By Jim Achenbach
(Published with permission from Jim Achenbach)
Howey-In-The-Hills, Fla. – I feel like I’ve taken a journey in a time machine. One minute it was 2015, with all its uncertainty and craziness. The next minute it was the 1950s, and everything was slower and more relaxed.
Although Mission Inn Resort & Club has modern conveniences such as the Internet (perhaps you’ve heard of it), this is an old-fashioned kind of place. Overall it feels like the 1950s. Is Dwight Eisenhower still president?
Although located just 45 minutes northeast of Orlando, Mission Inn seems a world apart from Orlando’s I-4 gridlock. A traffic jam in Howey-In-The-Hills is defined as one car behind one tractor.
Mission Inn’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.
This is a special place to stay and play golf.
The original golf course, El Campeon, is nearly 100 years old. With its unique collection of hills, it features several spectacular vistas of the central Florida citrus land that for more than a century has yielded plentiful oranges and grapefruit.
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 — was built in 1917. It is two years short of its centenary.
There is a strong sense of history here. 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.
Of course, a rampaging personality might be necessary for achieving Howey’s many endeavors. A real estate developer and citrus grower, he 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, and renovated by architect (and ING member) 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, and he and his wife, Margaret, ended up buying the original course. That was the genesis of 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, 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 probably will be tormented beyond their wildest expectations. These can be very difficult golf courses. With six sets of tee markers (Black, Blue, White, Gold, Green, Red), most golfers will be more than 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. “The old course has always been extremely popular among our tournament players. It’s a great course and a great challenge to all levels of golfers.”
Together Las Colinas and El Campeon form one of the best 1-2 golf resort combinations in Florida. One attribute that isn’t talked about enough: Both courses normally are in superb shape. I don’t mean good condition; I mean 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.
Attractive vacation packages are available, many with unlimited golf and accommodations adjacent to the El Campeon golf course. To repeat a prominent theme here, the hills are breathtaking for a portion of Florida that is mistakenly thought to be flat by most outsiders.
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 are nearly 100 feet. This is a glorious and scenic part of Florida golf, and we should celebrate the fact that it’s about to be knocking on the 100-year door of Florida history.