Panther Lake is not your typical Florida golf course experience.
That’s a big reason why so many golfers, including yours truly, love this show-stopping layout that’s part of an Orange County National Golf Center and Lodge facility also featuring an 18-hole sister course, Crooked Cat; Tooth, a nine-hole short course; Whiskers, a 36-green putting course; a 42-acre circular practice facility and 50-room guest lodge.
Rather than the flat, windy, palm-lined fairways for which the Sunshine State is famous, Panther Lake’s sloping fairways traverse rolling meadows and wind through native pines and vegetation. You’ll play alongside lakes, and over and around spectacular wetlands while navigating 60 feet of elevation changes, which definitely qualifies as mountain golf in Florida.
Another thing I love about 7,295-yard, par-72 Panther Lake —no homes line its fairways, presumably a prerequisite for most state courses. Instead, natural beauty abounds, including wildlife and many native bird species. All this is complemented by 18 distinct holes requiring thought on every shot. Approaches to elevated putting surfaces are common, again a rarity in Florida.
One such hole is the 430-yard ninth, where an all-carry approach over water is required to safely reach the elevated green. The preceding shot must find the extremely narrow fairway, which is probably the course’s toughest to hit. The first time I played Panther Lake — as a first-time-of-the-day single (I actually struck my opening drive under moonlight) — I was waved up by a greens keeper about to change the hole location. My approach finished a foot from the hole, much to our delight.
I had far less success on the No. 1-handicap, 470-yard third hole, where the drive to a skinny fairway must clear wetlands, which angle off to the fairway’s left side and emerge as a green-front creek the approach must clear. The back nine is just as stern, with three great par 3s — the 228-yard 11th, 227-yard 15th and 167-yard 17th. The 11th is brutal, as the only safe route to the putting surface is to completely carry hazards and bunkers guarding the green’s front. When was the last time you played a par 3 rated the course’s No. 2 handicap hole?
Two years later, my two buddies and I played directly behind a twosome including golf legend Charlie Sifford. That was our group’s highlight until the 18th hole, when the ex-Red Sox farmhand with whom we were paired polished off the 24th can of his personal case of beer. That’s something else you don’t see every day — in Florida or anywhere else.
Orange County National (Panther Lake), Orlando, Fla.
Stay-and-play packages: http://www.ocngolf.com/lodging/lodge-golf-packages