2005: Features - A little seclusion amid Southern stalwarts

Every few months the folks at Orange County National take aerial photos of the area surrounding their sprawling golf haven southwest of Orlando. That has allowed Bruce Gerlander, general manager of OCN, to keep running tabs as development has encroached from tony Windermere to the northeast and Kissimmee to the southeast.

By the end of this decade, he suspects that this suburban area known as Horizons West, better known for its orange groves and farmland, will be a bustling suburb.

“It’s on the cusp of changing rather dramatically,” Gerlander says.

But the centerpiece likely always will be Orange County National, less than a decade old and already one of the nation’s better-known golfing refuges. OCN’s two courses, Panther Lake and Crooked Cat, have become a semiregular home of the designed PGA Tour’s Q-School Finals, and the facility’s circular, 42-acre practice range is itself a destination for players who simply love to beat balls and work on their games. The range also is home to five – count ’em, five – golf schools, including one operated by OCN co-founder Phil Ritson.

There’s even a 25,000-square-foot putting green, near the OCN lodge’s 46 guest rooms, that’s usually lit until about 11 p.m., allowing visitors to settle bets over post-round beers.

“We don’t market ourselves as a resort,” Gerlander says. “It’s all about golf.”

OCN has become a staple for out-of-towners – Gerlander estimates they account for about half of the 95,000 rounds played annually on the two 18-hole courses – but visitors who don’t want a 24-7 golf vacation might want to book rooms elsewhere rather than stay on-site.

One option is the new Reunion Resort & Club, which opened in late 2004 and is designed to be what general manager Bob Van Bergen calls a “family resort town.” The burgeoning 2,300-acre property, which is being constructed in three phases over 15 years, offers everything from one-bedroom condos to six-bedroom homes.

To be sure, visitors who want a golf-intensive vacation can find it at Reunion. The Ginn Co., which is developing the site, brought in three heavy hitters – Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus – to design its three 18-hole courses. Watson’s just-opened Independence Course, with its wave-like terrain, generous fairways and skillful use of sand, stands out even in the golf-rich Orlando area. Along with Palmer’s Legacy Course, the Independence will serve as Reunion’s anchor until Nicklaus’ Tradition Course opens in early 2006.

Reunion, located just 15 minutes from Walt Disney World, is being fashioned as an amenity-rich resort where you must stay to play. You name it – biking and horseback riding trails, shopping, swimming, spa – you’re likely to find it there.

“The amenities that we’re building are to make for an incredible experience for families, and Orlando is the No. 1 destination for families,” Van Bergen said.

Central Florida got that reputation, of course, largely because of the Walt Disney Co., which in 1996 opened Celebration Golf Club, in the Disney-developed town that bears the course’s name, only 15 minutes from Reunion. (Disney sold the golf course in 2003.)

You probably wouldn’t expect a course co-designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr., who preached the virtues of the “hard par,” and his son, Robert Jr., to be the centerpiece of a community tailored to families. True, Celebration does have a three-hole Junior Course suitable for children under 10. But Celebration’s 18-hole design adheres to Jones’ mantra, and offers plenty of wildlife as the back nine meanders through wetlands.

That back-to-nature feel also is evident at one of the area’s newest tracks, the aptly named Harmony Golf Preserve.

“The developer set aside 6,000 acres for the original occupants, which is the wildlife,” says Lyle Beaver, director of golf operations at Harmony, which is part of an 11,000-acre development.

But Harmony, a Johnny Miller design that opened in late 2002, is no walk in the park. There’s water on 16 of the 18 holes, though Beaver notes that it’s typically less a hazard than a means of framing the holes. The large, souped-up greens on this sprawling course, which occupies 250 acres, are some of the area’s slickest, and there’s a prevailing wind off Florida’s eastern coast.

Located near St. Cloud, about 30 minutes from the Orlando airport, Harmony is fast becoming a staple on visiting golfers’ rota.

Another area track worth the drive is Southern Dunes, a Steve Smyers design that has been drawing golfers to outlying Haines City since 1993. Annually ranked by Golfweek as one of Florida’s top public-access tracks, it’s the kind of course you leave with vivid memories, so distinct are the 18 holes.

With 100 feet of elevation changes, it’s not your typical Florida track. But Southern Dunes – emphasis on Dunes – is best known for its 184 bunkers, some of which span virtually the entire length of several holes.

Trice notes that the course “has real high-lip bunkers, which is rare for this area.” Nowhere is that more true than on the par-3 third hole, where the deep bunkering virtually engulfs players.

“It’s just pure intimidation with the bunkers, but the green is the largest one we have out here, and you never see anyone hit it,” Trice says.

Sounds like a challenge. Besides, if you’re going to come to Florida, you have to play in the sand.

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