Panther Lake Golf Course: The Centerpiece for Orange County National
Winter Garden, FL - Panther Lake was the first course to open at Orange County National in September of 1997. Not long after its debut, the course began to earn kudos from the highest sources, with notable praise coming from both Golf Digest and Golf Magazine.
The course serves as the centerpiece for Orange County National. If you could only play one of the two courses, most would suggest this track. The reason, for many, is that Panther Lake is a beautiful, rather lush golf course that is a treat to take in visually. So varied is the topography of the site that the course plays like several separate golf experiences in one. No two holes are similar, and both the style and routing of the course reflect the distinct differences in the land.
Credit for the intuitive design goes to architect David Harman, who says he recognized the potential for a beautiful golf course in the variety of landscapes. "It had a natural mixture of these rolling meadows and grasslands, then a whole series of existing wetlands, and then a couple of good sized lakes," Harman says. "Incorporate that into some flat holes that were laying there with the rolling terrain, so you had four or five different mixes within the same property."
Harmon took full advantage of the range of terrain in the creation of Panther Lake to produce a course that is viewed as one of the more prominent and varied in the Central Florida region. The course measures a hearty 7,295 yards from the championship tees, but comes down to the 5,094, 6,298, and 6,816 yard range for most players.
For the most part the greens are large with ample contour, occasionally accented by slopes and fallaways that are difficult to discern. They are almost always surrounded by a variety of large, sweeping sand traps and small pot bunkers that frame the green and add a visual richness to the target.
Panther Lake lies on the south side of the Orange County National property. The rolling grassland "ramp" holes-one, nine, ten, and eighteen - segue the course from the slightly higher ground near the clubhouse down to the wetland and flatland holes in the middle of the layout. At the far south side of the course the holes traverse a superb stretch of land that ventures through pines trees, orange groves, skirts a large lake, and rises to the highest point on the course.
"Panther Lake is very unusual for a Florida golf course because it has about 60' of elevation changes," Harman says. The design consistently utilizes the better aspects of the elevation (or lack of it) from each segment of the property, taking full advantage of the innate characteristics found on the land.
Accomplishing this was simpler in some places than in others. The 13th hole, a 441-yard uphill par four through the pines is as lovely as it is distinct. It was also very natural. "The 13th ...was laying there - that was very easy to do," Harman confesses. The 14th, a massive 622-yard (championship tee) par five that drops dramatically back down the hill and right around a severe dogleg with a lake on the left, was a different matter.
"The guys did an excellent job shaping [the 14th hole]. There was a lot of work to be done there."
The par three 15th, really a continuation of the terrain and green complex of the 14th, plays quite long (193-and 227-yards for the men) with the same lake interfering on the left. The utilization of the great land in this corner of the property makes it probably the most memorable stretch on the course. "I think 13, 14, 15 are as good of a three-hole combo as there is around here," Harman says, speaking of the greater Orlando area.
Where the land is less thrilling, Harman has managed to make great strategic holes. The bunkerless fifth hole, a 355-to 405-yard par four situated in the flattish center of the course, forces players to make decisions based on pin position and the angle of the long, narrow green that runs away from the fairway right to left bordered by wetlands on the right. The tee shot plays over a crest in the fairway and bends to the left, but position is crucial. From the right side of the fairway the hazard is a constant threat, causing less-than-confident shots to bail into the trees on the left. From the left hand position, the same trees may force shots to contend with the hazard long and right.
The seventh hole, located in the wetland region of the property, is a favorite of Harman's. The 562-yard double-dogleg par five changed formation several times and constantly challenged the designers. Says Harman, "Number seven goes back to the west, and that was a totally different golf hole originally. I happened to be out there one evening and watched the sun set and saw that fabulous oak tree off to the left."
The tee shot plays out to a wide fairway bordered by groves of trees on either side. The fairway stops at the wetlands some 290 yards out, starts up again over the hazard to the right, then stops again short of the green situated on the left.
"It took a lot of work to get it that way. The thing was totally covered in palmetto and was just a mess. It was one where we worked literally right to the end to create. If you're a good player and you've got the guts to go for that second shot (cutting across the wetlands 220 yards to the green), that's as tough a second shot that you can hit in golf."
In addition to roaming over some of the more compelling regions in West Orange County, Panther Lake is impressive in its composition and order as the differently flavored holes tie in together smoothly. Though the elevation changes can be abrupt, there is more of an artistic presentation of the greens and in the bunkering than at Crooked Cat. The holes set up in an open manner that is aesthetically pleasing, often bracketed by orange groves, water, or natural grasses.
"I wanted [Panther Lake] to be everything it could be," Harman says. "There are plenty of plain golf courses in the state of Florida. I wanted to take a beautiful piece of land and shape it into as good a golf course as we possibly could."
It will be difficult for golfers to leave Panther Lake with just one thought or impression. The complex blend of land formations and styles, along with the absence of off-course development, will ensure that the playing experience will never become repetitive.