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Sunday, October 19, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Florida's Superjock Neighborhood -- Shaq, Woods, Griffey - Community Is Home To The Rich And Athletic

AP

WINDERMERE, Fla. - Behind the closely guarded gates of Isleworth, you might find Shaquille O'Neal playing hoops with Ken Griffey Jr. or challenging Tiger Woods to a putting contest on a front lawn.

You might find Wimbledon doubles champion Todd Woodbridge playing tennis with golf pro Payne Stewart and later see them hitting the course together.

The 800-acre community of sprawling mansions and bass-filled lakes is home to some of the biggest names in pro sports - and some very vigilant security guards.

Besides O'Neal, Griffey, Woods and Woodbridge, Isleworth residents include: golfer Mark O'Meara, the Buffalo Bills' Andre Reed, the Orlando Magic's Penny Hardaway and the Boston Celtics' Dee Brown. Planet Hollywood head Robert Earl also owns a home here, as does actor Wesley Snipes and some of Orlando's top business executives, doctors and lawyers.

"It's comfortable living with your peers - especially when we pretty much are all interested in the same activities," said O'Neal, who played for the Orlando Magic before signing with the Los Angeles Lakers last year.

It's also a lot of fun.

`Contemporary bachelor'

O'Neal paid $3.95 million for his lakefront mansion in 1993. The 27,000-square-foot home has a game room, small movie theater and miniature golf course. He describes the interior design as "contemporary ghetto bachelor."

He said he rides his jet ski on the lake with some of his famous neighbors or plays them at the basketball court at his house.

"We might get together and watch movies at my man Dennis' (Scott) house and cook out on the grill," said O'Neal, who also has a home in Los Angeles. "As in any community, we're always getting together to have a good time."

Scott, recently traded to the Dallas Mavericks from the Magic, lives four houses away.

O'Neal said he sometimes takes Griffey, the Seattle Mariner slugger, to his basketball court for some one-on-one. But he said he's waiting to challenge another neighbor.

"As for Tiger, once my tennis elbow (heals), I'll be glad to take him to school on my miniature golf course in my front yard," O'Neal said.

Isleworth is popular because of its amenities, security and lots that are either on the Arnold Palmer-designed golf course or on one of seven lakes, said Frankie D. Batura, a real estate broker.

The clubhouse's chef is known to carry a cell phone around so that he can take orders from residents on their boats and have the food waiting for them when they dock. Security guards patrol 24 hours a day and escort visitors by car to their destinations.

Stars also don't have to worry about being bothered by the not-so-famous residents.

"They're basically seen as normal and no one intrudes on them," said Woodbridge, half of the No. 1 doubles team in the world.

Thirteen years ago, orange and lemon trees grew where Isleworth's vast, Spanish-tiled mansions now stand. A group of investors led by Palmer purchased the property in 1984 and built the clubhouse, tennis courts and docks centered around the golf course.

But Isleworth didn't take off as a premier neighborhood for the rich and athletic until 1993, when British tycoon Joe Lewis' Aviva Land Holdings bought the development from Palmer's group, which had run into financial problems.

Lewis converted the half-acre lots into multiacre lots, allowing for the gargantuan mansions. The development attracted golfers and Magic players at first.

Athletes attract athletes, and other stars soon followed. Woods is the most recent to get an Isleworth address, buying five adjacent lots this year for $3.5 million.

Woodbridge said golf was the deciding factor in his purchase of a four-bedroom home in Isleworth four years ago. The tennis star lives on the 5th hole and can play a circuit of four holes that lead right back to his house.

When Woodbridge and Stewart hit the tennis courts at Isleworth, the Wimbledon doubles champion sometimes spots the golf pro a few points and lets him use the doubles lanes. They also play golf together.

"He's about as good at golf as I am a tennis player," said Stewart, a two-time U.S. Open winner. "He's taken my money out there on the golf course."

Woodbridge doesn't have to leave the community to train for tennis. His coach, Ray Ruffels, is Isleworth's resident pro.

"Most people at Isleworth are very successful. It breeds success. You breathe the air of success," Woodbridge said.

But there is one drawback to living with so many top jocks, he added.

"It's always very humbling because you think you're the best here and then you find someone who's better than you."

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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