Ron Garl has been designing golf courses for four decades. During that time he has placed his signature on over 250 courses across the globe, including a dozen or so in Central Florida.
And with nearly everyone one of them, he started with the same premise: “Our main objective is to design and build memorable golf courses that challenge players to excel, and that everyone can enjoy.”
Regarding three of his courses in the Orlando area, mission accomplished. Eagle Creek near the Orlando International Airport, Timacuan in Lake Mary, and Victoria Hills in Deland are three of the most popular and decorated tracks in Central Florida. They all have one thing in common — they rest comfortably on the land.
“Our first rule of thumb is, don't screw up what Mother Nature has created,” said Garl, based in Lakeland, south of Orlando. “We had unique pieces of property to work with for all three courses. We wanted to utilize the natural assets of the land.”
At Eagle Creek, Garl worked with a former orange grove that had been bulldozed. There were few trees and the land was relatively flat. He saw an opportunity to build a Scottish links-style course. The course owner, Emerson Jones of Great Britain, loved the idea.
The feature hole is the par-5 18th. Originally it had been planned as a par four, with a lake situated between the green and clubhouse. Garl decided to move the green to the other side of the lake, thus creating a tremendous risk/reward par five.
“Based on our research, most golfers’ favorite holes are par fives,” said Garl. “This change gave us a par-73 layout, very unique to the area. And it gives golfers an opportunity to go for the green in two and make birdie.” That presents a big challenge, however. The second shot must carry water to a green that slopes from back to front that will hold the shot. “As many times as I have played it, I still don't have the formula,” said Garl. "The popularity of the hole has been a pleasant surprise.”
At Timacuan, Garl saw a very diverse piece of land, and from that created a layout with two distinctly different nines. “The front nine had been a citrus grove that finally died off after several hard freezes,” said Garl. “That set up for a rolling, open kind of layout — very Scottish in appearance.”
“The back nine was more natural land, reminiscent of what you would see in the Carolinas Low Country. We just routed the nine through the beautiful oaks and pines, and created some challenge with the water hazards on the closing holes. It really makes for a unique experience.”
The signature hole is the par-4 second, with an island fairway and a green that requires carry over a lake. During a PGA Tour Qualifying tournament in the early 90s, the hole had the highest scoring average of any hole ever played in Q-School at that time.
“We did provide an option for a more conservative strategy, though. There is a bailout area on the right for those who don't choose to play to the green,” said Garl. “A good hole design provides options.”
There may not be a better example of letting the property create the magic than Victoria Hills. Rolling hills, buffers of oak hammocks, Augusta Pines, historic oaks and sandy terrain of natural wetlands are the visuals a golfer can expect at Victoria Hills. And Garl is all about aesthetics.
“One of my challenges as a designer is to enhance the natural beauty of the land,” said Garl. “If a hole fits my eye and is pleasing to look at, I generally play it well. Golf is such a psychological game. If your mind can get a good read on a hole from the tee box, and the hole is aesthetically pleasing, you are already a step ahead.”
Garl points to No. 15 at Victoria Hills as an example. The par five “has a great flow to it,” he says. Big oak trees frame the landing area and provide options off the tee. Play it safe, or go left and shorten the hole for a go at the green. Water protects on that side, however, providing risk to the eventual reward.
Those three Orlando area courses reflect Garl’s philosophy about the golf business.
“Our studies indicate that golfers want these things: Friendly service, value, quality conditioning, and to find their ball so they can hit it again,” said Garl. “Golf went through a time when we were building ego-driven courses that were much too difficult. That has cost us golfers.”
“We have returned to the time-honored concepts of traditional golf. We want to make the game fun again. The goal of every designer should be this: Don't make them drink. Make them thirsty.”
And these three Garl designs — Eagle Creek, Timacuan and Victoria Hills — leave golfers thirsty for more.