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Architect Interview with Ken Ezell of Clifton, Ezell & Clifton

By Derek Duncan, Contributor

Those who have spent any time at all playing golf around Orlando will have almost certainly teed it up on a course designed by either Lloyd Clifton or his current firm, Clifton, Ezell & Clifton (CEC). Simply put, Lloyd Clifton, and now CEC, have had their finger on the pulse of Central Florida golf for almost five decades. It could be argued that it is their courses more than any others that reflect the true soul of the region.

CEC is comprised of Lloyd Clifton, his son George Clifton, and Ken Ezell. Lloyd Clifton first began designing golf courses in the mid-1950's as an extension of his successful agronomic business, and is responsible for some of the area's favorite layouts. George has worked alongside his father and provided drafting plans and drawings since 1975. Ezell is a former Class "A" PGA Professional and oversees the majority of the company's business operations.

Though they've built courses throughout the country their name is still largely a regional one, and even in their own market many aren't aware of exactly who CEC are. Considering their sizeable imprint and import to Central Florida golf, widespread fame has thus far eluded them.

Partner Ken Ezell recently engaged in a question and answer session with Senior Writer Derek Duncan covering a variety of topics, including why they aren't receiving more recognition for some outstanding golf courses.

In what year did CEC come together?

Ezell: We formed our organization back in 1987, so we have our 15th anniversary coming up.

Interestingly, the course that brought us together as an actual company is finally being built by Ritz Carlton (a Greg Norman Design at Central Florida Parkway & John Young). The old Florida Land Corporation wanted to do a golf commercial and office park.[but] it never happened due to the Savings & Loan Institute that owned the property getting in trouble, then the S & L debacle occurred and the property has changed concept and hands until now.

[The original deal] highlighted our group strengths to one another. We were already great friends and in business related through consulting. Lloyd had done a number of various courses, but someone had to seek him out. His main business was agronomic consultation, of which he had some 50 to 60 courses at the time. George had been creating his dad's plans for years on the side and I had been in the business/professional side of golf working as a Class A PGA Professional. We made a good team. George had been learning from his dad all his life and I had been working under his guidance since 1977.

What was the first golf course CEC designed?

Ezell: Eastwood was under construction when we first came together as a team and the field debates are still memorable to all of us. George and I learned early on that the soft spoken man we call 'Dad' is slow to object to our whim and fancy, but when you hear "that's not quite the way I would have done it," you better change it and change it quick. That's as close as you will ever hear him say you're screwing up!

Our first real paying job was the renovation of Ocala Municipal. We designed a course near Ashville, North Carolina called Pheasant Run, which got underway but was never completed.

Most of your golf courses are accompaniments to real estate developments. Do you find that it is more difficult to design the types of courses you prefer given the land limitations typically imposed in such an operation vs. designing a golf course over more or less a blank canvas, i.e. Forest Lake?

Ezell: We have found over the years that the best overall communities with golf result when the development team forms early. We have over 55 courses to our credit now, but we have laid out well over 150 more that did not go, are still laying dormant, or will change hands down the line. The best courses, and subsequently the best developments, always turn out when we are allowed to have the first shot working alongside the applicable other consultants.

Forest Lake may be the last 'core' community course outside of the resort area or ultra exclusive private venue in Central Florida. Plus, Forest Lake had probably just as many constraints as a large development. Poor access with limited width of frontage, weird property boundaries, a plethora of gopher tortoises to mitigate for on-site, two large existing RIB's (rapid infiltration basins), and a future multilane expressway. The original 240 acres really looked like about 150 acres. Nevertheless, it turned out great and we are happy with how it has matured.

Orlando (and it's surrounding area) is considered one of the richest landscapes for public and resort golf in the United States, but most of the national recognition is due to the number of courses affixed with "name" architectural firms such as Fazio, the Jones family, and now Norman, to name several. Do you have the opportunity to bid against these firms for projects, and what influence, if any, does their presence in the market have on your designs?

Ezell: Unfortunately, golf architecture has a class system. The mega-buck projects or "one-up" ego driven courses have gone to a select group with a high profile name or "celebrity name" designer. These courses cost more to build, cost more to maintain and therefore cost more to play. We went through the interview process once against the top 15 architects in the nation by a developer that had more property and money in Florida than almost anyone - they have a county named after them. They chose us for our ingenuity, our field presence, and desire to create a natural legacy. The savings in design fees and cost of construction were a bonus.
CEC, like many other regional designers throughout the country, would love to be given the opportunity of an unlimited budget, pronounced corridor packages, maintenance equipment, generous construction time and grow-in, maintenance labor to create perfection, and then the subsequent advertising endorsement and promotions that go along. (We're) convinced that given the same criteria and commitment of resources, a CEC course would exceed any other design professional results.

It's hard not to feel some pressure to try and out-do a high profile designer knowing they were given much more freedom, but we've seen some attempts at "Wow" features that have caused operational problems later for the owner. It truly is important to know your client and their capabilities, as well as your audience.

Courses such as Eastwood, Kissimmee Bay, and Stoneybrook East seem to be the courses that most Orlando residents actually play. Describe how your firm sees itself in the context of the Orlando golf scene and do you feel you can, perhaps more accurately than outside firms, reflect the wants and needs of the Orlando golfer?

Ezell: [It's] simple: we are on-site so much that we know when to take advantage of a field opportunity or correct a plan flaw. We play the courses we design. Our friends and family play them. Therefore, CEC tries to build each course "to test the best but be fair to the rest." We attempt to provide multiple and angular teeing grounds that result in adequate playing areas for the variety of golf ability. We impose bold contouring and bunkering many optical illusions to confuse the shot making process. We strive to mix the opportunity for heroic and strategic execution of play throughout the venue. We believe the course should be an extension of the natural environment, not contrived. Our greens are generally larger and more undulating than most. Our bunkering is more visible to the eye but fair to extricate, especially from fairway bunkering. It's no fun to have to blast out of a fairway bunker. We believe the shot difficulty should graduate the further the ball goes wayward.

In this writer's opinion, your golf courses stand up to regional comparisons best when you're able to create expressive and drastic green complexes (Forest Lake and Rock Springs Ridge come to mind). What influences the degree to which you will shape greens on any given project?

Ezell: Owners and site conditions play the biggest role. If the site requires drainage to be installed or the owner wants a USGA green, then the massive green's construction costs become prohibitive. If the owner wants fast-fast greens then undulations become a problem in play management and enjoyment. If the new ultra-dwarfs are being used, then the greens must be flatter due to the possibility of excessive roll.

Most of our courses utilize riding triplex greens mowers. Keeping our eye towards maintenance, we design in longer sweeping mowing patterns and tiers. Courses that walk-mow typically will have smaller greens with more dramatic pitches.

Lloyd Clifton's name begins to appear on Orlando area golf courses in the 1960's. How did he get into the business and what were some of the first golf courses he designed?

Lloyd's career started in Daytona Beach as the Horticultural Manager for the City of Daytona Beach. The City of Daytona Beach had a municipal 18 holes at the time and decided to add another 18. Lloyd was intimately involved in this process, loved it, and soon moved on to become the golf superintendent. This was during the mid 1950's. Rio Pinar was being conceived in 1957 as the premier new course in Orlando by the same architect that designed Daytona's second 18 - Mark Mahannah - and Lloyd made the move to become the construction coordinator and golf superintendent. During the design process, the members and Mahannah could not resolve a dispute and Mahanna walked off the project. Lloyd finished the job and stayed on during the first years of operations. He was thrown into the lion pit and survived.
In 1963 he was offered his first design job at West Orange Country Club in Winter Garden. The course opened in 1964 and has had very few modifications over its 39 years of existence. The greens were planted with the first variety of Tifdwarf bermuda grass and to this date have not been changed. The course was built for (approximately) $125,000. In 1992, CEC was allowed to propagate some of this original Tifdwarf and later used it on the greens at Forest Lake and Remington. CEC is again propagating this grass and hopes to leave its legacy as "Clifdwarf," since by all accounts the original foundation stock has been obliterated. This would be a fitting legacy for (Clifton), one of the pioneers of the Florida Turfgrass Association and one of its first 'Wreath of Grass' recipients.

What was golf in Orlando like at that time? What were considered the "important" golf courses and was there a noticeable architectural style for that time and place?

Ezell: Certainly there were fewer courses but there were also fewer players. The better courses in the area those days were Bay Hill, Rio Pinar, Cypress Creek, and West Orange. The architectural style of those periods didn't rely on as much earth movement. These old flat courses also lacked in secondary internal drainage so prevalent today and relied on surface drainage to get the course back up after our summer downpour.

It seems that during that era virtually every golf course in Orlando and beyond was designed by either Lloyd Clifton or Joe Lee. Was the relationship between these two competitive or friendly, and architecturally speaking, what were the principal differences between their products?

Ezell: Architecturally, we probably lined up closer to Joe and his mentor Dick Wilson as any other architect. According to Lloyd, Joe and he never met. Having been around both, before my collaborating with Lloyd, I know they had a tremendous respect for one another. Lloyd and Joe are two of kind in today's world. I've never heard anyone speak of these fine gentlemen without acknowledging them as gracious men and straight shooters.

Are you generally encouraged or saddened by the state of golf and the types of golf courses that now populate the Orlando market?

Ezell: Both. The level of golf design has improved dramatically the past 15 years. The quality of construction has also improved. Will all the older courses and some of the newer ill-conceived courses survive? Not without some serious rethinking and retooling.

How have your ideas about golf course design changed over the years, perhaps either from a strategic or business standpoint?

Ezell: One big noticeable change is (that) we.are not allowed to locate our golf holes through wetlands. It used to be golf got the low wetlands while the development was located on higher ground. Nowadays, as you can imagine, we take great care in preserving these precious wetland features. CEC has recently developed one of the strongest relationships of any group in the country with the Audubon International.
[Also], the new technology has had an impact on corridor widths. The regular Joe Golfer is now launching the ball - (he's) longer everywhere. We have to balance the cost of real estate allotment with the playability of the course. What once was considered a long course at 6,700 yards is now deemed inferior if not over 7,000 plus.

Are Clifton, Ezell & Clifton golf courses under-recognized and/or under-appreciated?

Ezell: Yes, they are under-recognized. No, they are not under-appreciated. Let me clarify. One of your questions implied that our courses are the most played and enjoyed by the golfing public in Central Florida. That is correct, so everybody appreciates a fair and honest test of golf. They also like and appreciate courses that are consistently in better shape, but only command a rate that affords them multiple opportunities to play.
The smart developers also recognize our talent to design dramatic courses at a fraction of the costs of "the name" architects'. Our courses are leaders in all the markets we have been afforded an opportunity to build. For instance, Charlotte's Highland Creek is the number one golf community and number one public golf course in a heavily developed area. Naples' Grey Oaks Pines & Palms (are) the number one private courses voted by the reciprocal members at other private clubs. Plus the Villages (is) the number one single site development in the United States with over 2,000 homes sold per year over the past two years.

What are a few of the better golf courses in Central Florida, either your own or someone else's, that the majority of area players aren't familiar with but should be?

Ezell: Well, (here is) our preference since we are entrepreneurial and want our clients to keep us in business! Here you go in order: Forest Lake since we own it, number 1, 2, and 3! The Legacy Club at the Villages; Riverbend in Ormond Beach; Rock Springs Ridge New Nine and North Nine; Plantation Bay in Ormond Beach (Preswick too);
The Legends in Clermont; Glenview at the Villages; Harbor Hills; Debary County Club; and Eastwood.

What are two or three of the best or favorite golf courses that you have designed?

Ezell: Grey Oaks Pines and Grey Oaks Palm Courses in Naples, Tega Cay Grandview Nine in Tega Cay, South Carolina, The West Nine at Rock Springs Ridge in Apopka, The Torri Pines Nine at the Villages, opening Fall 2002.

Derek DuncanDerek Duncan, Contributor

Derek Duncan's writing has appeared in TravelGolf.com, FloridaGolf.com, OrlandoGolf.com, GulfCoastGolf.com, LINKS Magazine and more. He lives in Atlanta with his wife Cynthia and is a graduate of the University of Colorado with interests in wine, literary fiction, and golf course architecture.

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