I am 100 years old.
Well, not really, although the golf course beneath my feet is indeed 100 years old. Golf has been played here at Mission Inn Resort & Club since 1917.
I could be in a time machine. One minute it’s 2017, with all its craziness. The next minute it’s 1917, where everything is slower and more relaxed. Pardon me while I take a nap.
Sure, Mission Inn has modern conveniences such as the Internet (perhaps you’ve heard of it), but this is an old-fashioned kind of place. It reflects the best of the 20th century. Although located just 45 minutes from Orlando, Mission Inn seems a galaxy apart from Orlando’s I-4 gridlock. A traffic jam in Howey-In-The-Hills is defined as one car behind one tractor.
The resort’s faithful Spanish-style architecture fits the atmosphere here. The buildings are well kept, and they echo the timeless high expectations that many golfers hold for their vacation destinations. With a unique collection of hills spread across its 36 holes, Mission Inn features spectacular vistas of the central Florida landscape.
The original Mission Inn golf course — now known as El Campeon but originally called Bougainvillea Links, Florida Chain ‘o Lakes Country Club, and then the Floridian — made its debut in 1917, contributing to a strong sense of golf history. I get the feeling the Mission Inn staff would gladly dress in century-old apparel if asked.
Before discussing the wonderful El Campeon course, let’s look at the name of this town. Howey-In-The-Hills? What kind of name is that?
In 1916, William J. Howey commissioned golf course architect George O’Neil of Chicago to design and build a golf course. It would be located in Howey, Florida.
This would be something like my intention to invite all of you to play my personal golf course in Achenbach, Florida.
A real estate developer and citrus grower, Howey was an ambitious man. He owned 69,000 acres in Florida. He built the state’s first juice processing plant. He had king-sized social aspirations and lofty political pretensions. He envisioned grand hotels in the town named after him. He was the Republican nominee for governor of Florida in 1928, although he lost to Democrat Doyle Carlton.
The project that would become Mission Inn was accompanied by a large measure of embellishment. “Howey to have greatest golf course on continent,” read the headline in the Howey Tribune on Jan. 2, 1917.
The town of Howey, whose name was changed to Howey-In-The-Hills in 1927, never became the winter mecca predicted by Howey and others. However, the El Campeon golf course has survived quite nicely. A sister course, Las Colinas, was designed by touring pro and golf announcer Gary Koch in 1992. It was renovated by architect Ron Garl in 2007.
The second course was a pet project of the Beucher family, which has owned the facility since 1964. Nick Beucher, a Chicagoland commodities broker, saw a classified ad in the Wall Street Journal. He and his wife, Margaret, ended up buying the original course. That was the start of what has become a full-fledged golf resort, still run by members of the Beucher family.
“We have a 56-slip marina on Lake Harris,” said vice-president and general manager Bud Beucher, a son of Nick and Margaret. “We have pontoon boats and bass boats for rent. We have an active tennis program. Our fitness center and spa are really great. Skeet and trap shooting are very popular here. We have a fabulous golf practice range. And, oh yes, we host 80 or more weddings every year.”
Back to the golf. The Koch/Garl course is fun to play, albeit without the wide-open acreage and dramatic green complexes of El Campeon. The two courses have entirely different personalities, and this is one of the strengths of Mission Inn. There is nothing boring or repetitive about playing golf here.
Those who attempt to negotiate the back tees might be tormented beyond their wildest expectations. These can be very difficult golf courses. There are six sets of tee markers (Black, Blue, White, Gold, Green, Red), but most golfers are adequately tested by the white tees (6,365 yards for Las Colinas, 6,276 yards for El Campeon).
“Definitely an under-appreciated golf facility,” said former Florida State Golf Association executive director Cal Korf. “In particular, the old course has always been extremely popular among our tournament players.”
Together Las Colinas and El Campeon form one of the best 1-2 golf resort combinations in Florida. Both courses normally are in superb shape — not just good condition, but superlative condition.
Prices are affordable, too. The high season is late January through the middle of April, when greens fees creep into triple digits. For much of the year, though, it costs less than $100 to play golf at Mission Inn.
In addition, please don’t overlook the Gary Gilchrist Golf Academy, headquartered at Mission Inn. Gilchrist is known primarily as an instructor and counselor to junior golfers, but he offers programs for adults as well.
Speaking of adults, attractive vacation packages are available — many of them including unlimited golf along with accommodations adjacent to the El Campeon course. To repeat a prominent theme here, the hills are breathtaking — especially for a portion of Florida that is often mistakenly thought to be flat.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not ready to change the name of this town to Howey-In-The-Mountains, but these hills definitely deserve as much recognition as they can get. Some of the elevations rise nearly 100 feet. This is a glorious and scenic part of Florida golf. Don’t look now, but it has been so for 100 years.
—Jim Achenbach email@example.com