Mission Inn – El Campeon

6,601 yards, 135 slope from the Blues

Course:  About 45 minutes north of Orlando, FL is the Mission Inn, in Howie-in-the-Hills, FL.  The drive to the Mission Inn from Orlando was interesting to me, mainly because it was the first time I’ve been any where in Florida with hilly terrain.  The hills continued as I arrived in Howie-in-the-Hills and as I drove into Mission Inn, it quickly felt like I was driving into an old school resort primarily influenced by Spanish architecture of the likes I would come across in California.  As I grew up in California, I quickly felt right at home.

This feeling of familiarity followed me while I played Mission Inn’s flagship course, El Campeon, a classic style course designed by George O’Neill in 1917 with enhancements done by Charles Clarke in 1926.  After I realized O’Neill designed the course, my sense of familiarity was justified; O’Neill was a primary influence of William Bell, who designed quite a few courses in Southern California, bringing everything in full circle for me, so to speak.

El Campeon is ranked as one of the top public courses in FL and I believe I was able to play it two days in a row and can say it is now easily one of my favorite courses in Florida.  Challenging, scenic, unique, fun and character are all words that quickly come to mind when I look back at my rounds there.  The course presents a healthy amount of elevation changes, forced carries over water, fairway corridors flanked with trees, creative bunkering and some very interesting tree placements.  I had a particularly tough time with the greens, which are fast and many times on severe slopes.  During my first round, the wind was up, which further complicated matters, particularly on those holes playing uphill.  Then there is the famous Seventeenth, the “Devil’s Delight,” which is a par 5 that double dog legs, features a forced carry approach shot over water with a sprawling oak tree blocking most of the fairway and is over 500 yards even from the White tees.  The hole is a  prime example of the course; blatantly difficult yet remains fun to play.  The fun lies with the elevated tee shots into sunken fairways, figuring out the many ways to play each hole, especially with the short game, and most of all, the satisfaction you’ll get in executing shots here, especially considering every hole is unique onto itself and many won’t be found elsewhere.  It is certainly a well done classic course that almost commands repeat play.

I was able to duck into Florida to escape the winter of Philadelphia for a weekend and came to the Mission Inn to golf at what I heard was a terrific place.  So after trying to shake as much rust as possible from my game due to the winter at the range, I stepped up to the first tee for one of the first rounds of the year.

The First is a 474 yard par 4 (from the Blues).  The hole dog legs right after the tee shot, with trees framing the fairway.  As you approach the green, there are mounds that block a clear view of the green and water is on the extreme right.  The green runs from back to front as well.

The First

Second shot territory

The Second is a 172 yard par 3.  The green sits at an angle from the tee and is raised, with bunkers on either side.  The only bail out room is if you end up short.  Otherwise, scrambling is hard to come by.

The Second

The Third is a 430 yard par 4.  The hole slants to the left more than it dog legs and the bunkers on the right side come into play more than it appears at first blush.  A draw off the tee is the best play, but otherwise attacking the left side will set up a nice approach shot to a large green.  This is definitely a breather hole, as the next series of holes get much more difficult.

The Third

Second shot territory

The green.  The run off slopes just off the green are prevalent throughout the course

The Fourth is a 380 yard par 4, but it plays much longer that the stated yardage.  The tee shot is a forced carry over water to a fairway that immediately juts uphill to a plateau green.  The incline is quite severe and definitely adds at least 20 yards, and that’s when the wind isn’t up.  When the wind is up, all bets are off.  There is a large bunker off the right side of the green and it’s rather blind from the fairway, so attack the green from the left side.  The green runs from back to front, quickly, and it’s quite possible a putt from the back side to the front could run off altogether if hit too hard.  I walked away with a bogey here and was elated.

The Fourth

Looking back at the tee area

Just in front of the free on the right side

The Fifth is a 403 yard par 4.  The tee shot is another spectacular one, as it’s elevated and you’re hitting into a valley of sorts, with a tree lined fairway.  Again, when it’s windy, hitting the fairway is quite the task.  The approach shot is probably going to be on the long side, and even longer since the green is elevated a lot.  In fact, there is a small patch of fairway directly in front of the green, which looks like it’s meant for those who hit a nice approach but don’t have the distance to actually reach the green.  The green itself runs severely front back to front and does not leave any bail out room, except for said small patch of fairway in the front.  Both times, I walked away with a 5 and thought I made par; it seemed to play that long and is difficult.

The Fifth

Approach shot territory

Just in front of the green, where a patch of fairway is graciously placed

The Sixth is a 382 yard par 4.  Although on the scorecard, it appears you are playing par 4 after par 4 all of similar distance, the terrain and design of the holes makes each one play very differently from the next, providing a good deal of variety.  The Sixth is a dog leg left with another scenic elevated tee shot. The approach shot is one of the more difficult on the course, as you must negotiate trees that encroach overhead on the left, an enormous bunker on the front left of the green and little room on the right to use for a landing area.  In addition to being difficult, I found the approach shot scenic as well.  The large oak trees hanging over the green and the well shaped bunker with the green sitting on a plateau looks very well framed.

The Sixth

Approach shot territory
Just off the green

The Seventh is a 448 yard par 4.  The difficulty doesn’t let up, as the tee shot landing area is quite small yet it’s necessary to hit the fairway to have any chance of reaching the green in regulation.  The wind wreaks havoc with this hole as well and essentially turned it into a par 6.  The approach shot is rather long, but the green invites shots that run up and is rather wide. It’s a tough yet fun hole.

The Seventh

Second shot territory

Looking back at the fairway from the green

The Eighth is a 170 par 3.  It is all carry over water to the green and no bail out room at all.  Water is also on the far side of the green, so anything too far or right is wet, while the large bunker on the left ends up collecting anything in that direction.  The green also slopes towards the water, so any shot that hits the green with too much release could possibly end up in the water as well.  It’s a tough hole for sure.

The Eighth

The Ninth is a 334 yard par 4.  The fairway is wider than it appears from the tee, but there are plenty of bunkers along the side of the fairway and green to collect errant shots.  The hole is short enough that driver isn’t necessary off the tee, but precision is a must for a shot at par.

The Ninth

Approach shot territory, off to the right of the fairway

The front nine features a series of elevation changes over terrain that is tree lined for the most part, forces carries over water a number of times and is susceptible to wind.  It’s a diverse series of holes with plenty of challenge and scenery.  I’d rank them 5, 6, 7, 4, 1, 8, 2, 9, 3.

The back nine starts with the 540 yard par 5 Tenth.  A dog leg right that is complicated with a large tree imposing almost directly in the center of the fairway, with water running alongside the right and bunkers on the left.  You can hit it over the tree or do what I did, which is thread your second shot in the space between the bunkers and the tree.  The problem I had was I miscalculated the distance and still left myself behind the tree on my approach.  There is certainly strategy involved in negotiating the hazards to get to the green and the distance of the hole demands precision from your longer clubs.

The Tenth

Second shot territory

Approach shot territory

The Eleventh is a 405 yard par 4.  The fairway is tree lined and sightly bends to the left.  The green sits below the fairway, yet is raised a little, creating run off areas especially on the far side.  The trees can block your approach shot on the right, so focus on going up the left side of the fairway.

The Eleventh

From the right side of the hole

The Twelfth is a 205 yard par 3.   Very large bunkers surround the green and there is a false front.  It’s a challenging hole that demands accuracy, or good scrambling out of bunkers.

The Twelfth

The Thirteenth is a 336 yard par 4.  The hole is very similar to the Fourth, mainly because it runs directly parallel to it.  There are more bunkers that are in play off the tee and the approach shot is easier than the Fourth, but like the Fourth, the tee shot is a forced carry over water and in general the hole played much longer than the stated yardage.

The Thirteenth

The Fourteenth is a 505 yard par 5.  The tee shot is elevated while the fairway is more narrow than typically found here.  Once the downhill fairway levels out, it dog legs right to the elevated green.  Large bunkers and trees are on the left while water and more trees are on the right.  It’s a challenging hole, but the downhill tee shot minimizes the yardage.  It remains challenging though, mainly because there is no room for mis hits; any shot too far horizontally likely means you will be lucky is you’re able to scramble for bogey.

The Fourteenth

Second shot territory

The Fifteenth is a 138 yard par 3.  The shortest par 3 on the course is only a mild reprieve from the difficulty faced in the majority of the holes.  Yes there’s bail out room on the right, but short, left and far are all wet.  Visually, it’s a great par 3 and hitting the green certainly brings a sense of accomplishment. It’s a nice short par 3 and leaves little room for error.

The Fifteenth

The Sixteenth is a 347 yard par 4.  A short par 4 that again tests accuracy of the short iron on one of the more fun approach shots of the course.  The fairway is wide and inviting for your tee shot, which is a good way of setting up where you want to be for your approach, which is to a green with water on the front, then a trench bunker that wraps around the entire green.  It looks and feels like you’re hitting to an island green and again, the wind makes the shot infinitely more intimidating and difficult.  I hit into the bunker both days.  Regardless, I found the Fourteenth through Eighteenth a very fun stretch of holes.

The Sixteenth

Approach shot territory

The Seventeenth is the flagship hole of El Campeon, “The Devil’s Delight.”  It’s a 538 yard par 5 and is riddled with difficulty.  As I mentioned above, it accomplishes the rare feat of being blatantly difficult while remaining a lot of fun to play.  It double dog legs, with the tee and second shot essentially blind.  This makes things complicated, as setting up an approach shot where you are not blocked out from the trees and are able to carry the water to get to the green than runs severely from back to front towards the water becomes infinitely more difficult.  The array of hazards is staggering, but all are brilliantly placed and repeat play is certainly rewarded in the quest to navigate to the green in one piece.  Truly though, it’s one hole I could play over and over forever without getting bored.

The Seventeenth tee shot

Moving down the fairway

Approach shot territory

Approach shot, from further back, with the meddling tree causing havoc

The green, with the resort in the background

The Eighteenth is a 394 yard par 4.  Personally, I found the Eighteenth almost more difficult than the Seventeenth, but maybe I was so worn out from my battle with the Seventeenth that I didn’t have anything left once I got here.  The tee shot is a forced carry over water where anything to the right is wet and anything too far left will be in a row of bunkers.  When the wind is up, like it was the first day we played, getting to the fairway is a reward in itself.  The hole than turns sharply to the right, to a narrow yet deep green, with trees along the left and the water continuing along the right.  I found it an unforgiving hole, but I think challenging the right side of the fairway with your tee shot is paramount to set up a manageable approach.

The Eighteenth

Another look at the tee shot and the fairway running up to the green

From the left side of the fairway

Approach shot territory

The back nine is a lot of fun and in place of very long par 4’s, there are very good par 5’s and some shorter holes requiring precision.  The last series of holes really shines in character and cements itself as a unique classic design uncommon in Florida, or other regions for that matter.  I’d rank the back nine 17, 16, 18, 14, 15, 12, 10, 13, 11.

Generally, El Campeon is unique in many respects.  It felt similar to courses you would come across out west designed by Billy Bell with respect to the sharp bunker ridges, sweeping elevation changes with raised tee shots to sunken fairways and encroaching trees.  Yes many of these features are not distinct to just Bell, but the use and combination of all of them is very similar, probably most so with the bunkers.  I found the course to be very enjoyable, with the challenge right out in the front of you.  The scenery is also something I have not seen in Florida any where else, with the majestic trees and the substantial hills, which also reminded me of California to some extent.  For a very well done classic design that holds up even today on challenge and character, El Campeon is worth playing.

Gripes:  The cart girl was inconsistent and we ended up dying of thirst and starvation out there.

Bar/Grill:  We ate there a few times and it was terrific.  The food was great and their in house IPA became a favorite.  The buffet they hold Saturday night had anything you could think of.

Clubhouse:  It was adequately stocked, but their apparel was outdated and there was a lot of chotchki type stuff without all that much equipment I’d consider purchasing.  You get a $10 rebate if you spend more than $50 in the clubhouse and I couldn’t find anything worth buying.

Practice Area:  A very large range services both courses, complete with a short game area as well.  The putting green is likewise large and is closer to the clubhouse.  It was top notch.

Nearby:  I don’t think there is much.  It’s located about n hour north of Orlando and it seemed to be rather rural.

Getting there:  Take the Florida Turnpike north from Orlando and you’ll get there in about an hour, maybe a little less.

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