Disney World is a Golfer’s Magic Kingdom

Disney PGA Tournament winner Stephen Ames

Calgarian Stephen Ames won the PGA Tour event at Walt Disney World Resort in 2007 and 2009. (Image: Walt Disney World Resort)

Golf has long been a top draw at Florida’s Walt Disney World Resort. Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Canada’s own Stephen Ames have all made magic in a golf kingdom now undergoing a radical restructuring.

 

Canadian triumphs on the PGA Tour are sufficiently rare that Stephen Ames’s brilliant final round at Walt Disney World Resort in 2007 will not soon be forgotten.

Despite working on a swing change, Ames emerged from the pack with three consecutive birdies to capture the season’s final tour event and remind everyone watching that, though frequently overshadowed by Mickey Mouse and friends, golf has been a top draw at the Magic Kingdom since the gates opened in 1971.

Ames shot his final round score of 68 on the Magnolia Course, a 7,516-yard monster designed by Floridian Joe Lee that winds through 175 acres of thick wetlands and stands of magnolia trees.

Magnolia is the headliner of a golf lineup that currently includes three 18-hole layouts and a nine-hole executive track. That’s down from six courses less than a decade ago, back in the days when the Florida entertainment colossus challenged Pinehurst, Doral and other leading golf resorts for dominance in the North American market.

Disney’s planners believed that by building superior courses they would attract golfers who might otherwise resist their children’s pleas to visit the Orlando resort — or, at least, to make repeat visits. While the kids are out exploring a theme park roughly the size of Ottawa, at least one adult in the family can challenge the fairways.

Disney PGA Tournament winner Stephen Ames

Mickey’s signature profile defines the Magnolia Course’s sixth green. (Image: Walt Disney World Resort)

Golf’s rise at Disney World kept pace with the rapid expansion of a property that today encompasses four theme parks, two water adventure parks, more than 20 resort hotels, and enough sporting options to fill any vacation. Opened in 1997, the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex offers 220 acres of courts and fields for about 30 sports. Baseball’s Atlanta Braves make the complex’s Champion Stadium their spring training home.

Every year from its opening to 2012, Disney World hosted a PGA Tour tournament as a way to promote its golf product to TV viewers around the world. But when Disney World’s PGA tournament lost its most recent sponsor, Children’s Miracle Network, the resort decided to drop out of the PGA Tour rotation and further shrink a golf operation that had already suffered the loss of the old Eagle Pines course in 2007. That well-regarded Pete Dye design was levelled to make way for a subdivision of multimillion-dollar homes.

Not long after, Disney sold its Tom Fazio-designed Osprey Ridge layout to a group building a Four Seasons Hotel on a site that slightly overlaps the course’s routing. Closed last August for the necessary redesign, Osprey Ridge is expected to reopen alongside the new hotel next summer or early autumn.

And in 2011, Disney struck a deal with Arnold Palmer Golf Management to take over day-to-day operations of the four courses still open for business: Magnolia, the longtime flagship; Palm, a tight Joe Lee design that has received a major remodelling by the Palmer team; Lake Buena Vista, a slightly shorter but still testing Lee design; and Oak Trail, a nine-hole executive layout.

Disney World Magic Kingdom (Image: Disney)

Disney World’s Magic Kingdom: a far bigger draw than golf. (Image: Walt Disney World Resort)

Disney is banking on Arnold Palmer’s star power to help offset declining profits at a property struggling to maintain its well-earned status as a major golf industry player. Jack Nicklaus won Disney World’s first three PGA Tour events, putting the park firmly on the golf map. Another publicity surge came when Tiger Woods capped his rookie season with victory here in 1996. Woods won again in 1999 after an epic battle with Ernie Els.

But for Canadians, easily the most unforgettable champion is Stephen Ames, who won the tournament a second time in 2009, this one in a thrilling three-way playoff over George McNeill and Justin Leonard.

Pure magic, Disney-style.

 

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