Crooked Cat Golf Course: A Stunning, Memorable Round of Golf

By Derek Duncan, Contributor

Winter Garden, FL - It's fair to say that Panther Lake garners the most attention of the two courses which is understandable given the high priority of variation and visualization valued by most tourists and traveling players. Certainly Panther Lake can deliver a stunning, memorable round of golf replete with signature holes and camera-worthy vistas.

For those who are interested in strategy, however, and want to both create shots and think their way around a design, Crooked Cat will be more appealing. Crooked Cat is probably more of a "player's" course than Panther Lake.

The difference between the two layouts is immediately striking. The front nine at Crooked Cat shows a style of terrain not available at Panther Lake. This nine is prairie-style: largely treeless, wide open, and susceptible to the wind.

Architect David Harman explains that one of the chief differences between the two courses is in the roll of the land. Overall Crooked Cat is flatter, but it's a matter of degree. "It still has roll," Harman says, "but the rolls are much longer. The hills at Panther Lake are more abrupt. The ones at Crooked are long, flowing masses."

The second noticeable difference is in the bunkering. Whereas at Panther Lake the bunkers "sweep up" toward the greens, as Harman says, Crooked Cat's bunkers are cut down into the earth, are more numerous, and are quite irregular to thus provide the course a naturalistic presentation. The ninth hole, for instance, a tricky 324-to 400-yard sharp dogleg left around a lake with a large tree to contend with short of the green, features over a dozen bunkers, most of them a mine field backboard of sandy hollows catching anything through the fairway long.

While lacking perhaps the traditional beauty more readily found at its sister course across the road, Crooked Cat is a more raucous test, a design willing to test a wide variety of shots in the players bag, and brain, while offering plenty of non-Florida looks.

Opened in January of 1999 Crooked Cat offers a prodigious yardage from the championship tees (7,277) but can play anywhere between 5,236 yards and 6,748 yards as well. Like Panther Lake, the course has been highly complimented by the golf publications.

Depending on the time of year and the current maintenance practices, Crooked Cat's sprawling fairways (particularly on the outward nine) can appear ambiguously defined. They are accommodating to a variety of shots and the potential to position tee shots in them will excite those who favor a strategic style of golf.

Firm and fast fairways behoove the style and contours of the course. "There's opportunity for the ball to roll a lot father on Crooked Cat than at Panther Lake," Harman notes. "You can just about hit it as far as you want straightaway."

The shaping of the course is very natural. "Every contour ties into a natural feature, a ridge or something coming from off the golf course onto the golf course," Harman explains. Even on holes where land was pushed up and heavily shaped such as on the much talked about 12th, the impression is one of permanence. At 461 yard from the tips with wetlands all down the right and a second shot that must be bold enough to contend with the hazard short and to the right of the green, this is a hole that is as demanding as any in the region. And it sets up without traces of contrivance.

The back nine at Crooked Cat is less the rolling, prairie terrain of the front and more of the abrupt up and down of Panther Lake. Once the treacherous stretch of 10, 11, and 12 are traversed (three incredibly challenging par fours for advanced players of 459, 446, and 461 yards), the land get very interesting.

The reachable par five 14th (480 to 528 for the men), playing out of the far eastern tip of the property, stretches uphill all the way over a large fairway that undulates as severely as any on the course. After the downhill par three 15th over a field of bunkers, it's back uphill to the brutish 454-yard 16th, the start of an awesome trio of finishing holes.

A giant, circular green guarded by only a singular large trap on the left prevent the 16th hole from being overly difficult, but the putting surface isn't visible from most places in the fairway. The 508-yard (championship) 17th offers the choice of playing it straight and safe off the tee toward the fairway or slicing off a corner of the dogleg right and risk tree interference at the inside corner or drawing a poor lie in the rough in an attempt to drastically shorten the hole.

The second and third shots are uphill again to a deep, crowned green flanked by a long bunker on the right. The fairway is once again wide and busy with contour and bordered by the native scrub.

The eighteenth is one of the author's favorite on either course. Though leery of comparing any course or hole in Florida to those in the British Islands, the similarity here to old "field" holes is undeniable. The fairway on this 458-yard finisher is massive and rippled; only the wildest of tee shots will err off of it into the grasses left or right.

Dotting the hole's left side are numerous, staggered grassy dimples, shallow depressions in the earth reminiscent of the original bunkering on links courses that provided areas for sheep and wildlife to seek refuge in from the severe winds. These pot bunkers continue toward the green and begin to crowd the fairway while a shallow barranca creeps in from the right thirty yards short. The green is large and wonderfully tiered, with bunkers off to either side.

The primary task on the 18th is to navigate the hollows left of the fairway and strike the ball heroically twice. Depending on pin position and long iron (or fairway wood) play, low handicappers will be tempted to flirt with the left side of one of the most level and impressive final holes in the region.

Some players will find that the width of fairways and naturalistic green settings create options and make Crooked Cat more interesting than Panther Lake. Certainly the drama of the course that climaxes with the great uphill-downhill holes to close out the round is difficult to match in Florida. While Crooked Cat doesn't deliver in the picturesque category the way Panther Lake does, there is more than enough intrigue designed into the flowing contours of the course. For some golfers, that's more desirable than prettiness, and it's Crooked Cat's strong suit.

Derek DuncanDerek Duncan, Contributor

Derek Duncan's writing has appeared in,,,, LINKS Magazine and more. He lives in Atlanta with his wife Cynthia and is a graduate of the University of Colorado with interests in wine, literary fiction, and golf course architecture.

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