Saturday, February 27, 2010

GOLF COURSE REVIEW: Southern Dunes Golf and Country Club

Well, it took me a few more days than planned, but here, is the follow up to my review of Orange County National. This review is of the Southern Dunes Golf and Country Club located about 28 miles Southwest of the Orange County Convention Center (where the PGA Merchandise Show was held, and near where we stayed during our visit). We got what we thought was a great tee time on Sunday morning at 9:40 am, so arose early enough that we could get down there and hit some balls after our frustrating lack of warm-up the previous day at Panther Lakes. We quickly found out that we were mistaken.

Upon departure from the very average Hampton Inn on International Dr. just north of Sand Lake Rd, we hit the drive through at McDonalds for a quick bite on our drive down. As it turned out, this was no ordinary McDonalds, and became the cause of our failing to hit a bucket for the second straight day. The car in front of us must have been sent from Disney World itself, and ordered for the entire cast of characters, because we sat in that drive through for at least 15-20 minutes...argh! The thing was, this was something called a McDonalds Bistro (I think), and served things like omelettes and...wait for it...Eggs Benedict! Sorry, McDonalds, you know I love your tasty offerings, but no way am I trusting a fast food joint with poached eggs and Hollandaise Sauce, but I digress. Finally, Sir Ordersalot in front of us received and paid for his smorgasbord, we pulled up, grabbed our grossly overpriced Egg McMuffins, and were on our way, now just trying to make our tee time.

The drive was a little longer than expected, but the directions were simple, so we made the drive in the 36 minutes that Google told us it would take. One of the oddities here is that the entrance to the course is through the modest community built around it, sort of tucked away behind some big box stores like Wal-Mart and Home Depot. Perhaps I am just used to a bit of posh at highly rated golf courses, but Florida never fails to remind me that it is all just a little temporary, and therefore lacking in polish and shine. Pulling up, the clubhouse is most unremarkable, though the range that we didn't have time to use looked fairly nice. From the bag drop area, you also get a glimpse of the 10th hole, a really pretty and interesting hole that we would discover after our rounds had already gone further south than we had already traveled to get here, but more about that later.

I think I mentioned in my Orange County National review, that the previous day was supposed to be steady rain, but only sprinkled us for 3-4 holes, and turned out to be rather pleasant. The forecasts didn't achieve any higher level of accuracy on this day either. What was supposed to be a sunny sky with temps in the low 60s turned out instead to be a dreary, cloudy day with temps in the low 50s and the wind whipping at 15-20 mph. There is always a false belief among us Yankees that on trips to Florida, we will forever be wearing shorts and sunglasses, but I've been there enough to know this was a bit on the chilly side, and for the folks who call Orlando home, it was downright frigid! I can tell you this much, we were almost dressed appropriately, but this would have been a cold round even back home in Chicago's unpredictable spring season.

Ignoring the fact that the weather gods were conspiring against us, and that we were parking in a near empty lot because most of the locals were huddled in front of blazing fireplaces wearing cardigans, we knocked around a few practice putts, then moved across the lot to where a very nice, and well bundled starter greeted us. He gave us the 411 of the course, asked where we were from, then told us that a B-level celebrity here in Chicago was out playing the course with his son. Yes, somewhere on the front nine, Ken "Hawk" Harrelson was talking somebody's ear off about how good he once was, and that you could put it on the board...YES! Again, I apologies for wandering a bit tonight.

Upon finishing his piece, and sharing some quick pleasantries, the starter bid us farewell, then turned quickly back to the warm shelter of the clubhouse I suppose, and we made our way to the first tee. Looking at the scorecard, Southern Dunes is a beast. From the back tees, it measures 7,227 yards, and sports a rating and slope of 75.5/138. That is bad news on a surprisingly cold and windy day for a couple of slumping 9 handicaps who played only the previous day in the last 2 months. So, we moved forward to the Blue tees where plenty of challenge remained, according to the card, with a rating and slope of 73.3/134 at 6,803 yards.

The first hole is a 390 yard Par 4, with houses along the left, and large sandy mounds along the right with sporadic pines dotting the length of it. Brad, having won the previous day, hit first and sort of block/sliced one that caught the wind blowing right into us. It took a sharp right turn and landed somewhere on the wrong side of those mounds...oh well, he hit a provisional (not much better) and was ready for our first ball hunt of the day. I didn't do much better, but kept it in play, albeit in a fairway bunker on the right side of the fairway, and only about 220 yards from the tee. I didn't pure it, but man, that wind was really blowing. Upon reaching where we thought Brad's ball had landed, we noticed that invisible from the tee, once over the mound, a ball can quickly head OB with a chain-link fence right at the bottom of the mounds. Brad's did not, but his second did, forcing him to take a triple-bogey seven on the first and bringing on a very early foul mood in my playing partner. I managed a bogey after hitting a decent lay-up from the fairway bunker, so felt OK about things, though still concerned about the lack of distance on both my normal shots on the hole.

Leaving the first green, we realized something else. Southern Dunes is not just another course built as part of a community of homes, it feels as though they only planned the homes, found a really nice course layout and jammed it into whatever free space they could find. The houses are not only ever-present but feel like they are right on top of you here. It's a shame, because as I mentioned, the layout is really appealing, offering plenty of challenge for any golfer, highlighted by a significant amount of elevation changes that have a major effect on the greens.

The front nine was wild to say the least. Brad recovered from his opening disaster hole to some extent and managed to shoot bogey golf on the outward nine, while I disintegrated and forgot how to strike a golf ball. I knocked a drive out of bounds and squarely into the heart of someone's roof on the Par 5 4th (though I did par my 2nd ball, for the unsatisfying double-bogey). Then, on the short Par 4 5th hole, I hit a dreadfully short 5-iron into the wind off the tee, donated a few balls to the local aquatic wildlife and dragged myself off the green with a NINE! Not to be completely outdone, I carded a snowman on the very difficult Par 4, 7th after using everything but a hand-wedge to get out of the greenside bunker, and finished double-bogey, bogey on 8 and 9 for a blow-up 54! Easily one of my worst nines of the last 8-9 years!

At the turn, Brad ran in for a quick break while I stewed in the cart realizing that quitting after nine would deprive you all of a good "bad golf" story, and would only mean I'd have to find more time to kill in the land of the Mouse before making my way to the airport for our evening flight. So, onward we went, and it was fortunate we did.

The sun peeked out for about ten minutes as we began the back nine, though it was hardly a break in the weather as the wind and cold stuck around all day. Even through my tainted view of the game of golf at the moment, I knew from the front nine that this was a nice course, but the back nine secured it for me. The stretch of holes from 10-14 is as good a stretch of five holes as anywhere I've played in Florida, though I would still notch the whole course well below both courses at World Woods and Doral's Blue Course, and haven't played many courses outside of the Miami-Ft. Lauderdale areas. See, those holes that begin the back nine take you away from the houses, and you get the feeling for the first time all day that you are on a course designed for the land rather than routed through a development. Notably, I felt that the two Par 3s on 11 and 14 were extraordinary and allowed for some very imaginative and challenging pin placements. Holes 15-18 provide a decent finish, though you do return to the houses, and definitely leave you with the feeling that you'd like to give it another go (one of my criteria for a good course).

From a performance standpoint, I was able to "recover" from my dismal front nine, with an average 6-over, 42 on the back, while Brad found his own opportunities to melt down with a disappointing 49. Though I walked away with a dismal 96 (ugh!), the fact that Brad only beat me by two strokes at least provided some testament to the difficulty of the course, AND the day. I am not kidding when I say that 6,800 yard course with the cold and wind we had probably played more like 7,600 yards. The course is well bunkered (between us we hit out of the sand at least one time on ten different holes), and hides many surprising breaks on its greens (though, surprisingly, we both putted decently). Furthermore, with all the houses lining most of the holes, there are simply too many opportunities to knock even slightly bad shots OB, which in my opinion is one of the most devastating penalties in golf.

Overall, I would say that Southern Dunes is a nice course, overpriced by about $30, and located just a little too far from Orlando to make the trip. On the other hand, Orlando golf is not cheap, and if you can't make the trip down to Tampa or up to Brooksville, perhaps Southern Dunes will be to your liking. I would love to have another shot at this course on a more typical Orlando day, so who knows, I may even play it again. If I were to suggest one over the other, I would have to give the nod to Southern Dunes slightly over Orange County National. Though at OCN, you don't have to deal with the houses, Southern Dunes just captures the imagination a little better, even if you have to imagine how much better it might be away from those homes.

If you have played either of these courses, I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Fairways and Greens!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

GOLF COURSE REVIEW: Orange County National – Panther Lake Course

Originally uploaded by chris07920

While visiting Orlando, FL to attend my first PGA Merchandise Show during the last week of January, I took the opportunity to play a couple of golf courses that I had been itching to play. This review will focus on the first of those two courses, the Panther Lake Course at Orange County National Golf Center and Lodge located in Orlando, FL.

Most notable about the Panther Lake Course is that it has recently played host to the PGA Tour’s Qualifying School, known to most simply as Q-School. The PGA of America’s Q-School is one of the handful of methods by which a player can earn their PGA Tour Card, and with it the privileges of competing in some number of PGA Tournaments every year. Q-School is a rigorous 90-hole tournament from which the top 30 finishers will emerge with full PGA Tour exemptions.

The Panther Lake scorecard gives the Q-School tees a rating of 76.0 with a slope of 139 playing Par 72 at 7,350 yards. The Q-School tees weren’t even out as if we were going to take that punishment while on a quick stop in Florida anyway. With the Championship tees still offering a hearty challenge with a rating and slope of 73.2/132, and both myself and Brad rusty from the annual winter layoff in Chicago, we opted for the Back (blue) tees. Playing at a relatively short 6,394 yards, the course still had some bite as evidenced by its 71.2/127 rating and slope. Disappointingly, however, all but a couple of the “lakes” for which this course is known were empty, though not enough to discount the greens fees of $114 apparently.

The clubhouse is quite nice, large enough to comfortably feature loads of logo-ed apparel and gear, though a logo ball was the extent of my extraneous purchases on this day. Though we arrived 20 minutes before our tee time, we were told that we didn’t have time to hit a few range balls, and instead were sent over to the Panther Lake starter shack where we putted for about 20 minutes prior to being sent off. Maybe others need a really long time on the range, but five minutes of swings would have been most welcome for the two of us, having not played any golf for about 9 weeks prior to this round.

Once on the course, all was fine. We were expecting to play through a steady and sometimes heavy rain through most of the round, but fortunately, aside for holes six through eight, we stayed bone dray with the temperature hovering in the high 60s…fantastic weather for us, having lifted off from O’Hare airport on a night hovering around 9 degrees. The beverage carts were attentive and showed up every 3-4 holes, and carried dogs and brats, much appreciated for our mid-day round.

The course itself was better than average, though hardly worth the $114.00 they charged us. The layout is challenging, but the greens were average at best, and when we played, were probably rolling at about half the speed as they do for Q-School. I shot a Net 77 with zero practice after a nine-week layoff. Look, I know it’s Florida, and almost the high season, so they can pull that cash out of visitors, but back here in Chicago, we have four public tracks that charge over $100, three are WAY overpriced (Bolingbrook, Ruffled Feathers, and The Glen Club), and the other one is Dubsdread, the fourth course at Cog Hill. In fact, there are at least five courses in Chicagoland that charge less than half the price of Panther Lake, which I would argue are “better” than the star of Orange County National.

In short, if you are in Orlando, and want to play some golf without taking out a second mortgage, Orange County National will do the trick, and you will probably be satisfied with the overall experience. If you have the time, however, and can handle a 90-120 minute car ride, head northwest to Brooksville, and play both the Pine Barrens and the Rolling Oaks course at World Woods. You can thank me later.

Fairways and Greens!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Makray Memorial Junior Golf Clinics

Of the many excellent public courses in the Chicagoland area, Makray Memorial is certainly in my Top Ten. Aside from the excellent conditioning, and interesting layout, they have a classic clubhouse with a top notch restaurant overlooking the 9th and 18th greens. Makray also uses sand that is unique to the Chicago area, and plays more like the sand you encounter in Florida as opposed to the heavy, often waterlogged sand found at most Chicago courses. Their practice area, though compact, offers golfers an opportunity to tune up all the various aspects of their game either before a round or for a full practice session. For junior golfers, this facility must be fantastic.

Well, registration is now open for Makray's 2010 golf clinics. To register, you can stop in their pro shop in Barrington, IL, or visit their website at


After School Program (May 11,12,13) 4:30 pm - 6:00 pm = $100.00
After School Program (May 18,19,20) 4:30 pm - 6:00 pm = $100.00

Golf Clinic (July 6,8,13,15,20,22) 8:30 am - 10:00 am = $175.00
                                                    10:30 am - 12:00 pm = $175.00

August Mini Clinic (August 3,4,5) 8:30 am - 10:00 am = $100.00
August Mini Clinic (August 10,11,12) 8:30 am - 10:00 am = $100.00

The classes include mastering the fundamentals of the grip, stance, and swing. Emphasis will be put on skill development for putting and the short game. All students will additionally see a video analysis of their swing.

The average age of the participants in these clinics is 10-12 years old, but Makray reports that the ages do vary outside of that average, so if you've got a hungry little 6 or 7 year old Beaver to be, by all means, let them eat!

Fairways and Greens!


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