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Florida’s Ron Garl: One of the True Unsung Heroes of Golf Course Design

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Ron Garl may be the best golf course architect you’ve never heard of. The Sunshine State native is second only to Tom Fazio in the number of awards he has racked up in Florida for his golf course designs. Nationally and internationally, his courses have garnered awards from Golf Digest, the Audubon Society, Golf Magazine, Links Magazine and Southern Living, among others.

If ever there was a personification of the tireless golf course designer, its Garl. A pilot since the tender age of 14, Garl globetrots to exotic locations in search of the perfect golf course layout, and the perfect fish.

Garl was born and raised in Lakeland, Florida, and attended the University of Florida where he studied turf science. Despite Tennessee’s historic upset of the Gators last Saturday in Gainesville, Garl took the time to sit down and talk golf course design with Senior Editor Shane Sharp.

How did you become interested in golf course design?

My twin brother Richard and I worked at a golf course in Lakeland as kids. He worked inside and I worked for the maintenance crew after school. We had to walk mow everything, and we had to work in the summer when it was hotter than you know what. My dad played golf, and our passions when we were kids were golf and airplanes. We learned to fly when we were 14-years-old. We soloed at age 16. We would fly over the golf courses and put on shoes for our buddies. I am on the board of the Sun and Fun conference, a fly-in with 400 education seminars. It’s great because we can get around the southeast so easily. Oh, I also buy and rebuild Cushman Eagles, you can ask some of the baby boomers about that. My other passion is practice facilities. I can brag that my golf courses are better than yours, but I can usually say that my practice facilities are better. Does that answer your question? Of course not. Sorry about that!

Tell us something about course design that the average player probably doesn’t know.

There are a couple things not evident to the average player. There are 80 miles of drainage pipe, electrical wiring and other infrastructure under the course. People don’t realize the network of stuff under the ground, and the technical part of our business. They may see a cow pasture on the surface, but it’s a complex network underneath. Also, on the surface, there is a tremendous amount of environmental work that goes on. Enhancing wetlands, preserving wetlands, etc. We are the true environmentalists, not the people running around ranting and raving. Our kids live on the golf courses, and we make sure that we are good stewards of the land.

What are some of the challenges facing golf course design today?

The biggest challenge today is the environmental side, without a doubt. There are so many regulations that are passed that may have to do with another industry, but they affect us. An example is the farming industry. The regulation may be aimed at runoff from fertilizers on farms, but it touches us, too. But environmental issues are also our biggest rewards. The industry has been responsible for preservation of land and habitats and has won a number of awards.

The majority of your courses are in Florida. What are some of the opportunities and constraints you face when designing courses in the Sunshine State?

Flat land, the drainage sucks, and water runs down hill. There is more environmentally protected land here than anywhere. It is the toughest place in the world to build a great golf course. You don’t have the terrain you have in the eastern seaboard, with all the rolling hills and hardwood trees. If you can do it here, you can do it anywhere that is what I say.

Dan Jenkins once wrote that Pete Dye and Jack Nicklaus ushered modern golf course design with their Harbour Town Golf Links in Hilton Head. Small greens, tight fairways and tough pars became the norm for a period in golf course design. It seems as if the past ten years has witnessed a turn back towards the traditional. Can you relate to us approximately “where” golf course design is at this point in time?”

We are truly at a new crossroads that we did not see coming. The road of the past has been interesting. On the road to the future, we are going to have to look at the economics of the game, because of Sept. 11. We are going to have to make sure the game is affordable. Not every golfer is a $100 a round golfer. We can’t leave anyone out of the game that wants to play. But they need a place that has value, and by that I mean we can’t just stick them on junk courses. I think the Myrtle Beach market is the best example in the world. The market makes sure there are times when you can play even the area’s best golf courses at a real value. Even in the peak season, there are values you can play. Some of the best operators in the country are in Myrtle Beach. They are on the leading edge of where golf is going. Our challenge in the future is can we bring people to the game and keep them there.

Who are some of you mentors and/or influences in the golf course design business?

I was fortunate, because I was a player, and a turf scientist, so I came at this thing with a different twist. Interestingly enough, some of my mentors are not what you would expect. There were some architects, such as A.W. Tillinghast and Allister McKenzie that influenced me much more than Donald Ross, because they were the better architects. I went to Scotland at an early age, four times in one year. That is how much l loved and thought of golf over there. Hell, I didn’t have any money back then, but I went anyway. I played great golf courses that people didn’t even know who designed them. Then there is Dr. G.C. Horn, the greatest Bermuda grass scientist ever and a professor of mine at Florida. They have a number of tournaments around the state in his honor because he was just that influential.

What is the Ron Garl design philosophy, and how does it differ from other golf course architects?

When it is all said and done, when people come to our golf courses, they need to feel that it was time well spent and that they want to part of the golf game. We win awards, and that is great for business. Our courses host tournaments and that is great for publicity. But we want to keep people in the game of golf. All these awards are milestones. Tiger Woods won at the Alpine Golf and Sports Club in Bangkok, Thailand, in front of his mom. Those types of things are important to us, because we are making milestones in the golf community. My home course here, The Club at Eaglebrook, is the home of the Futures Tour, the true understudy of the LPGA Tour. We are helping the women’s’ game, and that is a central tenant for us. Also, our philosophy is to make unique golf courses. Wooden Sticks (in Toronto, pictured) may be one of the most unique in the world. Victoria Hills, a course we are building in Deland, Fla., will be like nothing you’ve ever seen. There will be over 100 feet of elevation changes and different bunker styes from around the world.

Tell us about your Mega Practice facilities, and your idea that the more good golfers we create, the better off we all are.

If people are practicing, they will get better and they won’t drop out. We get plenty of new players, but just as many drop. These are the most important things in the game for the next generation. We break the game down into three parts, 50 yards and less, 50 to 100 and 100 plus. I have talked to Dave Pelz, and if you want to get up and down, you really need to hit in within 10 feet of the pin. We built six in addition to championship golf courses that we are building – as part of the facilities. We built one for the Marriott in Orlando at the Nick Faldo Golf School, which was voted number one practice facility in the U.S. by Golf and Range Magazine. These are the state-of-the-art practice facilities in the world. (For more on Garl’s Mega Practice Facilities, click here.)

You studied turf science at the University of Florida. Does this knowledge, often reserved for superintendents, give you a unique perspective when designing a golf course? It spurs innovative things, because I have the background to do my own research. On this cutting edge stuff, it helps me make the right decision. I can understand why certain courses are maintained to higher levels than others. That makes a huge difference in people’s opinions of golf courses. I can sit down and talk pesticides and fertilizers in great detail. I can talk at a low-key level, or I can talk to PhD’s about it. I give lectures on it, but I also explain it to clients who don’t want that much detail. I know what the ramifications of choosing this and that type of turf are on maintenance budgets.

You have a couple of design credits in the Carolinas, with the Tradition Golf Club in Pawleys Island S.C., Regent Park (at right) in Fort Mill, S.C. You are even a part owner in the Tradition, a course you say may be your favorite. Do you see yourself designing more courses in the Carolinas in the future?

Well, we have more than just that in the Carolinas. There is the Traces in Florence, Stono Ferry just south of Charleston, and Ray’s Island in Beaufort, S.C. Ray’s Island is incredible, in that is only does 6200 rounds a year and is on the best piece of property you’ll ever see in the Low Country. We are talking to a couple of people but we don’t have contracts yet on anything else. As far as the Grand Strand, we think Myrtle Beach is saturated right now, but we’d like to be involved in the next round. The next round will have to be really unique in terms of the courses it produces. These courses will have to motivate people to stick around and play more.

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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