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Ron Garl's Florida Win Streak Continues

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

ORLANDO, FL - In a cavernous convention center full of golf clubs, golf balls, golf gadgets and golf apparel, one golf course architect set up shop to peddle his wares.

Ron Garl and associates have had no trouble drumming up business of late. The golf courses they design have been bagging more awards than A Beautiful Mind, and Florida's developers are still churning out planned communities faster than FOX cranks out bad sitcoms.

But the Lakeland-based golf course architecture firm had a couple of innovative projects to tout, and what better stage than 2002 PGA Merchandise Show, where 30,000-plus khaki pants clad industry insiders strolled along 12 miles of exhibits.

Part architect, part superintendent, part salesman, Garl stood in front of his booth greeting passers by, eager to tell them about the Victoria Hills Golf Club (at right) and the Crown Colony Golf and Country Club.

Victoria Hills is about as Florida as a fur coat. Instead of marshland, the property is made up of green, rolling hills. In the place of palm trees and palmetto bushes are giant live oaks and hardwoods that line the fairways and surround the greens. Rather than a host of flat tee boxes with eye level views of sea level, there are elevated tee boxes that feature awesome views of the surrounding countryside.

"We are advertising the course as a North Carolina golf course," Garl says. "That may not sound unique if you are from up there, but when you live and play in Florida, you yearn for some elevation changes and some big trees."

Victoria Hills is located in bucolic Deland, Fla. just 30 minutes from downtown Orlando. The course is set to open to the paying public in March, and already the golf community is buzzing about a layout that many experts feel will crack the state's Top Ten list.

"We worked hard with the land planners to make sure that every hole had some drama to it," says project manager Ricky Nix. "Land planners and architects usually butt heads, but we came out on top, literally. We wanted to make sure that all the tee boxes were on the tops of hills so players would have complete views of the landing areas."

From the back of the bus, Victoria Hills plays to just over 7000 yards, and all told, the course features over 80 feet of elevation changes. Golfers familiar with Garl's designs will find a number of the University of Florida alum's signature trademarks.

Waste bunkers, like those found on holes one and ten, provide a stunning visual contrast to the lush green Bermuda fairways. Landing areas are all clearly defined, and the proper path to each hole is outlined through the use of bunkers, mowing and mounding.

"We just cut into these hills and that sand was there," Nix says. "In that respect, it was like building a course in the Sandhills of North Carolina. You won't find better soil to work with in this state. In most of our Florida projects, we are usually digging into mud and water."

Many of Garl's courses have been recognized by the Audubon Society for their preservation of natural habitats. Nowhere is Garl's appreciation for his native Florida flora and fauna more obvious than on the par three second hole. An elevated tee box and a kidney shaped green appear to have been plunked down on either side of a 50-foot deep hole that is totally surrounded by oak trees.

"I honestly think this course is going to turn the head of every player that comes out here," Garl says.

And Victoria Hills may not even be Garl's most unique project in the Sunshine state.

On the surface, Crown Colony Golf and Country Club in Fort Meyers doesn't appear to be drastically different from most other south Florida layouts. But the entire course, from tee to green, is grassed with a hybrid seashore paspalum - a rare grass that can be watered with brackish, salt or effluent water.

Robbie Duncan, a professor at the University of Georgia has traced the arrival of seashore paspalum to slave ships in the early 1800s. The grass, a native of Africa, was placed like sod on the bottom of the ships to provide slaves with a surface to sleep on.

Once the ships arrived in Charleston, S.C. and Savannah, G.A, the grass was tossed onto the beach, where it eventually took root and flourished in saltwater up of to 34,000 parts per million.

"This grass is greener than Bermuda, and its roots grow deeper," says Garl, who studied turf grass at the U of F. "It takes very few chemicals to grow. Right now we've got it on affluent water and we could water it with salt water, as long as we flush it ever so often."

Crown Colony will open to the public on Feb. 22, and is conveniently located in the southwestern part of town on the way to the beach.

"This is the only course in the U.S. using this hybrid of the grass," Garl says.

Duncan and Robert Carrow literally wrote the book on seashore paspalum, and legendary architect Pete Dye first used the grass at his Casa de Campo course in the Dominican Republic. There are now three golf courses in the U.S. that utilize Duncan's variety of the grass, but Garl's is the first to employ SeaIsle 1 on the fairways and SeaDwarf on the greens.

"We didn't have any other options for irrigation," Garl says. "This piece of property was just too valuable not to go forward with the development. The paspalum hybrid has given us an environmentally friendly option that is best for everyone."

Initial reaction from players has been favorable. Paspalum actually looks like Blue or Rye Grass, and some players don't feel they get as good a lie as they do with the spongy Bermuda grasses. As with so many of the items at the 2002 PGA Merchandise Show, only time will tell if it's worth its salt.

Shane SharpShane Sharp, Contributor

Shane Sharp is vice president of Buffalo Communications, a golf and lifestyle media agency. He was a writer, senior writer and managing editor of TravelGolf.com from 1997 to 2003.

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