ORANGE COUNTY NATIONAL - Golf Center and Lodge (407-656-2626)
Florida Golf Course Review
Orange County National is the creation of Dave Harman, Isao Aoki and Phil Ritson, a guru and mentor to countless top golf instructors and professionals
and Disney's Director of Golf for several years in the 1980s , The sprawling complex covers 911 acres and includes two 18-hole championship golf
courses, and 9-hole short course, a 46-room lodge, and a clubhouse the features locker rooms with showers, a 5,000 square foot pro shop, Whiskers
Restaurant and lounge (open 6:30 AM to 6:30 PM), and outing/special events facilities. The 43-acre practice facility includes a 360 degree grass range
with 600 total spaces and 8 chipping greens, and houses the Phil Ritson Golf Studio. Two large putting greens are also on property. For more information on the resort click here.
Panther Lake was opened for public play in 1997, and Crooked Cat in late 1998, with the clubhouse becoming part of the complex in 1999. Tooth, the 9
-hole short layout, is a great addition as it provides a place for beginners to hone their skills, and is frequented by many parent-sibling couplings - with
juniors 17 and under playing for free when accompanied by a paying adult (the fee is inexpensive and walking is complimentary with range/practice
programs).One of Orange County's claims to fame is that Tiger Woods performed his famous balancing act (Nike commercial in which he bounced a ball
off his iron several times then crushed it 200 yards in mid-air) on the practice range. Additionally, the late Payne Stewart once called Orange County
National "the best public golf course I've ever seen in the U.S."
What draws top golfers to this facility? Well for one thing there is plenty of length. Crooked Cat measures 7277 yards and Panther Lake 7295. Each
course has its notable features, with formidable challenges in the form of marsh lands and water hazards, plentiful fairway and green-side bunkering and
mounding, and not-so-subtle elevation changes that create many uphill and downhill tee shots. Mostly however - it is the beauty of the layouts.
Just as importantly, OCN provides a range of tees on each course, that provides a significant challenge from the tour tees and back sets, while also
stroking the comfort zone for mid to high handicappers (and women) from the two forward sets. Average golfers will find the green tees to their liking
(Crooked Cat 6035, Panther Lake 6298). The courses are extremely well marked, with 100,150 and 200 yards blocks on the cart paths, as well as in the
middle of the fairways. There are 150-yard stakes on the par fours and fives, strategically located to double as directional aids. Each tee area also
provides measurement information to the center of the green. The GPS that is standard on all carts provides accurate yardage information from tee to pin.
The course conditions were extremely enjoyable on our early October visit. Fairways, tees and sand bunkers are finely sculpted, and the sloping greens
were large and true rolling. When dry, these putting surfaces (tifdwarf) were quite quick.
REVIEW - PANTHER LAKE
Panther Lake is the initial design at Orange County National, and was chosen as "Top 10 You Can Play" in the U.S. by Golf Magazine in 1998. Like its
sister course Crooked Cat, it has also garnered 4 1/2 stars out of 5 from Golf Digest Places to Play. The course was features 18 signature holes inspired
by worldwide designs, and is routed through oak hammocks, pines and wetlands with up to 60 feet of elevation changes - not your usual Florida layout.
Numerous strategic options over and around glistening lakes make this a thinker's course - though at 7,350 yards with a 134 slope rating from the tips,
length is just as important. As with the Crooked Cat - the "member/guest tees at Panther Lake provide average golfers with a nice opportunity to play at
their level (6,298 yards/ 128 slope). The championship tees are a challenge from 6816/132 slope and the forward tees avoid much of the trouble off the tee from 5173 yards/119 slope.
One is struck immediately by the large green complexes, often featuring double tiers - as evidenced in this photo. Pay attention to the pin placements, or
3 putts may become frequent. Water comes into play on 13 holes, and wetlands/marsh areas are also scattered about the layout. The diversity of this
design is stunning, with abundant native vegetation featured throughout. The front nine is somewhat flat - while the back is considerably more up and
down in nature. Generous mounds and bunkers can be found all along the layout, and especially near the often undulating greens. Dave Harman and Isoa
Aoki did a great job of incorporating the natural Florida environment into this challenging design.
The opening hole is a long par four, but quite playable - with a shot aimed at the 150-yard stake providing the best spot from which to approach the double
-tiered putting surface. Anywhere on the fairway is good on two. The approach narrows with water in play on the right about 100 yards out. The par four
third is the # 1 handicap. A stream runs the length of the hole on the left, and crosses in front of the green about 20 yards away. At 414 yards from the
guest/member tees - many golfers will be laying up and hitting a wedge for a possible up and down par. From the 2 back tees, players must carry a swamp
off the tee on the par 3 fourth. Players from the green and red tees will have the hazard located to their left - there is room for error to the right and also
long. The fairway is ample off the tee on five, but narrows with Cypress trees protecting entrance to the long, narrow putting surface. Better long than short
on six - another par three demanding a carry over swampland. Water hazards come into play twice on seven. The first must be carried off the tee, and a
lake is situated to the left of the fairway and in front of the green creating a couple of shot options. Hugging the water line shorten the hole but brings the
water more into play. A tee shot hit long right must navigate only the edge of the hazard on the approach. The green bends 90 degrees left about 50 yards
out. A score-able par four with a generous fairway dotted with numerous bunkers on 8 is followed by a challenging banana shaped finishing hole - a tough
four par that bends to the right around a lake. The fairway narrows considerably near past the 150, creating the likelihood of a mid iron approach over the hazard.
Number ten also bends right, and presents an abundant fairway leading to a well bunkered green complex. It is short for a par five, but its uphill nature will
make it play longer. The eleventh is a challenging par three (number two handicap - how often do you see that?) that plays over a natural area with a huge
bunker guarding the front of the green. There is some room left of the putting surface, but this hole demands a pretty accurate shot off the tee. The 12th
is a score-able par four that bends left around a tree line, and precedes a hole with a similar shot shape but with a very undulating putting surface - pay
attention to the pin placement here. Fourteen is a gorgeous par five that reminds me of a similar hole on the "White Witch" golf course in Montego Bay
Jamaica. A large sand trap defines the bend in the fairway off the tee, with a considerable carry needed to reach the top shelf. From there this long hole
(622 from the tips) turns right and leads to a tight green complex guarded by bunkers on each side and water long. The 15th is a long par three to a raised
green with water on the left and bail out room to the right. There is plenty of fairway on the par four 16th, which also plays to a raised putting surface with
bunkers short and left. Seventeen is the shortest par three of the layout and is the 18th handicap.The tee shot here is almost all carry over a pond, with
room for error long past the double-tiered green. Number 18 is a score-able par five and a good closing hole that is possible to reach in two from all but the Tour tees.
Panther Lake is a wonderful course with great variety, and will demand your best effort to succeed. With 36 holes of top quality championship golf at
Orange County National, a 9-hole executive layout, 42 acre practice facility, Phil Ritson Golf Institute, 22,000 square foot clubhouse, 200 seat restaurant
and 46 room lodge - this is a golfers paradise. Corporate outings, meetings, banquets and receptions can be comfortably facilitated here. Orange County
National is conveniently located on Highway 545, just northwest of the Disney complex.
Click here to visit the Two Guys Who Golf Detailed Information page with a link to this course's web page (if available).