I had come to Orlando without a single hotel room booked — except for my last night at the PGA Merchandise Show. I was planning on filling the nighttime gaps in my itinerary each day, picking up accommdations as my fluid schedule became more certain. And then I was randomly paired with friends Brendan Sweeney and Frank Bassett from Golf Talk America for a media day at Lake Nona Golf and Country Club. We were having a great time, playing a scramble and drinking beers, and I forgot about my pending homelessness. Not keeping with my plan, I didn’t book a room while we were playing.
So by the time we wrapped in the January dusk, I needed somewhere to go.
Before the media day pairing, I was already going to play with Brendan and Frank (and friend and PR maven Kevin Frisch) the next day at Mission Inn, about 40 minutes north of Orlando, in a town called Howey-in-the-Hills. So Sweeney had a great idea: Why not stay at Mission Inn?
Yeah, why not? I took him up on the idea, and the resort was kind enough to let me stay there last-minute.
For some reason, Google Maps took me the long way, so I took all back roads in the dark. Lots of winding turns and a whole lot of Florida not making sense, as it typically doesn’t. But eventually, I came to an intersection and saw the Spanish-style welcome. I was at the Mission Inn Resort & Club.
The history of the Mission Inn dates back to 1916, when William Howey (of Howey-in-the-Hills) purchased 60,000 acres of central Florida real estate. He wanted to use the ideal climate and soil for horticulture, selling the land to smaller farmers so they could grow citrus that his company could sell. In an effort to incentivize potential landbuyers, he commissioned Chicago-based architect George O’Neil to build a course on land rare for Florida, featuring 85 feet of elevation changes from top to bottom.
Howey’s dream went bust with the one-two punch of the Great Depression and a historically terrible Florida freeze. But Howey’s course became the Floridian Country Club, which was purchased by businessman Nick Beucher in 1964. The course and its clubhouse were in desperate need of renovation. Five years later, inspired by a 1,400-mile Mexican horseback ride as a 21-year-old, Beucher decided to build the Mission Inn around his course. He chose a Spanish Colonial aesthetic, prominent to this day in many parts of Mexico.
Driving in, I couldn’t tell a whole lot about the resort. It was pitch black. But I walked into the modest lobby, checked in and got my room keycard. The hotel is a mid-century, multi-building two-story build — a solid three-star hotel with room renovations done in recent memory. Many of the rooms feature a screened-in deck or porch with views of the original golf course, now known as El Campeon.
My stomach was roaring, so I walked into the Spanish-style common courtyard and found the bar. They were serving late into the night, and the lamb burger was one of the best I’ve ever had. (I have a fondness for it.) The fries were delicious. The bar, like the hotel rooms and much of the resort, has a humble loyalty to the original aesthetic. In a world where so many older resorts gut themselves in pursuit of modern luxury, Mission Inn is unapologetically itself. I loved that about the accommodations. Four- and five-star places are incredible, but they also make me feel uncomfortable that I could break something worth more than my life insurance benefit. Mission Inn has character while offering the right mix of modern amenities and necessities for a good-to-great stay.
After a great night chatting it up with some PGA of America professionals from Eau Claire Golf and Country Club in Wisconsin, I hit the sack for a morning tee time.
I'd heard from “Talking GolfGetaways” podcasts hosts Mitch Laurance and Darin Bunch that El Campeon was a lot of fun. They’d visited earlier in the decade and had a blast.
I was intrigued by the promise of real elevation change, not just the Floridian idea that 10 feet of up and down created by bulldozers was a big deal. The nearby, Nick Faldo-designed Bella Collina — with its over-the-top luxurious clubhouse and painfully poor 5-pars — sports similar ground movement, but it lacks the turn-of-the-century character that shines at El Campeon from the first tee.
From many tee boxes, the course feels tight, belying its true width in the landing areas. There’s plenty of room to play, but there are several demanding tee shots that require precision and, more importantly, self-control.
The par-4 seventh plays 448 yards from the blue tees, going 30 feet downhill to a fairway cut across at a diagonal by a water hazard at about 270 yards. For most players, the driver is in hand, but the longer player has to pick a layup number and not hit it too flush.
A hole later, the par-3 eighth plays to a peninsula green, guarded on the left by a bunker that percolates fear with a second shot constantly reminding the player that a skulled explosion shot will lead to double bogey or worse. Eight holes later, a friendlier, shorter mirror image of the hole is a good callback.
However, my favorite hole on the course is the par-4 16th. It’s just 347 yards from the blue box, so it’s a layup with a long iron for a skilled player. The crux of the hole is the second shot, which plays to an island green complex surrounded by a bunker ring six feet under the green. Late in the round, the wedge or short iron into that green will make or break the round.
Mission Inn would consider the par-5 17th to be their signature hole. It’s a 538-yard double-dogleg par 5, forcing a longer player to either pull off a big cut with driver or a shorter club off the tee to find the fairway. Most every golfer won’t be able to reach the green in two, as a water hazard commands a gutsy second, while a tree short of the hazard in the right center of the fairway will gobble up a poorly flighted ball. Played properly, the 17th should be a test of your wedge game to make a birdie, but it can be quite an adventure. Even if you make a run-of-the-mill par, you will have a strong opinion of No. 17.
El Campeon finishes with a Cape-style hole, letting the golfer bite off as much of the guarding water hazard as he or she wishes before hitting an approach to a generous target.
The golf course is a lot of fun because it’s so not Florida. It’s not gawdy. It’s not obnoxious. The greens run true and reasonably fast, and the breaks are subtle. The message “long is dead” is communicated early and often. El Campeon requires all different shot shapes and trajectories, and a player will use his imagination plenty.
Mission Inn has a second course, the Gary Koch-designed Las Colinas, which I didn’t play in my stay. Some regulars say they prefer it to El Campeon because it lacks some of the quirks of the O.G. course. But if you’re going to go out of the greater Orlando area, you may as well do something that you can’t find in Orlando. Mystic Dunes Golf Club is a Koch design in Orlando that can save his diehard fans a drive. However, if you’re staying for more than a few days, Las Colinas can certainly break up any monotony that might come with playing El Campeon again and again, which I would do happily.
A stay-and-play package at Mission Inn is more than reasonable. At times of the year, they even offer unlimited golf and a hotel room for $250 per person, per night. That’s a steal to play an historic course and get away from the typical central Florida golf experience.
I’m so glad I made the drive to Mission Inn, and I can’t wait to come back, grab another lamb burger and play El Campeon again.