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Building great courses comes naturally for designer Terry LaGree

By Derek Duncan, Contributor

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Unless you're a member at one of Florida's great courses, Black Diamond in Lecanto, you probably don't know who Terry LaGree is. It's all right, he doesn't mind.

After working first as project manager during Black Diamond's construction in 1986 and 1987 (helping to interview and hire architect Tom Fazio), and then as the development's General Manager until 1995, LaGree struck out on his own to, in his words, "spend the next 15 or 20 years of my life playing in the dirt."

LaGree put his Landscape Architecture degree to work by joining Barbaron, Inc., a golf course construction business in which he is now a partner. Though he prefers to build more courses than design them, his architecture credits are nevertheless mounting. And like their designer, LaGree's creations are typically underrated; most notably the stylish but unheralded Royal Oaks in Ocala and the adventurous Diamond Players Club in Clermont, Fla.

TravelGolf.com senior writer Derek Duncan spoke with LaGree over the telephone to find out more about his past and current projects as well as his views on the design and construction side of the business.

Duncan: What was your first break or your first design project?

LaGree: The first course I designed was called Royal Oaks at Oak Run in Ocala. There were a few people who knew my name around the area (through Black Diamond) and we went over and talked to them and told them what we could do for them, and offered them a design-build service.

I thought that might be the only real opportunity, but a couple of other things popped out [of it]. There's a project I designed in Clermont called Diamond Players Club, which (was) a very wonderful piece of property (that) had elevation changes of 190 feet, which is pretty significant for Florida. From the driving range and the clubhouse you can see downtown Orlando. It (is) one of the highest golf courses in the state of Florida.

From there I got another one called Citrus Hills (that's) no more than three miles from Black Diamond and designed their new 18 holes. Again, great elevation change, and they have the same elevation [as Diamond Players Club], about the second highest point in the state.

Duncan: Is your design career expanding at the pace you envisioned?

LaGree: I really was interested more in the construction business, seeing results coming up out of the ground.and design was more of a side bar. I certainly enjoy the design process, but I enjoy it from a design-build standpoint. I really haven't pursued nor have I promoted design. I don't try to market it [because] word of mouth was working. I really have never positioned myself as a golf course architect, more as a construction company.

Duncan: Since you both design and build golf courses, how is constructing your own design different than constructing what someone else has designed?

LaGree: The architects that we've worked with vary greatly in their approach to it. Some are very intense and very much involved, others are less involved, and so every one is unique - we've done a number of them for Tom Fazio.

I find that [in] doing them ourselves we can time manage the projects much better because we control a lot of the element. I work in the field very closely with my shapers and I give them a lot of freedom because they're the ones really creating the work. We really create in the field and with my shapers we can look at it hole by hole and make decisions. I spend a couple of days on every golf hole with them as they're shaping, with a shovel in my hand if I need to really create what we're looking for.

Duncan: It's probably easier to change something in the field or on the fly if it's your own project rather than if you're holding somebody else's plans.

LaGree: It is, only because the more you control in any business the better off you are from a standpoint of time management. Yes, I can make instant decisions. If the guys see something different they call me up. We only take on two or three projects a year, and never more than that because we don't have any desire to go out and be a world-beater. We just want to do a good job, do quality work, and enjoy our quality of life as well.

Duncan: Even as you state your love for building golf courses, when you do play the role of architect are there certain features, strategies, or compositions you will try to include, or is it a case of purely reading the land where anything can happen?

LaGree: It's a read of the land, and I think any of the great architects [do that]. Tom Fazio, to me, there's nothing better. He simply never forces any issues and creates an environment for the golfer that is pleasant and fair and beautiful. You can't ask for much more than that. But the land really dictates it. You have to look at what's given to you on the palette and use those to your full advantage.

Duncan: I thought you might say that. At Diamond Players Club, for instance, you've got three par 3's on the first nine and only one on the second.

LaGree: Yes. The outside issues with something like a Diamond Players Club is you're always fighting with the developer for more land, begging and borrowing. And then the severity of that site is pretty extreme as well, [especially] given the budget that we had to work with and work within. But to me it was an exciting project. I love 14, which is that little par 3 that's kind of a blind shot, and I love 15. You have to play it a couple of times to appreciate it, but to me that's exciting golf. It's not for everybody and I understand that, but I explained to the owners at the time that we have an opportunity to do something unique here.I think we've created an exciting place.

I've only played Diamond Players Club twice, and of course my emotional level is pretty high there too, but that golf course gets more fun on the back nine. It gets more and more fun. Every golf hole is unique, in my opinion, every hole stands by itself to a certain degree, and one thing I truly believe in when I have the opportunity is to try to create every shot in the bag. I like short 4's, I have a couple of long 5's, and the par 3's are all unique and different. It's probably the best one I'll ever do.

Duncan: How important is the role of the builder versus the architect? Is it possible that an architect can draw a great plan and a builder can wreck it through shoddy work? Can it happen that way?

LaGree: Any good architect knows that the right construction company is necessary for him to fulfill his vision. They're always very adamant about who's going to be shaping it and what qualifications they have. Many of these architects know what shapers they want on their golf course because they're the guys that are the paintbrush. They're not going to risk their reputation by having an average company (do the shaping).

At Barbaron we built our reputation as a shaping company. I recognized early that once you gained the confidence of an architect.that more freedom and trust came.

Duncan: Aside from Black Diamond or your own projects, what are some of your favorite courses in the region?

LaGree: Well, there's nothing that beats Black Diamond as a golfing complex in the southeastern United States. The pure golf environment is World Woods - there's no housing and it's great golf, two courses that are very distinctive.

I'm a big fan of Mike Strantz. Mike was the original supervisor here for

Fazio when we build the first course here, the Quarry Course and I worked closely with him. Mike thinks differently, sometimes to the extreme.but boy does he paint a beautiful picture. Every golf hole is a beautiful picture.

Duncan: The conditions of the part of Florida where you're located, around Citrus and Hernando Counties, seem perfectly suited for outstanding golf courses. Do you see the region fulfilling its potential in the near future?

LaGree: To me it's going to be the Pinehurst of the South someday. World Woods is just to the south of us 20 minutes, Black Diamond, Citrus Hills, El Diablo is 10 minutes from Black Diamond. There are a couple of other [golf] communities that are going to be starting up here [soon]. Obviously with Florida becoming more crowded (in the metropolitan areas) more and more people will be looking to this area.

What people don't realize (until) they come to Citrus County is that it has a real rolling, beautiful terrain. It's not at all like south Florida.

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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