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Architect Ron Garl on the joy of replicating golf's great courses

By Ron Garl, Special Contributer

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.

I've got to admit that I'm one of the luckiest golfers in the world. By virtue of my profession, I've been able to play most of the great golf courses in the world. It was during one of those rounds many years ago that the thought occurred to me that it would be even more enjoyable and memorable if I could share this experience with my golf buddies back home.

It wasn't very long afterwards that a prospective client who, like most developers, wanted a golf course architect to design a truly unique golf course for him. As we were talking, my mind flashed back to that day during a round in Scotland when I wanted to share that great experience with my friends back home.

Maybe I could bring this experience to not just my friends, but all golfers here in the United States. This was the beginning of the planning of Golden Ocala in Florida, the first replica golf course. Golden Ocala changed to a private club four years ago.

One of the first questions I asked myself was "What holes do golfers most want to see replicated?" My answers to that:

  • Holes where major championships are played.

  • Holes they see on television.

  • Holes with a reputation of being challenging.

  • Holes that have historical significance.

  • Holes that people dream of playing on famous courses that are too distant for most people to travel to.

I quickly realized that there's a lot more to building a replica hole that making sure it's yardage, shape, green size, and bunkers positioning are all correct. To have a successful replica hole, you have to recreate the feel of the hole to allow the golfer to live his dream of playing the greatest holes in the world.

When a golfer stands on the tee of the hole called "Hogan's Alley," the sixth at Carnoustie in Scotland, he has to feel that he is experiencing the real McCoy. He has to see the out of bounds dangerously close to the left side of the fairway and the huge pot bunkers on the right. He has to be aware of the heavy rough to the left and feel that the British Open is on the line if he misses the fairway.

You have to recreate the aura of the "Postage Stamp" at Royal Troon and the "Road Hole" at St. Andrews where your golfer is tested in the same way as all the great players through golfing history. The architect has to realize that a very low percentage of golfers will ever get the chance to play these holes, but most will have a perception of what they're like.

It's up to the architect to make that perception a reality. We have to create the great moment for the golfer and allow him to be lost in it.

Because of these challenges, designing a replica course is perhaps the greatest challenge an architect can face. It's also the highest compliment an architect can pay to those great architects of the past and the great courses of the world.

This was a challenge we were willing to face. The question was: Would the golf public accept it?

At first, people had to almost stumble upon Golden Ocala. Let's face it, Ocala isn't exactly a metropolis. I remember one foursome found the course, played it and went home. They talked to so many people back at their club about the experience that when they came back, they rented a bus to accommodate everyone.

This told us two things. Even though Ocala isn't exactly on the beaten path, golfers will travel farther to play a replica course than any other type of course and that the key is that golfers really want to play courses that are, for the most part, inaccessible to them.

Often there's a bit of hesitation on the part of the developer/owner to build a replica course because of the fear of trademark infringement and potential legal problems. We had to be very careful when we built Golden Ocala and we learned many lessons.

The key is in how you advertise the property. Of course there are many factors that come into play and they're too numerous to mention here.

Initially, there was a bit of a challenge to overcome. Any developer/owner who wants to have a replica course must realize that construction costs run an additional 25 percent. This, of course, is dependent upon having a desirable site. This would be a site on gently rolling land with varied tree cover.

Regardless of the extra expense, it's been proven to be a sound investment. While it seems as if the sound economics of a replica course is a well kept secret, the truth has leaked out.

Years after Golden Ocala was constructed, the two Tour 18 facilities in Dallas and Houston sold for $52 million. The public's fascination with replica courses is still spreading. This year, Travel & Leisure Magazine named Golden Ocala the "Best Replica Course" in the nation.

We have since had the opportunity to create more courses with holes inspired by some of the great courses in the world that have been quite successful. Perhaps the most successful has been Wooden Sticks in Uxbridge, Ontario, Canada. It has been deemed successful because in 2000, it was voted as the "Best New Course in Canada" by Score Magazine and this year the Toronto Star named it the "Best Place to Play in Ontario." Moreover, it's been deemed successful because the tee sheet is always filled and the green fees are $200.

We're currently in the preliminary stages of design for a new replica course in Bangkok, Thailand, which is part of a 63-hole golf course facility.

The naysayers will tell you that a replica course is no more than a manufactured illusion. We believe that designed properly, it will bring dreams to life. After all, who doesn't want to play a course that is different than all the rest, yet challenging and a truly great golf experience? It's what golf is supposed to be - it's fun!

Ron GarlRon Garl, Special Contributer

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Ron Garl article

    Fred Neiditch wrote on: May 25, 2005

    Read article about Golden Ocala Country Club written by Ron Garl who also designed the course. In it he states that he wanted a course that would attrach his friends and public. If you go to attached website for Golden Ocala, it shows it as described by Ron as as open to public, Contacted course was told that it IS NOT OPEN TO PUBLIC .My question is how old is this article written by Ron Garl. Tks


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