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A Golden Bear, Tiger and a Mouse: Celebrating 50 years of Walt Disney World Golf

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Tiger Woods - Walt Disney World/Oldsmobile Classic
PGA TOUR Archive

Tiger Woods - Walt Disney World/Oldsmobile Classic 1996 PGA TOUR PGA TOUR Archive

50 years of history began with Jack Nicklaus’ three-peat on the courses Walt built

    Written by Seth Livingstone @PGATOUR

    Lake Buena Vista, Fla. – With his dominance in the early 1970s, Jack Nicklaus turned Walt Disney World Resort’s championship golf courses into his personal playground by winning each of the first three professional tournaments played at the iconic vacation destination, which celebrates its 50th anniversary on Oct. 1.

    Generations of players at every skill level would go on to experience Walt Disney WorldGolf, but Nicklaus will always stand out. A half-century later, as “The World’s Most Magical Celebration” begins, he can only smile when remembering his time on and off the courses.

    The 1971 opening of Walt Disney WorldGolf near Orlando coincided with a resurgence in the Golden Bear’s career, ushering in a period of brilliance that left no doubt about his status as one of the greatest golfers of his era.

    By age 26, Nicklaus had become the youngest golfer to win all four of the sport’s major championships. After winning his second U.S. Open title in 1967 -- breaking Ben Hogan’s 72-hole record at Baltusrol in the process -- Nicklaus endured a bit of a slump by his high standards. He did not win another major until 1970, when he captured the Open Championship on the Old Course at St. Andrews.

    Then came 1971, the year Magic KingdomTheme Park opened to the public and the year that Walt Disney World hosted its first PGA TOUR event. It also was the year Nicklaus became the first player to win all four majors more than once. He clinched the PGA Championship that season and finished no worse than fifth in any of golf’s four majors.

    Back-to-Back to Back

    In 1971, Nicklaus won the inaugural Disney Classic. He would go on to repeat the following year, dominating with a 21-under-par total to win by nine strokes, then made it three in a row by edging out Mason Rudolph in 1973.

    “I remember going up there and playing their resort courses,” Nicklaus recalled. “I played (them) well. We played the Palm and Magnolia courses for the tournament, and I won it in ’71, then I won it in ’72, and I won it in ’73.”

    The PGA TOUR event then switched to a best-ball format from 1974 through 1981.

    Highlighted by 19 PGA TOUR wins from 1971-73, including four majors and his three Disney titles, the early 70s were exciting times for the Nicklaus family.

    He and wife Barbara were parents to five children, and they made the most of their time at Walt Disney WorldResort during that period.

    “We took them into Magic Kingdom every night and did all the things parents do with kids, and we enjoyed it. It was great fun,” said Nicklaus, recalling the collaboration between what became known as “The Most Magical Place on Earth” and “The Happiest Place on Turf.”

    Walt Disney Worldwould go on to host memorable tournaments and the greatest names in golf – among them, Tiger Woods, who as a 20-year-old in 1996 shot a final-round 66 to claim his second TOUR title. Woods won again at Disney in 1999, edging out Ernie Els by one stroke.

    Payne Stewart, Lanny Wadkins, Larry Nelson, Raymond Floyd, Vijay Singh, Luke Donald, Stephen Ames, Lucas Glover, Davis Love III and David Duval are other notable players who secured PGA TOUR titles on the Walt Disney World Resort courses.

    "Obviously playing and winning there is great, but it's mostly about the family,” said Love. “We played the parent-child tournament, and the kids looked forward to it. We rode the monorail and staying right there at the golf course is just so much fun. I have great memories of Disney golf."

    Players from both the PGA TOUR Champions and the LPGA Tour have also flourished at Disney World. In 1975, Charlie Sifford survived a playoff to win the first of five Senior PGA Championships held on Disney’s Magnolia Golf Course. Pat Bradley won in 1995 at Disney in the first live broadcast of an LPGA event by Golf Channel. Karrie Webb in 1996 and Michelle McGann the following year each conquered Disney's Lake Buena Vista Golf Course for LPGA Tour victories.

    Hal Sutton called it a “dream come true” when he sank a 15-foot putt on the fourth playoff hole to defeat Bill Britton for his first PGA TOUR victory at the 1982 Disney Classic after the tournament returned to individual stroke play. Indeed, the resort is a place where dreams do come true. The four unique courses (Disney’s Palm, Magnolia, Lake Buena Vista and Oak Trail Golf Courses) provide layouts that are challenging enough for the world’s best, yet player-friendly enough to accommodate golfers of all ages and skill levels.

    Redesigned in 2013, Arnold Palmer Design Company’s extensive efforts on Disney’s Palm Golf Course were recognized two years later by Golf Magazine with the “Renovation of the Year” award. Arnold Palmer Golf Management continues its commitment to excellence through continual physical upgrades to each of its courses along with the programs and amenities that guests have come to expect.

    After more than four decades of hosting annual tournaments televised by ABC, ESPN, NBC and the Golf Channel, the last PGA TOUR event was played at Walt Disney World in 2012. The focus has since shifted to expanding golf’s amateur reach, where Disney continues to showcase the same world-class amenities while offering a superlative experience in stunningly beautiful surroundings for the general public, resort guests, family vacations, industry gatherings, and more. Golf Digest has ranked Walt Disney WorldGolf among its top five destinations for a family golf trip.

    Magical Moments in Professional Golf at the Walt Disney WorldResort

    1971 - Jack Nicklaus wins the inaugural Walt Disney World Golf Classic. Nicklaus would go on to dominate the following year, capturing the event by nine strokes, then make it three in a row by edging Mason Rudolph in 1973.

    1975 - Charlie Sifford finishes at 8 under par and survives a playoff to win the first of five Senior PGA Championships played on the Disney Magnolia Golf Course.

    1982 - Hal Sutton calls it a dream come true after sinking a 15-foot putt on the fourth playoff hole to defeat Bill Britton for his first PGA TOUR victory in the Walt Disney World Golf Classic.

    1993 - Following a rain delay, officials illuminate the 18th hole at Disney’s Magnolia Golf Course with artificial lighting as Jeff Maggert defeats Greg Kraft by three strokes in the final round of the Walt Disney WorldGolf Classic.

    1995 - In the first live LPGA Tour event broadcast by the Golf Channel, Pat Bradley wins on the LPGA at Walt Disney WorldResort.

    1996 - A 20-year-old rookie named Tiger Woods shoots a final-round 66 to capture his second career PGA TOUR victory in the Walt Disney WorldGolf Classic. Woods further establishes his reputation by becoming the first player in 15 years to post a top-five finish in five consecutive TOUR events. That same year, Karrie Webb takes the LPGA trophy at Walt Disney World Resort.

    1997 - Michelle McGann conquers Disney’s Lake Buena Vista Golf Course en route to capturing the last of the LPGA tournaments there.

    1999 – Tiger Woods wins a second Walt Disney WorldGolf Classic, edging Ernie Els by one shot -- one of Woods' eight victories that season.

    2000 - Duffy Waldorf matches John Huston’s tournament record by finishing at 26 under par to edge Steve Flesch by one shot at the Walt Disney WorldResort.

    2005 - Lucas Glover holes out from a bunker 40 yards away to make birdie and earn a one-shot victory over Tom Pernice Jr. at the Walt Disney WorldResort. Glover would win the U.S. Open four years later.

    2006 - Justin Rose records 12 birdies in shooting a course-record 60 on Disney’s Palm Golf Course in the opening round, but it’s Joe Durant who goes on to finish at 25 under par and win by four strokes.

    2011 - Walt Disney WorldResort and Arnold Palmer Golf Management agree to a 20-year agreement assigning the latter to operate, manage, maintain and promote Disney’s Palm, Magnolia, Lake Buena Vista and Oak Trail Golf Courses.

    2013 –Arnold Palmer Design Company reconstructed Disney’s Palm Golf Course from tees to greens, including bunkers.

    2015 - Arnold Palmer Design’s revamping of Disney’s Palm Golf Course is recognized by Golf Inc. Magazine’s Renovation of the Year award. At the same time, bunker renovation is completed for the entire Disney’s Magnolia Golf Course, as well as the building of Junior tees at Disney’s Oak Trail Golf Course.

    2017 - The iconic Mickey Mouse bunker on the par-3 6th hole of Disney’s Magnolia Golf Course is enhanced by implementation of a Capillary Concrete lining to improve drainage and maintain sand conditions. Full course bunker renovations begin at Disney’s Lake Buena Vista and Oak Trail Golf Courses.

    2018 – Full greens renovation at Disney’s Oak Trail Golf Course

    2021 – Walt Disney World Resort celebrates its 50th anniversary

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