Little Lion Man

This wraparound green is frightening for any player
winter Park Illustration
Illustration: Riley Johns

Architects Keith Rhebb and Riley Johns earned a tricky task. They had the winning bid to redesign Winter Park Golf Course, a nine-hole municipal track that weaved its way through the quaint Orlando suburb, crossing cobblestoned streets under leafy trees. While charming to residents, the small, flat plot of land was uninteresting for golf. Their solution: Create nine spectacular greens.

The Winter Park 9, as it’s known to locals, is a new-age municipal redesign, reopened in 2016 with beginners in mind. It has wall-to-wall fairway grass, no forced carries and, technically, can be played with just a putter. Thanks in large part to its greens, it’s a fun challenge for beginners and scratch players alike, despite measuring only 2,559 yards.

The king of these designs is the lion’s mouth on the 260-yard par-4 sixth. The hole doglegs slightly to the right around a grove of trees and is reachable for many players, but it’s hardly easy with the maw of a massive lion’s mouth green complex standing in the way. The design harkens back to the golden age of golf design when Seth Raynor would occasionally employ this style of green, most famously at the Country Club of Charleston in South Carolina.

The genius of the lion’s mouth is in its alternative routes. Different pin positions and approach angles call for far different shots, forcing return visitors to employ an entirely new strategy on the same hole. The contours of the green are big and bold. A bunker cuts into the front middle of the complex, and the green horseshoes around the bunker. The rear of the green’s undulation funnel shoots back into the center of the green. This yields three distinct pin positions, each presenting unique challenges and shot options to players.

 When the pin is to the left, the trees are at their least dangerous, and the preferred angle is as far right as possible to leave a straight-on approach. Those who play to the left will find an awkward, angled approach over a ridge. The shot is particularly tricky when the pin is up front, leaving players to deal with the lurking bunker behind.

The pin on the right is the most visually intimidating, appearing to float above the center bunker. This pin showcases the beauty of the lion’s mouth: A skilled player will likely attempt a high-trajectory shot to the tucked pin. This requires precise accuracy, distance and spin control. But there is a ground option for beginners: They can play a low-running shot up the left side of the green that will hopefully catch the back ridge of the lion’s mouth and funnel to the flag.

Similar to the right pin, the center pin provides multiple routes. With the pin sitting directly behind the bunker, the worst place to find your ball is 10 yards in front of it. Even so, the green contours provide both an aerial option and a low-risk route to hit it close by using the contours to the left or right of the green.

The only place that yields few options on the sixth green is from behind it, near the SunRail train tracks that border the course. From this position, all the contours work against players and make it difficult to keep shots on the green. With the hole a short 260, this is a regular spot for big hitters who attempt to drive the green and overshoot it.

Rhebb and Johns stuck their head into the lion’s mouth and came out unscathed. By using creativity and digging into their deep knowledge of golf-architecture history, they brilliantly solved a problem that had bedeviled many before them.

Andy Johnson is a Chicago-based golf writer and competitive amateur golfer. His website and newsletter, The Fried Egg, provides detailed coverage on golf course architecture and professional and amateur golf.