Forest Lake Golf Club in Ocoee: Top-tier Orlando-area golf at a reasonable rate
OCOEE, Fla. -- In a city like Orlando, one of the best areas in the country for public golf, there is always a debate about where to play and what's the best course for the money. Seldom is there a definitive answer. Orlando easily has half a dozen tracks that could compete with any public courses in the country. Orange County National, Magnolia Plantation, Southern Dunes, Diamond Players Club Clermont-these are just a few of the great and fairly reasonable daily-fee courses that Orlando can boast of.
Most of these prestigious Orlando venues, however, reside outside the heart of the city. Convenience is not their strong suit. Other premier or resort courses such as ChampionsGate and the Disney courses are priced out of range for many players.
So where does one find a top-tier course at reasonable rate?
One answer has got to be Forest Lake Golf Club, a layout that would be worth visiting even if it weren't so convenient. This preserved golf course resides in Ocoee, a fairly rural hamlet just minutes northeast of central Orlando, and has the distinction of being bisected by a turnpike. The turnpike factor is not unusual for a golf course, (Oakmont, divided by the Pennsylvania Turnpike, comes immediately to mind), but it is always interesting to see how a layout manages to either hide such an interruption or play away from it.
Forest Lake does a better job at taking the disturbance out of the highway than most would. The entire 17th, for example, runs parallel to the elevated turnpike and yet the eye is pulled away from the concrete wall toward the centerline of the hole, to the sizable bunkers, to the wide fairway and the spill-off of natural vegetation on the left. Distraction is the key and somehow the intrusion is barely noticed.
The architectural firm of Clifton, Ezell, Clifton, the popular team who seemingly have their fingerprints on every other Orlando-area course, crafted this 1994 design in an impressive, stylish manner among the fields and woods of Ocoee. Without a doubt this is some of their very best work.
It's amazing how the absence of housing can improve the aura of a design. Several of Clifton, Ezell, Clifton's other staple Orlando courses (Stoneybrook East and Rock Springs Ridge, to name two) seem swarmed by their surrounding developments. Whether justified or not, many of these courses seem compromised by their surroundings. Forest Lake shows that, taken out of that domestic context, the firm is capable of manufacturing a stirring and even inventive golf course.
Part of its allure is that Forest Lake is a natural design devoid of much man-made artifice (if you can discount the highway). The routing flows easily around the property and takes advantage of its more interesting topography. Holes three through seven play on the far side of the turnpike but only seem mildly out of synche with the rest of the course. They don't benefit from any type of interesting terrain, yet they are solid and interesting holes.
Land alteration was kept to a minimum. Most of the earth movement occurs near the greens and definitely adds to the level of play. An uncommon style of fairway hazard is seen on several holes, a sort of steep rampart wall that rises above the fairway bunkers in a manner reminiscent of old New England courses. Waste areas border a handful of fairways only when they fit thematically and many large, curvaceous bunkers guard traditional hot spots.
Forest Lake Golf Club can play as long as 7,113 yards or as short as 5,065 yards, with three sets of tees between. The course is a local favorite, but still seems to be an insider's recommendation (although any course in Orlando that isn't burdened by homes and condos will eventually get noticed). Those "in the know" like it because it isn't overrun by tourists. If visitors knew more about it, they would come to Forest Lake instead of many of the courses that comprise the regular rotation.
The unencumbered setting is an attractive aspect of Forest Lake, but the greens are the real feature. The drought that has affected so many Florida courses for the last two years has had no power against Forest Lake, which has steadily been tapping into the reclaimed water supply of the City of Ocoee. Head Golf Professional Jeff Moore says that, in effect, they've been forced to use this wealth of water.
Forest Lake Golf Club Superintendent Joel Brownsberger and his crew have been fortunate to have the water they need, but they also know how to use it correctly. Forest Lake is as lush and green as you're likely to find a public course in this climate. When asked about his superintendent, Moore jokes, "Don't say too much about him or someone might hire him away."
The shaping around the greens and their wide collars create interesting chipping opportunities, while the internal contours of the putting surfaces are probably the most ambitious that Clifton, Ezell, Clifton have created. Some of the undulation seems extreme for such an accessible course, which is definitely a good thing, and the architecture team deserves credit for their boldness. These greens certainly prove what Clifton, Ezell, Clifton can do when given the opportunity.
Memorable holes at Forest Lake Golf Club
First Hole: The first is a 542-yard par five that presents a large fairway that disappears to the right, ideally shaped for a strong fade. The decision to go for the green in two should be made from the tee-a drive that challenges the right side of this dogleg, carrying a portion of wetlands and stopping just short of the oasis of sand and flora rising from the fairway - will yield a shorter approach to the green. From this angle, a field of bunkers to the short right of the partially hidden green must then be carried, so the decision is not without risk. The safe play is three shots down the left side.
Fourth Hole: Like many holes at Forest Lake, there is little to think about off the tee at the 429-yard fourth. Driver can be used without risk on virtually every hole, and while this is something of a weakness, the size and angle of these greens influences what side of the fairway approach shot should best be played from. The fourth green is beautifully designed, nearly two greens separated by a narrow swale-a shallow back left segment and a small, round front right section guarded by a bunker. Its contours are not severe but getting the ball close depends greatly upon where the approach shot is coming from and the position of the pin. Pins cut front-right are protected by a bunker, and those cut to the left offer little room for distance miscalculation. Anything that comes up short will filter into the shaved hollow that fronts the entire green and makes for touchy chips back up the slope. This is a lovely, simple green complex defended by natural concepts.
Sixth Hole: The second par three at Forest Lake (204 yards) is the first of three long and challenging one-shotters that all play 200+ yards over water hazards. The hazard threatens on the right on this one, but the real test is the putting surface of this curved green. The contours are some of the most striking on the course with everything sliding off the front right into a large bunker that fades into the drink.
Thirteenth Hole: A prodigious double breaking par five of 566 yards. The waste area on the right forces drives to the left toward another large, squiggly bunker (giant hitters might be able to chew off some of the right hazard). A grove of trees juts into the fairway at the 125-yard marker, blocking the green that is bent back behind them. Second shots must be played far to the right to yield an open third, or hit over with daring shots. The green is open to approaches from the right and equally difficult to access from over the trees. Each shot here requires a clear premonition of the next.
Fifteenth Hole: Fifteen is an awkward hole from the tee. It doesn't set up well or feel right-the tees seem forced, wedged into their location to the left of the 14th green, which is slightly on the line of the drive. A creek cuts across the fairway at the ideal landing area, forcing players to lay back slightly on this long par four (413 yards), an uncomfortable feeling given the length of the hole (powerful hitters can clear the creek with carries of about 230 yards or greater). The second is then a long iron into a heavily shaped, narrow green.
Seventeenth Hole: The championship tees on this par four play from a perch and take the length to 434 yards. The landing area between bunkers on either side is wide, but the drive is a difficult set-up that must pass over the lower forward tees, water, a valley, and around trees. The second shot plays slightly uphill and to the left to a green that is the star of the show. The right side of the massive green is much higher than the left and center portions and creates a bowl effects, kicking shots down the slope toward the middle. Large humps dominate putts from all direction. The inventive undulation on this green is exciting and quite daring, something we wish we would see more of from Clifton, Ezell, Clifton now that they've shown the ability to produce it.
Eighteenth Hole: The brochure says that Forest Lake Golf Club has "The 6 Best Finishing Holes in Central Florida." The statement is surely an exaggeration, but it would be truer if it stated it had five out of the six best finishing holes in Central Florida, because the 18th is fairly average. It is difficult at 457 yards and a par of four, but there is nothing noteworthy about it. In fact it is very similar to the 9th, which sits parallel to it on the same ground. Both are long doglegs to the left around bunkers with second shots into bunkered greens. Neither are stimulating ends to the side nor impress in the way of the 16 holes.