Reprinted with permission from Golf Odyssey.
With its generally good weather, plentiful flights, frequent conventions and off-course diversions, Orlando is one of the country's most popular golf destinations. Much like the chain restaurants that line its thoroughfares, Orlando sports an abundance of golf offerings that seem designed to satisfy a mass audience, not the discerning connoisseur. As such, we have often walked away disappointed in many of Orlando's golf offerings. So let's look at two others that are among Orlando's best, Orange County National and the little-known, Harmony Golf Preserve. Well-removed from the hubbub of the theme parks, both provide quality games in peaceful settings.
ORANGE COUNTY NATIONAL
If you are looking to play 36 holes a day in Orlando, it's hard to beat Orange County National golf course. This daily-fee facility, located in rural Winter Garden a half hour or so from Bay Hill and the Waldorf Astoria Orlando, comprises the Panther Lake and Crooked Cat eighteens, a nine-hole par three course, world-class practice facilities, and a basic but modern motel-style lodge for those who wish to stay onsite. The facility's two eighteens have played host to the final stage of the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament. Both courses were designed by David Harman, whose most famous commission was Kauri Cliffs for Julian Robertson.
At Orange County National, Harman's designs provide solid, gimmick-free championship-caliber tests that ask you to hit a wide variety of shots. The courses ramble over varied and occasionally rolling terrain amidst wetlands, lakes, oak hammocks, and stands of pine trees. They are also free of any course-side construction or distractions.
Panther Lake (Rating: B+), considered the marquee course at Orange County National, may strike visiting golfers as a traditional Florida track with water on almost every hole and a fair amount of trees. However, it also incorporates 60 feet of elevation change between the highest and lowest points of the course. The holes play long, and you'd better not miss to the sides. A plethora of elevated greens and stout bunkering requires you to fly the ball onto the large putting surfaces.
The par-four 9th illustrates how unforgiving Panther Lake can be. From the tee you see the fairway slanting from left to right toward a large lake that extends from the forward tee markers all the way to the green. On the approach, anything short meets a watery grave as the green veers to the right hard-by the hazard.
Panther Lake features an outstanding foursome of par threes. The 11th is long (over 200 yards from the back tees) and all-carry over water and bunkers. Seventeen is a short par three fronted by a lake. Three bunkers loom behind the putting surface, but the real key is finding the green's proper tier.
The round finishes with a strong, straightaway par five. To have a chance for birdie, you'll have to avoid the rough and hillocks on the left as well as the fairway bunkers en route to an elevated green canted toward the left-side bunker. While the professionals can play Panther Lake from a fifth set of tees at 7,350 yards, the tips for daily fee golfers measure 6,849 yards. At 6,394 yards, the blues sport a 71.2 par rating and a 127 slope.
Crooked Cat (Rating: B+) offers a links-style game. “The Cat” allows you more leeway to hit offline and still score, although you must stay out of the monkey grass at all costs. The more exposed topography incorporates more movement and permits run-up shots onto generally large greens. Unlike the tall-faced bunkering of Panther Lake, the sand traps are carved into the terrain.
Crooked Cat's back nine is Orange County National golf course's toughest side. The scorecard wrecker is often the 12th, a par four into the wind featuring water all up the right side. The water constricts the fairway the last 100 yards in and looms hard by the right edge of the two-tiered green. Next up is a stout par three (the fourth-rated handicap hole) that requires a carry over a lake and a large bunker draped all across the front of the green. Beware coming up short, as there's a steep descent into the bunker. Crooked Cat's scorecard distances are quite similar to Panther Lake, but the course plays a little shorter. From the 6,432-yard blue markers, Crooked Cat has a 71.4 par rating and a 126 slope.
Carts at Orange County National are equipped with GPS. The club places a notable emphasis on speed of play. Starters and players assistants keep groups moving at a pace of about four hours and 20 minutes per round. Course maintenance is outstanding. Although the layouts wind through wetlands, they drain very well.
Orange County National golf course is a great place to groove your swing. The practice ground includes a 360-degree driving range, chipping area, and putting green. Remember the Nike commercial with Tiger Woods bouncing a golf ball on the edge of his wedge? That was filmed here.
HARMONY GOLF PRESERVE
Harmony Golf Preserve (Rating: B) is a “hidden gem” of Orlando. This Johnny Miller eighteen from 2003 serves as the focal point of the town of Harmony, a “Traditional Neighborhood Designed” community some 50 minutes southeast of the Waldorf Astoria Orlando. The golf course occupies land that was once a cattle and hay-producing farm and before that, timberland. Harmony Golf Preserve offers an abundance of pretty holes, good course conditioning, prolific birdlife and fairways free of housing. Troon Golf once managed the golf operation for at least five years.
Woven through a wetlands preserve, Miller's routing assumes a distinctly Florida cast with water on all but two holes. What's more unique is how infrequently housing comes into view of the golfing grounds. Even when housing is nearby, you'll feel like you are playing in a Norman Rockwell neighborhood.
Harmony's first memorable test is the 2nd, a par-four dogleg right. Shorter hitters should play straightaway to the left of the lake that lends an almost cape-style aspect to the tee shot. Long hitters will be tempted to bite off more of the lake and ensuing sand traps, though it's a minimum 200-yard carry to reach the fairway from the penultimate blue tees. An all-carry par three follows to an angled but rather shallow green. Short left serves as a bailout. Characteristic of the green complexes at Harmony, a number of grassy bunkers loom where you might otherwise have expected sand. This section of the Preserve concludes with a par four that sweeps to the left as it wraps around a lake. The fairway assumes a serpentine aspect as the hazard juts in and out en route to a green perched hard by the water.
After the 6th hole, the course veers away from the neighborhood and into the preserve. When water isn't a hazard, clumps of cord grass are. The back nine sets off from behind the clubhouse and then crosses a seldom-used road a couple of times.
The last four or five holes constitute what may be the nicest stretch on the course. Fifteen, a par four, features a lake up the left side and an expansive environmentally sensitive area to the right. On 16, a strong par five, those who fail to cut the corner on the right will hope to find a bunker. The alternative is to be laying three on the tee box. Drift too far left and you must steer clear of more bunkers, a few straggling trees, and water the last 100 yards into the green. After a short par three over water to a well bunkered and sloping green, the round concludes with the toughest test on the back nine. Drives emerge from a chute to a fairway that looks narrower than it is. Bunkers left and bunkers and thick vegetation right complicate the long approach to the green.
Five sets of tees stretch the layout from 5,408 yards and 7,417 yards. Each set of markers is equitably spaced in 500-yard intervals. From the 6,413-yard white tees, Harmony plays to a 71.1 par rating and a 126 slope. While we recommend getting the course guide ($8), be forewarned that instead of playing tips accompanying the hole depictions, you'll be enlightened with local tidbits designed to rouse your interest in Harmony real estate.