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Ron Garl on design: Build it (correctly), they will come

By Ron Garl, Special Contributer

Editor's note: Based in Lakeland, Fla., Ron Garl has won national and international awards, from Golf Digest, the Audubon Society, Golf Magazine, Links Magazine and Southern Living, among others. He was named "Golf Designer of the Year" by the International Network of Golf in 1996.

Building a golf course is one of the most intricate projects a person can undertake and it starts with selecting the proper site. There's the old saying: "location, location, location" and no where is it more appropriate than choosing the site for a golf course.

Here are a few tips on the first step towards building your own golf course.

Location aspects should include the course availability to a predetermined market population, site visibility and access. It's not essential for the course to have an urban locale; vehicular access and even the driving experience to the site should be carefully considered in your process.

The site for the golf course itself should have 175 to 200 acres of usable land. The more natural amenities such as trees, water, flora, fauna, soil types, elevation changes and climate that the site has, the less you'll have to pay to replicate them.

Once you've chosen the site based on the above, the real work begins. The next step is to visit the local planning department to find out which are the appropriate environmental agencies you'll need to contact for proper permits. It's also good practice to talk with community members to get a feeling for any potential public reactions to your golf course whether they are positive or negative.

Prior to closing the real estate transaction, you should have an environmental assessment prepared by a qualified environmental scientist, landscape architect, or civil engineer. Recognize the possibility of protective tree ordinances, endangered species and historic preservation issues.

Check for clearing regulations, burning ordinances, upland and wetland preservation and landscape ordinances. As a prudent developer, during your initial studies and prior to closing, try to remain open and look for items which have "deal breaking" potential. Often the best site isn't the first and only site you may review.

If all goes well and you have successfully selected the perfect site for your golf course, don't think it's time to pick up a shovel and start the course construction. The permitting process can be arduous. Depending on what state you're building in, it can take anywhere from 18 months to four years to complete.

Once the site has been selected, it's time for step two: selecting the design team. Your foremost goal should be to assemble a competent and focused team of professionals capable of providing answers to your questions and solutions to your problems in your specified time frame.

My first recommendation is to hire a qualified project manager who shares your vision for quality. Your project manager should be a good communicator capable of working with you and the selected team.

Who should you have on your team? In reality you should have up to 15 members. They include: a land planner, sales and marketing consultant, golf course architect, civil engineer, hazardous waste engineer, geotechnical engineer, environmental scientist, traffic engineer, archeologist, real estate attorney, membership attorney, project manager, clubhouse architect, landscape architect and financial consultant.

The National Association of Golf Course Builder's study shows the average construction time is 21.5 months in the United States. That doesn't include design and permitting time. Since you will be working with this team for a lengthy time period, try to address any issues, however small, before the project starts.

In my opinion, while production equaled sales during the 1980s and '90s, this decade the buyer will be looking for a combination of lifestyle and value. I believe my clients are the most important members of the team as their leadership and vision will produce quality results from the team.

Be a leader, not a manager and you'll get outstanding results from your team. Don't try to do everything yourself. Delegate authority and allow your team of professionals do what they do best.

As a future golf course owner, you probably have a vision for the type of golf course you want to build. While this is to be expected, remember who is going to be playing your course.

While you want to challenge the skills of a better player, you also want the newcomer to the game to be able to enjoy his/her experience as well. This where the astute golf course architect comes into play. Believe it or not, you can accomplish both goals in the design.

One area I have paid particular attention to is player flexibility. It's important that the course be designed to provide a challenge to experienced players yet be playable to the newcomer.

To address this need, we have designed multiple tee areas which will test every level of play. Some of our courses have as many as five sets of tees. The golfer can more easily be acclimated to the subtle changes that occur in a hole when distance and direction is altered. Players may graduate from one tee to the next as their games improves without changing courses.

Another popular traditional trend is the creation of holes which clearly define a safe or heroic route to the green. Strategically located hazards guarding the shorter route to the green offer a better chance for a birdie, but this route requires more skill and execution. Conversely, the longer or safer route can be played more easily offering a better chance for recovery and par if the approach shot strays from the target.

Design flexibility in greens is another modern aspect for successful courses. I have noticed a high demand for island greens, a form of which can easily be molded into a more traditional layout.

Suitable area should be provided which allows for multiple pin placements. This design feature provides diversity in play and allows for a high quality of maintenance,
an issue of utmost importance to quality courses.

In recent years, there has been an increasing demand for state-of-the-art practice areas. They have become a major component of both private and public courses.

These facilities allow the golfer to improve strategy and ball placement while developing short game muscle memory with the emphasis on chipping, sand shots, putting and wedge play. If you want to ensure player loyalty provide them with a practice facility that will help them with every aspect of their game.

Building a golf course from scratch is not only a time-consuming project, it is a risky one as well. It's your "Field of Dreams" and like Kevin Costner
in that wonderful movie, you have to believe with all your heart that if you build it, they will come.

If you follow the right course of action, there's a good chance that they will.

Ron GarlRon Garl, Special Contributer

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