Visit Orange County National Golf Center for one reason and one reason only, golf. If you are looking for non-golfing frills then you are at the wrong place. With 45 holes (two 18-holers called Panther Lake and Crooked Cat and a 9-holer called Tooth), a 36-hole putting course called Whiskers, a 42-acre circular driving range – which once received the Best Golf Driving Range in America accolade – comfortable lodge rooms and a decent clubhouse, you might begin to get the idea that Orange County National is Florida’s equivalent to Oregon’s Bandon Dunes but with some weird feline fetish.
Even though Orange County National Golf Center is a relatively short drive by car from Orlando, it feels as though you are heading into the boondocks. But keep going, you are travelling in the right direction and eventually you’ll arrive at the property, which is set in more than 900 acres of pleasantly rolling ground that is completely devoid of housing.
Panther Lake was the first course to open at Orange County National (1997) and it was the result of collaboration between Phil Ritson, Isao Aoki and the late David Harman, who left a number of tremendous legacies including Kauri Cliffs in New Zealand. The Crooked Cat opened in 1999 and the same trio designed that course too. Both courses feature plenty of rare Floridian elevation change and both can be stretched out beyond 7,200 yards from the tips.
Panther Lake is the course that has quite rightly amassed the accolades because it is one of the most memorable courses in the whole of the Sunshine State. From the high opening tee, you drive a hill before heading back up to the elevated multi-tiered green. This opener sets the scene for the thrilling Panther Lake ride that makes you glad you’re alive and able to play the game of golf.
Orange County National is one of the best facilities in central FL. They are blessed with two courses. In my opinion Panther Lake is the best of the two. The opening hole is a long par four, slight dogleg right. Favor the left side as to avoid the bunker complex in the right landing area. The par 5 2nd is an interesting hole. You almost want to aim at the bunkers on the right side, although you want to make sure you know the right yardage so as to not be in them. From there, I advise caution. Large water hazard right and a fairway that gets real skinny as you get closer to the green. Unless you a big hitter with a perfect lie, there is no sense going for it in two. The long par four third is the # 1 handicap. There is a stream on the left that crosses in front of the green about 20 yards away. The par 3 4th is a long par three with a forced carry. Just hit a good tee shot and you will be fine. Favor the right side of the fairway on 5, but be aware that this is an extremely narrow green with gunch and hazard right. The 6th is a mid-range par 3 over prime FL swampland. It is the calm before the storm. I have no idea how the par 5 7th is the 5th handicap hole. It effectively has 3 carries. Off the tee drive over the swamp and favor the left side to give you a wider landing area on your second shot. The green is tucked into the water hazard so gauge your preferred distance accordingly. The green bends 90 degrees left about 50 yards out. The 8th is a long par 4 with ten bunkers. The good news is they are pot bunkers as opposed to BABs. Nine is a tough par 4. The green is tucked right in a water hazard that runs the entire right hand side of the hole. The fairway is very narrow and to add insult to injury it slopes left to right into the water hazard. By the way it is 400+ yards. Par is a good score.
Number ten is a par 5 dogleg right with a large fairway with a well bunkered green complex. Reachable par five, but its uphill and will play longer. The 11th is the number two handicap hole and is a 200+ yard par 3. It plays over gunch with a huge bunker guarding the front of the green. The 12th and 13th are almost twins, same look and feel bending left. Fourteen is a monstrous par five, from the tips 624 yards. A large sand trap is on the exterior elbow of this dogleg right. The 15th is another long par three to over gunch with water on the left and a greenside bunker short and one long, as well. Seventeen feels like recess as a short par three. The 18th is a good finishing hole. A potentially reachable par five, it has a boatload of bunkers. Take an extra club on your approach as it is slightly uphill.
Panther Lake is an excellent value and if you are in the Orlando area well worth the trip.
I have been playing annually at Orange County for the last 20 or so years in concert with my attendance at the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando each January. The course is not the typical Sunshine State layout whereby water is used to excess and where housing engulfs the course to the point of suffocation.
There's also a good degree of terrain movement -- not on a major scale -- but given the dead flat nature of what constitutes the majority of Florida it clearly makes for a difference when playing Panther Lake.
There's also plenty of movement in the routing so wind plays a varying role throughout the round.
The greens are where the magic of Panther Lake shines. They are quite varied with different locations to test the fullest range of players. Orange County has been the site for PGA TOUR qualifiers so the challenge of the course is certainly present.
The main issue -- as with many Florida courses -- is the over reliance on the air game. Florida turf is generally quite "spongy" so players will not reap anything close to meaningful bounces of the ball.
The best parts of any visit to Orange County comes with a superb practice area, a second course to enjoy and being away from the clutter and congestion that lies at the heart of Orlando for all those Disney bound.
by M. James Ward