PGA Tour Qualifying School Helps Orange County National Raise its Q Score

Orange County National's Panther Lake Golf CourseWINTER GARDEN - When the powers that be at the PGA Tour sent out a search party in order to find a suitable and more permanent home for the grueling Qualifying School finals competition, at least on the East Coast, they were looking for a course capable of testing the nerves and resolve of some of the nation's most grizzled golfers, intent on outlasting dozens of others to finally capture that elusive Tour card. At Orange County National Golf Club, they found two; Crooked Cat and Panther Lake.

They needed a location lacking distraction, a place where golf would be the sole focus. After all, if you know anything about Q School, the last thing a competing player needs is something to think about in addition to how one slice, yip or shank could significantly change his financial future. At Orange County National they found a secluded spot out in the Florida countryside, where highways look more likely to be inhabited by a horse and buggy than a Girls Gone Wild bus. 

Finally, they needed a facility with ample space for the professionals to make last minute swing adjustments, fine tune their putting strokes and hammer out their frustrations; the practice range is a popular place at Q school. Orange County National is home to a Texas-sized lighted practice putting green that stays open all night, and its range is a mile in circumference, giving it the ability to accommodate a gaggle of golfers at any given time.

"They use our course because it's out there, kind of away from everything," said Jimmy Bell, director of sales and marketing for Orange County National. "That's exactly what the PGA Tour wants to do. They don't want to be distracted with big hotels and noise; just come out and play golf. That's what we offer."

Panther Lake

All of the added exposure that goes with hosting such a high profile PGA Tour event enticed the public, and after experiencing the Florida facility, few have gone home disappointed. Recently Golf World's inaugural "Reader's Choice Awards" identified the 50 best public golf facilities in the country and Orange County National was ranked No. 8. That ranking also made Orange County National the top public facility in the golf-heavy state of Florida.

"An honor of this magnitude validates our efforts that we work so hard to accomplish every day," said Bruce Gerlander, the facility's general manager. "We take great pride in the fact that these rankings were based on evaluations of guests who put up their hard earned money to play our courses as opposed to a panel of industry experts."

The practice facilities at Orange County National also impressed the readers, earning OCN a No. 2 national ranking in that category.

Folks flock to Orange County National to imagine themselves in the same situation as those professional players grinding it out for six straight days. They come to challenge Orange County National's original design, Panther Lake, a collection of rolling meadows, wetlands and elevation changes that opened for business in 1997.

While Panther Lake is the more famous of the two courses, its neighbor Crooked Cat is no slouch. This course has a links-style feel, with fewer trees, wider fairways and plenty of twists and turns. Scramblers should do well here.

Orange County National's Crooked Cat Golf CourseThe same man holds the course record on both layouts. During the 2007 Q School finals, Frank Lickliter II recorded a 62 on Panther Lake on Nov. 28, and followed that up with an identical 62 on Crooked Cat the very next day.

The Q School tees are a good deal longer than the championship tees, making it an arduous task for the average golfer. Bell warned you can attempt to play from the back, but you better keep up.

"We don't mind, as long as they can keep the pace of play," he said. "It's a very long golf course from back there. It's amazing how well those guys shoot."

If you were planning on traveling to Winter Garden and wanted to experience similar course conditions to Q School, without having to play from the back tees, your best bet would be the three weeks leading up to the tournament. After the event finishes, the harsh conditions will be present for a few days, but the rough will be the first thing to go.

"The PGA Tour wants the rough so long that it's just not feasible for the regular public to play it," said Bell. "The pace of play would take forever."

The first course at Orange County National (Panther Lake) opened to the public in June 1997, and Q School finals first came to the facility in 2003 and have returned every other year since and will do so again in 2009. In that time period, not much has changed at Orange County National.

Panther LakeThe 46-room lodge was completed in 1999, but there haven't been many changes to the courses. The original greens remain, and the basic design of the holes is the same. Some new trees have been planted to better frame the course and add a degree of difficulty for the professionals. But that's about it.

"There's never going to be a house on our property," said Bell. "They are scheduled to start developing close to our property, but not right on it. You'll never see a big hotel, which a lot of golf courses have. For us, it's a true golf getaway. You're out there to play golf and see nature. That's what we have, and what we can offer."

Phil Ritson, one of America's greatest golf instructors according to Golf Digest, and the man behind the vision that would become Orange County National, wanted to build the "Ultimate golfer's paradise." For golfing professionals, as well as the public, the place has become somewhat of an addiction.

"If you're really into golf and it's your drug," Bell said. "Then this is a great facility."

 

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