… how about free golf on Mondays?
By: Tim Baines
Ron Garl worries about the future of golf. The model, he says, may be broken with a next generation that’s not patient enough, resistant to rules and unwilling to cough up big dollars for a five-hour cart ride covering 18 holes of golf.
With more than 40 years of hands-on experience as a talented architect/designer/owner and golfer, Garl also figures he has a pretty good handle on what it’s going to take to fix it.
“We need to find a way to get young golfers engaged,” said the 72-year-old Garl, who has more than 250 golf course designs under his belt, including four in Canada – Heritage Pointe (Calgary), Maple Downs (Toronto), Taboo (Gravenhurst) and Wooden Sticks (Uxbridge).
“The trouble starts in four years and it’s going to build. Who are the golfers coming in behind us? That’s what we have to figure out. There are young couples that have a fair amount of money, but between their car payments, house payments, insurance and their food, they don’t have any money left. You can’t get away from demographics, you can’t escape the numbers.”
Golf courses are trying to find solutions, but maybe they’re looking in the wrong direction, according to Garl.
“Our challenge is to find a simple way to bring people to the game,” he said. “The First Tee is a good program, but, but, but … we need something much simpler than that.
“How about this? Free golf on Mondays. It doesn’t have to be every tee time, it doesn’t have to be all day. We’ve got to have something that’s going to bring tens of thousands, millions to the game. I didn’t say they had to have the greens mowed on Monday or that they needed golf carts, but let them play free. We can have it so kids can play as long as they’re with an adult.
“Every great club in the world needs to lead this thing. Maybe in a few years when they’re losing a lot more members than they’re taking in and there are lot less green-fee players, maybe they’ll think it’s time to try something drastic.”
In Garl’s way of thinking, loosening up a game with cumbersome layers of rules is another step in the right direction, even if only for one day of the week.
“If the kids want to show up in shorts, T-shirts or jeans, let them,” said Garl. “You can’t run them off because they don’t have a collared shirt. Kids don’t wear collared shirts anymore. I want it so simple that there’s no rules. The generation that’s behind us, they don’t like rules. I’m only taking the rules out on Monday, let’s get people started.”
Garl, who played golf at the University of Florida, has built up a prolific portfolio over the years. He’s won award after award for his forward vision with its backward thought process, often a reflection of days gone by, drawing inspiration from the philosophies of some of his early mentors – Robert Trent Jones Jr., Dick Wilson and Joe Lee.
“If I look back at one guy who I owe the most to, it was Joe Lee, who did a lot of work in Florida,” said Garl. “He taught me the best golf courses in the world match the land. I’ve kept that to this day. Really good golf courses sit gently on the land. You don’t need huge earth movers and bulldozers. Mother Nature is a much better architect than I am or anybody else is.”
Keep it simple was a message that went off the rails along the way.
“Unfortunately we got on the wrong road, we were going down it at 100 miles an hour when the speed limit was 55,” said Garl. “I’ve always believed in classic and traditional. We’ve come back to that. We ran a lot of people out of golf with some of the course designs. They were too hard, they were too mean, they were too long. Everybody wanted to be the king of the mountain. The best thing that’s happened to golf in the past decade is forward tees and less bunkers. Let people have fun. Bunkers, we’ve done an in-depth study – golfers do not like bunkers. One great tree on the corner can replace three big bunkers.”
Garl’s, whose company’s mission is: “To design and build memorable courses that challenge players to excel and that everyone can enjoy,” has designed courses in 18 states, mostly in Florida. His vision can also be found throughout the world in places like Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Nigeria, Panama, Puerto Rico, Morocco, China and Thailand.
“I like to think outside the box,” he said. “I’m the guy who dreamed up things like replica golf. I did the first replica course in the world – Golden Ocala (in Florida). I took famous holes from all over and put them there. That’s the fun thing about doing a replica course. When I saw how popular it was, I said I wanted to do more of those and be involved from an ownership standpoint. That’s where Wooden Sticks came from.”
Garl remains busy at his craft through even the most turbulent of times.
“I started when the golf business was on the uptrend,” he said. “It’s like opening any business, if you open at the right time, you’re fortunate. Then there was a downtown, when I survived that, that’s when I knew that I knew what I was doing. Most people locked their doors and walked away. I’ve seen three or four downturns, including the great slump of 2008.
“I’ve been able to make the leap internationally, which most guys haven’t been able to do. In the U.S., most of the work now is renovation. Internationally is where the new courses are. I’m working on a project for the Chinese government for the Olympic golf training facility, I’ve just recently finished a project in Shanghai which is all oceanfront. We moved 5,000 people off that site just to get the land and we built houses for all 5,000 of them. It was a megaproject.
“There are some places where you have to move a lot of dirt. The hardest place in the world to build a golf course, where you find out if you are any good, is Florida. Once in awhile, we get a good piece of property and we try not to screw it up.”
What are his best designs, the one he takes the most pride in? Garl likes to break it down.
“OK, what’s the best thing I’ve done oceanfront? Shanghai wins that. Except for the one I’m building for the King of Morocco now in the Meditteranean. It will challenge anything in the world, it’s that good. The King is going to open it to the public. It’s about two years away. The real key to working with the ocean is to get enough holes where the ocean relates to the holes. Most courses, they run one hole alongside the ocean and the next hole, you can’t even see the ocean.
“What’s my best in the mountains? Sapphire National in North Carolina. Inland? Fiddlesticks in Fort Myers has stood the test of the time.
“I look at them on the type of land they’re on and what they relate to. After you do some that win awards, you begin to realize you’re fortunate enough to get good sites and good owners and that’s what it takes.”
Garl said it’s important for him to get feedback from golfers; pros fill his ear with suggestions.
“It’s important to listen to them when they’re playing poorly,” said Garl. “That’s when they’re honest. When they’re playing well, they love everything.”
Along with the time spent in the industry, pouring his heart and soul into every project he takes on, Garl has some vivid memories.
Said Garl: “The most fun golfer from the tour I’ve played with was Lee Trevino. We co-designed a golf course in Titusville, we’re playing and I say, ‘Lee, can I get there with a 4-iron?’ Lee says, rather loudly, ‘Not with that grip.’
“Working in Thailand, one time I look over and see a bunch of brush. Then I saw the Cobra, that brings your heart to attention pretty quickly. I’ve been to places where the grass is all matted down. One time, I’m thinking, ‘That’s kind of strange, I wonder what could have done that?’ It was an Asian tiger.”
How does Garl want to be remembered and measured at what he does?
“I’d like for them to say, ‘Boy, we really enjoyed playing his golf courses.’ That’s what brings people to the game and that’s what keeps them in the game.”
To find out more about Ron Garl courses, visit: http://rongarl.com/