Where I played: The home of Q school, Orange County National
Welcome to our “Where I played…” series, in which a resident GOLF staffer runs through a recent day at a course you might play in your future. Today, we’ve got the Panther Lake Course at Orange County National Golf Center and Lodge in Winter Garden, Fla.
Although Disney World is just eight miles from its gates, Orange County National Golf Center and Lodge might steal the “Most Magical Place on Earth” moniker from Mickey Mouse’s stomping grounds. That is, if you’re a golf fan.
Though Orange County National doesn’t boast the roller coasters, interactive cartoon characters and nightly fireworks shows that its neighbor has, what it does offer is two championship-level courses (Crooked Cat and Panther Lake), another nine-hole short course and the largest driving range in the nation. Even in a state known for its golf pedigree, that kind of facility offering is quite impressive. It’s also been a regular host for PGA Tour and, more recently, Korn Ferry Tour Q school.
Q school is actually the reason I made my trek to the Orlando area and Orange County National. No, not as a competitor, but to cover the event – one of the most high-stress weeks in golf. After traversing the two courses for seven-straight days chasing stories of up-and-coming golfers, I was familiar with the nuances of the two courses. But watching some of the best players in the world dissect the courses and then playing them in tournament conditions the day after competition concluded provided quite the test.
Course: Orange County National Golf Center and Lodge (Panther Lake)
My tee time: 10:21 a.m., Dec. 16, 2019
Course type: Public
Price: The courses offer dynamic pricing that vary based on demand. Florida residents do get a substantially cheaper rate, however.
Difficulty: Disclaimer: We played Panther Lake the day after Q school ended so we were playing in conditions meant to challenge some of the best players on the planet. Flags were tucked, the rough was long and the greens were rolling extremely fast. Though we didn’t play from the 7,350-yard championship tees, Panther Lake, designed by Phil Ritson and David Harman, with help from Isao Aoki, was plenty challenging from the 6,800-yard tees.
The Panther Lake fairways are fairly generous, so as long as you aren’t too wild off the tee, you should be fine. Lots of the approach shots into greens are well-guarded by bunkers, and the contours of the greens can make accessing certain hole locations tricky. For the most part, good shots are rewarded and bad shots are punished, but solid ball-striking with your irons is a must if you want to score well.
How to get there: Orange County National is only 35 minutes from Orlando International Airport, though heavy traffic from nearby Disney World can mean some fluctuation on that estimate. After driving through a seemingly endless expanse of suburbs, strip malls and chain restaurants, you’ll turn off Highway 429 and drive down Phil Ritson Way into Orange County National’s enormous circle driveway.
Fast facts: As mentioned above, Orange County National has long played host to PGA Tour and Korn Ferry Tour Q school. This is a fact they are proud to display, with plaques in the clubhouse and banners flying around the property proclaiming the honor. Another fun note: Crooked Cat and Panther Lake were prominently featured in John Feinstein’s book “Tales from Q School: Inside Golf’s Fifth Major,” which is one of my favorite books of all time. The round would’ve been fun either way, but getting to jump into the setting of one of my favorite books only added to my enjoyment.
Notable/favorite holes: No. 7 is a classic risk-reward par-5 that can swing any match. The tee shot is over water and into a narrow landing area. If you place your tee shot well enough, you can choose to take on the 200-yard carry over swampland into a shallow green. For the more conservative player, you can lay up to the right and get the correct angle into the green, giving you a short wedge in your hand. The hole allows for a variety of ways to play it and still come away with birdie, the hallmark of a good hole.
The 9th hole might be the toughest tee shot on Panther Lake, with water running along the right side and a fairway that slopes left to right. If you lay back on the tee shot, the landing area is more generous, but the shot into the green becomes much more difficult. Trying to bomb a driver comes with its own risks as water down the right and trees down the left come more into play.
The par-5 18th is another hole that gives players options off the tee. A long and narrow bunker runs up the center of the fairway, forcing players to choose the thinner landing area on the right side or the more forgiving left side. Laying back on the left takes going for the green in two out of play and makes for a trickier layup, while the tee shot on the right side brings the bunker and rough more into play. The green is one of the more heavily contoured on Panther Lake, with a back shelf that played host to the Sunday hole location for Q school.
I loved: I loved the options Panther Lake provided. It seemingly didn’t favor any one type of player. I could play my normal short-hitting and methodical game while my playing partners could play more bomb and gouge and we had similar opportunities to score. The course was in excellent condition and the pace of play was great as well. If I lived in the Orlando area, it would definitely be in my regular rota.
I didn’t love: The course lacks some cohesion from hole to hole. It boasts being the “world’s only course designed to feature 18 signature holes,” but I think that hurts it more than anything. Some holes meander through the pines while others have a more traditional Florida wetlands feel. The variety is nice, but I would’ve liked for it to have had a more distinct identity.
Overall Orange County National provides plenty of value and variety, plus a great test for your game. If you’re in the Orlando area, consider bypassing Disney World to take a day or two to play Panther Lake and Crooked Cat, enjoy the laid-back short course or just beat some balls on one of the biggest driving ranges you’ll ever see.
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