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Nothing taboo when carving out a great Canadian course

By Ron Garl, Special Contributer

Editor's note: Golf course architect Ron Garl is known throughout the U.S., and especially in Florida, where he has been hailed for his innovative routing and his commitment to environmentally sensitive designs. TravelGolf.com said he "may be the best golf course architect you've never heard of," though his peers have certainly recognized his achievements.

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.

As most golfers around the world know, the game of golf can be traced back more than 500 years to the east coast of Scotland. The first documentary reference to golf in Scotland dates from 1457 in a parliamentary decree put forward by King James II of Scotland declaring that "golfe be utterly cryit doune and nocht usit." The monarch feared that too much time was being spent by his subjects playing golf and not enough time on archery practice, which was needed to repel the frequent invasions by the English. Golf, in effect, was banned. It was taboo.

Five centuries later - give or take a decade or so - the game of golf once again became taboo. This time, in a much more positive way. In 1994, brothers Ely and Norm Reisman, developers based in Toronto, had a vision of creating a world-class golfing resort in the Muskoka region, just north of Toronto. They scoured the area looking for a site with the potential for laying out a course which would live up to their expectations.

The Muskoka region is a vast area of breathtaking scenery. Centuries ago, retreating glaciers carved great slabs of granite from the earth leaving a unique landscape as a testament to nature's awesome power. These same glaciers left the landscape dappled with more than 1,000 lakes of pristine water and large sand deposits covered with soaring pines and maples.

'Magnificent' site

The brothers spent several years searching the region and finally settled on a beautiful rolling tract of land on the southern tip of Lake Muskoka. It was at this juncture that I received a call from Ely and Norm's partner, Haydn Matthews, asking me to travel up to Ontario to look at "the most magnificent site you will ever see." This wasn't my first encounter with the brothers. I had met with them on several occasions to discuss and carry out preliminary studies for a proposed golf course in Florida. I had also met with them at Wooden Sticks Golf Club in Uxbridge, Ontario, a course I had just designed and one that not only caught their attention, but was voted "Best New Course in Canada" by Score Magazine.

The proposed site was some 1,200 acres in area and was part of an existing hotel located on the very edge of Lake Muskoka. My first impression was sheer excitement at being given the opportunity of laying out a golf course on such an inspiring topography. Less-experienced designers could be intimidated by the prospect of building a golf course on the rugged landscape of the Muskokas, but I was thrilled by the possibility. I saw in the unyielding forests and ancient granite an opportunity to create a truly unique golfing experience.

The brothers had certainly made a good selection, and my enthusiasm was obvious, but I knew from my first inspection of the land that it was not going to be easy. All the usual site data was made available: topographic surveys, hydrological and geological studies, soil reports, tree surveys and meteorological data. But this site was going to require a detailed investigation the old-fashioned way, by foot, and over a considerable amount of time. Every visit to the site revealed new features, constraints and opportunities and with every visit Mother Nature unfolded her hands slowly to reveal the charm and mystery that would eventually be absorbed and integrated into the individual golf holes.

On some sites, one or two initial visits and all the site data is enough to become adequately familiar to prepare routing plans, but at Taboo, we were continually finding new features that influenced the routing and strategy of the golf holes. In developing the layout at Taboo a thoroughly exhaustive site analysis and intimate knowledge of the site was imperative. We knew we had to be patient and attentive to the surrounding environment and we spent nearly two years of time and effort on the routing of the course to work around the magnificent granite rock outcroppings and specimen trees. We had dozens of variations of 18-, 27- and 36-hole plans routed throughout the entire 1,200 acres. The objective was clear, to create a pure golfing experience.

Minimalist approach

Without question, the major influence on the routing of the course was the rock outcrops. Changes and variations to the routing and later on in the grading of every hole was required not only for aesthetics, playability and strategy, but for economic reasons. The cost to blast and remove one cubic meter of granite is about 20 times the cost to move and shape one cubic meter of soil. It was crucial for budgeting control and the overall financial success of the project to minimize the volume of rock blasting. The golf holes at Taboo had to be "found." The course had to sit softly on the landscape and we didn't give up searching for the best 18 holes until we knew we had it perfect.

It was like going through a maze and we knew when we arrived at our final solution, it was going to be spectacular. The arduous and conscientious efforts of all the design team in finding the ideal routing paid off when it came to preparing the grading plans for the course.

The total volume of earthworks came to only 80,000 cubic meters of earth and 15,000 cubic meters of rock blasting to accommodate the 18 holes and practice facility. In modern day design and construction of golf courses, this is almost unheard of as upwards of 500,000 cubic meters of earthwork is commonplace. The minimalist approach we adopted at Taboo is more typical of the traditional courses of old and we were extremely proud of this achievement.

At Garl Design, we pride ourselves in the detail we put into our construction drawings. But we also realize that in the design and construction of classic golf courses on sites as unique and dynamic as Taboo, modifications and revisions in the field are required to ensure the natural features and idiosyncrasies of the site are preserved and incorporated into the design. Without this attentive and responsive process, the charm and individual character of the course would be lost.

Granite, not bunkers

A good example of this can be found on the fourth hole: a par five that was initially designed to have a row of cross bunkers carved into the face of a raised plateau that ran across the fairway in the close proximity of the second landing area. When we started to excavate the bunkers along the plateau, we found a huge ridge of granite just under the surface. We cleared the dirt from the rock and allowed it to meander all the way across the fairway just as we had intended for the bunkers. We decided that if this was what nature gave us to enhance the challenge, who were we to not accept it?

There were numerous other examples of the site steering the design and the final result is a tribute to the whole team involved. The client had the foresight to engage the services of a full-time project manager, Bruce Flowers, who was the lynch-pin in the communication between the client, the contractor (Gateman Milloy) and the golf architect. The on-site management was extremely well structured and produced very efficient and effective lines of communication that facilitated the necessary flexibility of design without additional costs or time delays.

The construction process was not all smooth sailing and like most projects we had our fair share of technical challenges, but when a site has so much to offer in terms of landscape variety, you have to expect and be prepared for such "challenges."

A case in point occurred in the construction of the 18th green. The rough shaping of the green was underway when Kevin Scott, the construction foreman, noticed that the whole green complex was moving under the weight of the bulldozers. Bore hole tests were made and it was discovered that a peat bog lay directly under the green. The bog was about 10 feet deep and about an acre in area, so the decision was made to excavate the saturated material, under-drain the whole area and backfill the void with rock blasted from the adjacent fairway.

Within two weeks of this treatment, the entire area was stable and the green was completed. In this instance, the "challenge" was a constraint which had to be technically resolved. However, on just about every hole, we managed to turn each constraint into a positive attribute that added to either the aesthetics or strategy of the holes. The result is a collection of 18 individual and uniquely styled golf holes.

Cool grass

Another fun aspect of designing a golf course in this part of the world is the variety of cool-season grasses that are available for creating different colors, textures and densities. We took great steps to specify the various grass species that would provide the best and most beautiful playing surfaces. By using creeping bent grass on the fairways and greens, we can enhance the opportunities for strategic options. With this grass, the fairways can be kept firm, allowing the golfer to run the ball onto the
green provided he has placed his tee shot at the proper angle. We purposely left certain areas at the approaches to the greens unguarded by bunkers to allow the golfer the option of bump-and-run shots into the greens. For contrast and definition, we seeded the roughs with tall fescue, which frames the holes and provides a stunning contrast to the highly manicured lush green bent grass.

Toward the end of construction, 2003 Masters champion Mike Weir was invited to join me and my project architect, Steven McFarlane, to walk the course and provide some thoughts from a professional golfer's perspective. Weir was extremely complimentary of the course design and made some very interesting suggestions regarding back tee locations and some bunker placements. He has subsequently made Taboo his home course and regularly practices at what he regards as one of the finest practice facilities in the country.

Taboo was destined to become a world-class golfing destination the moment the Reisman brothers set foot on the property. They had the vision and the enthusiasm that carried the project through to fruition and I am extremely proud of the golf course we have created for them. Taboo ultimately won Best New Golf Course in Canada in 2004.

Ron GarlRon Garl, Special Contributer

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