Orlando is home to many touring pros

Updated: March 16, 2005, 2:37 PM ET
By Steve Elling | Golf World

It has been almost 50 years since Arnold Palmer first set a spiked foot in Orlando, then a humble little town that featured a smattering of cozy golf courses, the intoxicating smell of orange blossoms and hundreds of sparkling lakes decorating the sandy, rolling terrain. Palmer had been looking for somewhere to spend his winters and was fast smitten by the pace of the place.

"I loved the quaintness of Orlando in those days," Palmer says. "It was an old farm town, a great place, but not really on the map."

Annika Sorenstam, Tiger Woods
Annika and Tiger are among the many touring professionals who call Orlando home.

Now it is the center of the golfing globe. Palmer found a personal hideaway in 1969, purchasing the site of this week's Bay Hill Invitational. Ever since, the King has seen his adopted hometown become to golf what Hollywood is to the movie biz, and he can hardly believe the profusion of pros now residing around him.

"Everybody sees what I saw," Palmer says. "There were always a lot of pluses. Now it's the hottest place on earth."

Orlando has become the game's leading golf-pro repository, simultaneously serving as home base and launchpad for professionals of every level, an industry town indulging every golf demand. Once known mostly as the Valhalla of theme-park destinations, dozens of players from around the world have visited O-town and come to a quick conclusion.

Nice place to visit. Would wanna live there.

St. Andrews might be the cradle of golf, but Orlando is where it went to grow up. No fewer than 50 players with status on the PGA Tour were raised in Orlando or have homes in the area, including top guns Tiger Woods, Ernie Els, Sergio Garcia and Retief Goosen. Moreover, of the top 15 players on last year's final LPGA money list, six have residences in Orlando, including stars Annika Sorenstam and Se Ri Pak.

Orlando wasn't always 'Golf Central'
Long before Isleworth CC became the glitzy enclave of choice for many of America's major sports stars, it was a point of congregation for a team wearing a different sort of uniform. In 1990, when the cash-strapped private community toppled into insolvency, members of the Orange County Sheriffs Department raided the premises and began hauling off anything that wasn't nailed down.

Visitors today would marvel at the economic before-and-after photo. Decidedly upscale Isleworth has become the premier club its investors envisioned. Encircled by mega-mansions, it ranks as the second-longest course in the state at 7,544 yards and is tied for the toughest in Florida with a brutish handicap rating of 77.5. But before it became the posh refuge of choice athletes and assorted captains of industry, it was nearly brought down by pond scum and a drowned dog named Polly.

Isleworth, which was built on the picturesque Butler Chain of Lakes by Arnold Palmer, opened in 1987 and tried to carve a niche as the place for the creme de la creme. Unfortunately, creme turned to phlegm when fertilizer-filled water runoff fouled a landlocked lake, alienating some area residents. A neighbor's dog drowned in the clogged, over-filled lake, and its owner and 17 neighbors filed a lawsuit.

At the time, Palmer and IMG business associate Mark McCormack, who both lived at the club and had a stake in its development, didn't think much of the pending action. "We thought the lawsuit was pretty frivolous," McCormack told the Orlando Sentinel in 2001, two years before his death.

The suit prompted what stood at the time as the longest civil trial in Orange County history. After 17 weeks, a jury awarded $6.6 million in attorneys fees and damages to the plaintiffs. Since the U.S. economy had already gone south and Isleworth home sales were sluggish, the club foundered and bills went unpaid. According to records, the raiding deputies confiscated 40 golf carts, six riding mowers, 214 boxes of golf balls, 214 pullover sweaters, 105 hats, 29 putters, 14 sets of irons and five umbrellas during foreclosure.

"We were hiding everything - mowers, equipment, anything we could," says Orlando course architect Erik Totera, who worked on the Isleworth maintenance crew at the time. "They were seizing everything they could get their hands on to settle the debt."

After spending a year in court receivership, the course was sold in 1993 to British billionaire Joe Lewis, who three years earlier had purchased a huge home at the club. Lewis' company, the Tavistock Group, later purchased Lake Nona G&CC on the eastern edge of Orlando, another major repository for top tour pros. The clubs' resident professionals will meet in the second Tavistock Cup matches at Isleworth March 28-29. The event, which is closed to the public, will be televised on The Golf Channel, providing most longtime Orlandoans with their first look inside the gates of the ultra-exclusive club.

Lewis pumped new financial life into the club and recently lifted the veil that once made it so mysterious. Isleworth last fall hosted a major men's college invitational and aspires to someday stage an NCAA Championship. That philosophy marks a major marketing turnaround for the once-secretive development, which in 1999 was named America's best country-club community by the Robb Report, a magazine for the rich and famous.

"It's turned from an investment to a strategic asset for us," says Tavistock official Christopher Anand.
-- Steve Elling

"It's getting a bit crowded, isn't it?" says Justin Rose, a native Englishman who is building a home in the Lake Nona community.

Unquestionably, players have migrated to Florida for years, taking advantage of the mild winter climate and lack of state income taxes. Orlando also possesses the country's top-rated airport, another benefit to anybody who lives out of a suitcase. But over the past decade, the Orlando infrastructure for tour pros has sprouted like Bermuda grass, feeding almost any golf-related appetite.

Amen to the amenities, they say. "Whatever you need, it's there," says Charles Howell III, who moved to the city four years ago. "If you can't find it, you aren't trying."

Thanks to a spike in upscale, private golf communities that provide players with the anonymity and accoutrements they prefer, keeping track of the infusion of newcomers requires either a real-estate license or an immigration badge. Last December alone, established winners from three world tours -- Christina Kim, Nick Dougherty and Andre Stolz -- bought property in the so-called City Beautiful.

Of course, the city's reputation took its biggest credibility leap when Tiger Woods bought a townhouse at Isleworth CC nine years ago, shortly after turning pro. He had played a practice round with club members Mark O'Meara and Ian Baker-Finch as a teenage amateur and enjoyed the outing, despite the fact that O'Meara dropped a tidy little 63 on him. Woods' new management firm believed the California native needed a tax break and someplace to get started.

"They figured that if he didn't like it, he could always move pretty easily," says David Lightner, a tax and investment specialist with IMG. "Turns out, he liked it fine."

Nearly a decade later Woods has relocated to a bigger house and still calls the club home. Though he has toyed with the idea of moving to south Florida to be closer to the Atlantic Ocean, camaraderie and the comforts of home have kept him around. "I have friends there," Woods says. "I have yet to find a place like Isleworth, where I can have peace and quiet as well as a great place to practice and get ready, and some good competition as well with the pros that play down there. We have some great games. So it's always been fun."

For the resident pros, Orlando -- whose origin dates to 1838, during the Seminole Wars, when the U.S. Army built Fort Gatlin south of the present city to protect settlers -- has become collegial, almost familial. To modify a term, birds of a feathery and all that. Aussie Peter Lonard was lured by mate Paul Gow. Arjun Atwal and Daniel Chopra were recruited by Smriti Mehra, another player with ties to India who lives in town. But make no mistake, the Orlando roster continues to grow unpredictably in terms of geographic diversity. The Lake Nona community alone contains pros who hail from The Netherlands, England, South Africa, New Zealand, Italy, Spain, Germany and Sweden.

From a historical perspective, Walt Disney World Resort's arrival in 1971 started Orlando's economic growth spurt, sending it climbing like a booster rocket from nearby Kennedy Space Center to 1.8 million residents. "Certainly the fact that Disney came enhanced what was happening," Palmer says, wistfully. "But what would it have been if Disney hadn't come? That's a big question." And getting bigger every day, actually. In Orange County, where Orlando is located, the population has grown 180 percent from the 1970 census.

Like anybody else, golf pros appreciate a decent bargain. Relative to many cities, the cost of living in Orlando is thrice as nice as some far-pricier locales. For instance, when Kim, a 20-year-old native of the San Jose area, started looking for a home to purchase in her native California, she almost croaked from sticker shock. "My uncle found me one listed for $1.8 million," she explains. "Let's just say I didn't want to spend quite that much."

Kim bought a comparable 3,141-square-foot, six-bedroom house with a pool located not far from Bay Hill for $575,000, less than one-third the San Jose home's asking price. The relative cost of living, if not the less-stressful quality of life, were major issues in her relocation. "Plus, there are just so many other girls in the area," she says of her LPGA peers. "It's great to have them all down here to play or hang out with."

For every established professional, there is a handful of would-be stars who trek to Orlando to whale away on the mini-tours such as the Moonlight, Hooters or old Tommy Armour circuits. A quarter-century ago, long before there was a PGA Tour-sanctioned developmental proving ground like the Nationwide Tour, the now-defunct Space Coast Tour was ground zero for aspiring pros. Several events were held in central Florida, attracting armies of wannabes. Scads of established pros cut their teeth on the Orlando mini-tours, including veterans Skip Kendall and Bart Bryant, and never left town.

The mass migration continues unabated, if not accelerated. On the Orlando-based Hooters Winter Series, which features 120-man fields, most of the players reside in the area for the winter season and plenty stay year-round. If the oft-cited relocation Big Three are low taxes, a first-rate airport and great weather, then for a fledgling pro, there is a fourth element thanks to the city's primary economic activity -- tourism.

"Affordable apartments," says John Bachman, 30, an assistant pro at Lake Nona G&CC and occasional mini-tour player. "There are lots of them because all those theme-park employees need places to live. If you come down here and stay with two or three other guys, it's not very expensive."

They come alone and in clusters. Second-year PGA Tour member Zach Johnson, a native of Iowa, packed up his clubs and moved to the Orlando area with some college buddies in 1999. "Six guys, three bedrooms," Johnson said. "If you want to see how good you can become, you have to go somewhere you can play year-round. We hit balls in a dome in college. That's not the best way to develop your game."

Perhaps the fastest-growing sector of Orlando expatriates hails from the United Kingdom. Englishmen Ian Poulter and Rose built homes at Lake Nona last year, where national icon Nick Faldo makes his American base, and they soon will be joined by countryman Nick Dougherty. The latter doesn't have any status on the U.S. tour but hopes to play here someday -- not that in some ways, he hasn't already. The Dougherty family, native Liverpudlians, has been spending the winter in Orlando for more than a decade and loves the place, especially the wide variety of golf courses, roughly 125 layouts within a 40-mile radius of downtown.

For the Europeans, Orlando is the site of a veritable land rush. With U.S. interest rates at bargain levels and the British pound running at nearly a 2-for-1 exchange rate versus the dollar, the bang for the buck is considerable. Real-estate developer Bobby Ginn, whose sprawling Reunion Resort and Club near Disney World will be worth an estimated $2 billion by the time the lots are sold, says Brits account for approximately 25 percent of his sales. The development features golf courses by Palmer, Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus and has planned a major practice area designed specifically for tour professionals.

"We're having a heyday over here," says Roger Dougherty, Nick's father. "And long may it remain. You people don't know how good you've got it."

Actually word is spreading, and there is no question television exposure helps. The 10-year-old Golf Channel is based in Orlando, and the city stages PGA Tour events annually at Bay Hill and Disney, whose roots trace back to 1966 and 1971, respectively. In odd-numbered years nearby Winter Garden is scheduled to host the PGA Tour Qualifying School final, and the offseason Office Depot Father/Son Challenge relocated to the city in 2003. Last year the Tavistock Cup, which pits the stars-in-residence from Isleworth and Lake Nona, was added to the town's tournament lineup. Additionally, LPGA headquarters is located 45 minutes up the interstate in Daytona Beach, and the monstrous PGA Merchandise Show is held in Orlando every year.

"It's, like, golf central," says LPGA rookie Bernadette Luse, a central Florida native.

From head tinkerers to guru swing fixers, if it's broken, there is a repair shop nearby. David Herman, an Orlando sports-performance trainer whose area clients over the years have included Els, Lonard, Pak, Trevor Immelman and Ty Tryon, is part of a growing infrastructure for the turnkey pros. "You can get it all taken care of here," he says. "Whatever your issue is, it can be addressed."

As players have migrated to Orlando, support personnel have answered their call, if not vice-versa. Most notably, swing instructor David Leadbetter, a longtime resident, drew several top clients in his wake, including Faldo, Els, Poulter, Howell and Rose. Leadbetter isn't the only swing doctor to hang his shingle in O-Town, either, since Brian Mogg, Tom Creavy, Mike Bender and Phil Ritson each have clients on the major tours. Manipulating matters between the ears are sport psychologists Gio Valiante, Robert Winters and Patrick Cohn.

At times the golf-logoed logjam can be downright humorous. Last year, LPGA rookie Reilley Rankin was working out at an Orlando health club when she spotted a trainer helping a customer. "I asked him if I was doing my workouts right," Rankin says. The trainer was Kai Fusser, whose clients include Sorenstam, Weetabix Women's British Open champion Karen Stupples and several other LPGA players, reinforcing the notion that if you walk 100 yards in any direction, you will find another member of Orlando's golf cognoscenti.

There is another type of professional whose counsel often proves invaluable -- tax accountant. Florida is one of nine states without a state income tax, along with Alaska, Nevada, South Dakota, Texas, Washington, New Hampshire, Tennessee and Wyoming. The potential savings, in some cases, boggle the mind. Lightner, IMG's tax whiz, says a high-income player such as Woods can generally expect to save between 11 and 14 percent of his income versus what he would pay if he still lived in California. With estimated annual earnings in excess of $80 million, that is a healthy chunk of change. "I'd be happy with just his [tax] savings," cracks Lee Janzen, who has lived in central Florida since he was 14.

Then there are the two most notable civic attributes, the sunshine and the airport. With respect to the former, while summers are so sticky, nobody irons shirts -- the humidity will erase any creases quickly enough -- winter for pros is paramount. "For those two months of offseason in November and December, it's nice to be able to practice whenever you choose, not when the weather chooses," Howell says.

For the established players, especially the internationals, the airport is an incalculable asset, whether they're flying commercial or private. According to a J.D. Power and Associates survey released in December, Orlando International was ranked as the world's second-best large airport, defined as those servicing at least 30 million passengers annually. Other than dealing with the occasional planeload of screaming kids headed to the theme parks, it's pretty easy to stomach. "It's probably the best airport I have ever been in, period," says Johnson. "It's just so ... easy."

Tally up the enveloping assets and it might help explain why the city's residents have been so productive on tour, since players with Orlando ties continue to take home the chrome with amazing regularity. From 1991 to 2004 players based in Orlando won 11 titles at the U.S. Open. Over a stretch of 42 consecutive majors staged through the end of the 2001 year, an Orlandoan 28 times flew home with the first-place check in hand.

"If you can usually find a way to finish as the low man among the guys living in Orlando," says Chris DiMarco, one of the city's rare homegrown products, "you're going to have a pretty good career."

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