 million renovation that was completed in 2014, it is a great destination for a vacation in Florida. The restaurant is outstanding. If you are there for a weekend, make sure you experience the Saturday Night Unlimited Seafood, Sushi and Prime Rib buffet or the extravagant Champagne Sunday Brunch.
One of our favorite features of Mission Inn Resort is that we were sitting in our room overlooking the beautiful, pristine property with no traffic and high-rises about an hour after we got off the plane in Orlando.
To get more information about Mission Inn Resort visit www.missioninnresort.com or call 800-874-9053