What can you say about the Florida-based golf course architect Ron Garl, whose design philosophy is “To make courses enjoyable, traditional, challenging, and memorable”? Probably something like, “Where is his nearest layout?” And if you, like most New England golfers, have planned winter escapes to play golf in Florida, chances are you have teed it up at one of Ron’s creations.
What Jim Kurtzeborn, PGA Master Professional/Director of Golf at Fiddlesticks in Fort Myers, has said about Ron is representative of what so many other pros and golfers feel about the Garl philosophy: “Ron Garl possesses the talent to make a golf course beautiful, challenging and playable. He does this through his understanding of how different levels of golfers play a course, coupled with an artist’s vision. The Long Mean golf course has 18 unique holes that require that you use every club in your bag.”
A native of the Sunshine State and a University of Florida grad, Ron has designed more than 250 courses and remodels, taking his well-earned reputation throughout the nation and around the world. In 2003, Ron received the University of Florida’s Distinguished Alumnus Award, and in 2009, he was inducted into the Polk County Schools Hall of Fame. He has also been awarded “Golf Designer of the Year” by the International Network of Golf.
Ron is an advocate of both classic golf course design and “green” golf course design, believing that “every course should sit softly upon the land.” He gained great acclaim for his environmental work at the Indian River Club in Vero Beach, the first course to be awarded Audubon International’s highest award: the Audubon Signature Cooperative Sanctuary Status.
Stu Burk, Director of Membership at Indian River, said, “During the design process, while walking the course, Ron Garl was asked what he thought his favorite hole would be. His response was, ‘If we do our job right, all of them.’ Well, he did his job right, because if you would ask the members the same question, they would also respond ‘all of them.’ Ron blended his concepts into the land he was given to work with, as opposed to the way most golf course architects change the land to blend it into their concepts. He built the course to blend in naturally with the habitat.”
Ron lives in Lakeland, just outside of Tampa, with his wife Sylvia, and they have recently celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary.
NEGM: Did the LPGA players enjoy their 2015 season-opener at your Golden Ocala Golf and Equestrian Club?
RG: Oh, yes! That January event was a smashing success with the women. I heard many great comments and received such positive feedback. The crowds were unbelievable, like being at a major. The golfers, with most of the top 50 women there, loved the layout and the idea of the eight tribute holes. When I designed the course in 1986, I paid homage to iconic holes from five major-championship courses—Augusta National [12, 13,16], Baltusrol [4 on Lower Course], Muirfield , the Old Course at St. Andrews [1, 17] and Royal Troon . Golden Ocala was unique, the first course in the world with tribute holes on it, and I’m the guy who dreamed it up.
NEGM: What motivated you to get a BA in turf grass science? To become a golf architect?
RG: As a kid, I played golf as much as I could and loved to be outdoors. I worked at the local golf course raking traps, mowing greens, and doing maintenance. I used to imagine what I could do on the course to make it better. So, I knew from working with the turf grass programs at the University of Florida, where I also played on the golf team, that I wanted to get into golf course design. My twin brother loved golf, too, and he wanted to become a PGA pro. Both our dreams were realized, too.
Actually, my timing was perfect, for golf courses were booming when I opened my first course in 1972. Now it’s more than 250 courses and still counting. At first I just thought how happy I would be to stay in the state of Florida, where I have designed more than 100, let alone design courses in other states and then internationally.
NEGM: What is your philosophy of architecture? For remodeling?
RG: I try to be humble and try to do a little more listening than talking.
Fortunately, the whole golf industry has returned to my theory on design: golf should be a pleasure, played in a reasonable amount of time, and allow for the communing with Mother Nature. The trend had been to build longer and harder golf courses with more bunkers and lightning-fast greens. The game got way too difficult and way too expensive.
Today, the trend, which includes renovations, is to return to the classic layout style, which includes less bunkers and reasonable green undulations. I can use trees at the corners of doglegs and mounds around the greens to replace all that sand. I know the average golfer does not like bunkers.
Remember that the purpose of golf is to provide fun not frustration. I like to reiterate that message in my designs. I want golfers who play my courses to enjoy themselves. My designs and remodels reward good shots but don’t over penalize bad shots.
NEGM: Favorite architects?
RG: The classic four: A.W. Tillinghast is at the top of my list, followed by Alister MacKenzie, Old Tom Morris—the first prominent architect to work with Mother Nature—and Donald Ross. If you understand what they were trying to do with the land at their disposal and with their hands and their horse-drawn earth movers, you then understand what golf is really all about. And we’re coming back to their philosophy, thank goodness.
NEGM: Three favorite courses?
RG: Augusta National, where MacKenzie initiated a new trend in golf course architecture by breaking away from the traditional Scottish links-style layouts; Pine Valley, another unique, trend-setting design that is a remarkably fair challenge and just so much fun to play; the Ailsa course at Turnberry on the coast of Scotland, a true links test. I’d like to include several of my own courses, but my creations are like children in that I like them all for different reasons.
NEGM: OK, then, name some of your more memorable Florida “children.”
RG: Fiddlesticks, The Dunes at Palm Beach Polo Golf & CC, Indian River Club, Golden Ocala, Longboat Key Club and Resort (remodel), Timacuan in Lake Mary, Tournament Players Club @ Prestancia in Sarasota, University Park in Sarasota, Naples Beach Club in Naples, Victoria Hills in Deland, and Las Colinas at Mission Inn in Howey-in-the-Hills.
NEGM: Now, name some of your more memorable foreign “children.”
RG: Not far away are Bijao Beach Club & Golf Resort in Panama and Guaymaral CC (Course #1) in Bogota, Colombia. The countries are safe, the people are wonderful, and the food is great. You can enjoy the total experience, not just the golf alone.
Thailand’s Alpine Golf & Sports Club, Royal Gems Golf City, and Chiangmai-Lamphun GC (remodel) are a long way away but the trip is worth it. The Thais love Americans, and most of them speak English. Tiger won the Johnny Walker Classic there at Alpine just after he turned pro.
Morocco with its Golf D’Atalayoun is another wonderful, safe place with a marvelous climate. I am currently building a new course with King Mohammed VI near his royal palace in Nadar, an 18-hole ocean front layout with two different practice facilities, one on the ocean.
The Admirals Club at Nine Dragons Golf Resort near Shanghai has two and a half miles of oceanfront property as well as holes on cliffs and in mountains.
A few more: Ride of the Kings GC, Vlcnov, Czech Republic (under design); Taboo GC, Gravenhurst, Ontario; Heritage Pointe, Calgary, Alberta; and Wooden Sticks in Uxbridge, Ontario. [All three in Canada are in the country’s Top 100.]
NEGM: What is your opinion of New England golf courses?
RG: Golf doesn’t get much better than in New England with the abundance of classic layouts. The trees, rolling land, and rugged terrain—Mother Nature dominates the designs. And the local courses are just as playable and memorable as the expensive big names or private ones. You’re just not looking at a golf hole; you’re looking at the whole setting. It’s hot here in Florida in the summer, so I have grabbed my golf bag and gone to play in New England.
NEGM: How has golf technology affected today’s game?
RG: For one thing, it has kept seniors and average-length players in the game. The equipment and balls allow these golfers to tee it forward and reach most par 4’s in two and par 5’s in three. I’m not overly concerned in my designs or renovations with building back tees—I am much more concerned with making the layouts as much fun from the forward tees as from the back tees and with not making the layouts punitive. I think the vast majority of golfers who are higher handicappers deserve a rewarding round just as much as the scratch players do, and I want these golfers to return again and again.
NEGM: Why are you committed to “green” and attaining the publicly recognized Audubon Sanctuary status?
RG: The Audubon Society has created a great program for golf courses to achieve conservation goals and advance environmental stewardship and sustainability. Why wouldn’t I be in favor of going “green”? What golf has not done a good job at is letting non-golfers know just how much an Audubon golf course improves the total environment. For example, one golf course provides oxygen for 20,000 people. Golf courses use much less chemicals and fertilizers than subdivisions do. We need to keep reminding everybody what great neighbors golf courses are. Most of today’s superintendents are college educated, certified, and understand very well their impact upon the environment. Today’s golf courses are “green” in every sense of the word.
NEGM: How did you learn the game? Home course? Current handicap?
RG: I learned the best way you could ever learn—playing with my twin brother and my father. I’m a member at all 250 of my courses. The three courses I play the most when I have time are in my hometown of Lakeland: Cleveland Heights GC, Eaglebrooke CC, and Wedgewood GC. I’m a 10 handicapper now and don’t get to play as much as I would like. I spend a lot of time on golf courses but don’t often get to play them!
NEGM: Dream Foursome of today? Of any time period?
RG: The LPGA phenom, Lydia Ko; Bubba Watson, who loves the game; Billy Horschel, a fellow Gator; and South American Camilo Villegas, for the international flavor.
Old Tom Morris, the Scot and first architect; Bobby Jones, who did so much for the game; and two all-time greats, Gene Sarazen and Sam Snead.
RG: I’m a licensed pilot and love flying to work sites and to Asheville, NC, to play golf with my friends. I have 6,000 hours flying my own plane. I also like to ride my collection of Cushman Eagle scooters! Several are antiques from the 1930’s, 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s. I take them to meets all over the country and ride them regularly. I’m very fortunate to have scooter/motorcycle friends, airplane friends, and golf friends to keep me young.
WHAT'S YOUR REACTION?