OCALA, Florida – The world’s first replica golf course, turned 30 this week.
Ron Garl, one of the most prolific of all course architects, was the brainchild for the layout at Golden Ocala Golf & Equestrian Club. Back in 1986 he picked out eight holes from five of golf’s most famous courses – Augusta National and Baltusrol in the United States and Royal Troon, Muirfield and St. Andrews from Europe – and worked them into his design at Golden Ocala.
The concept of replica – also called inspired or tribute – holes has been tried numerous times by other architects since then. Few, though, have been as successful in creating the magic of the famous holes as Garl was at Golden Ocala.
To commemorate the 30th anniversary of both the concept and the course Garl hosted a small outing at the club for a variety of players – members who knew the course well all the way down to first-time visitors.
Some of the replica holes are, understandably, better than others. The most photogenic was Golden Ocala’s No. 13 – a re-creation of the “road hole, or No. 17 at Scotland’s St. Andrews. Being Garl’s cart partner in the outing, I benefitted from an architect’s eye view of the construction process. Needless to say, building the “road hole’’ was a difficult, time-consuming effort 30 years ago but the work then is still paying off today.
Having not seen the original European holes in person, my choice as the best of Golden Ocala’s replica holes was its No. 6 – the par-3 over-the-water sixteenth at Augusta National. That’s always one of the best holes for drama during the Masters tournament. (From my experiences at that annual April epic, it’s the best).
Garl stressed the attention to detail that went into making each replica hole as concise as the original. Citing various reasons for selection including how the holes would fit into the topography available, Garl picked three holes from Augusta National. In addition to No. 16 he opted for another par-3 – Augusta’s No. 12 and Golden Ocala’s No. 11 – and the short par-5 13th at Augusta (No. 12 at Golden Ocala).
St. Andrews was the only other course to have more than one hole selected. St. Andrews’ opening hole – the first hole in golf – is No. 14 at Golden Ocala.
Other than the trio at Augusta National, the only other hole from an America course selected was No. 4 at Baltusrol – the par-3 fifteenth at Golden Ocala.
Royal Troon’s No. 8 – with its famous “postage stamp’’ green – is Golden Ocala’s par-3 fourth hole and the next hole in the rotation is a replica of Muirfield’s No. 9, a par-5.
“This is a very special place for me,’’ said Garl, who was in the 10th year of his 40 designing courses when he created Golden Ocala. The process back then included obtaining precise photographs of the famous holes – a project that cost $50,000 a hole 30 years ago.
What’s also interesting is that the replica holes, while a nice feature, don’t dominate the course. The “Garl originals’’ aren’t bad, either. Garl rates the par-4 third hole as his overall favorite on the course and the other non-replica holes fit seamlessly into the rotation.
Garl returned to Golden Ocala to supervise a major renovation in 2001 and convinced the Roberts family members, owners of the course now, to acquire more land that would facilitate an expansion of the practice facilities. That led to the building of two fullscale practice holes that were a big hit with players from the LPGA in 2015 and 2016.
The LPGA contested the Coates Classic as an early season event for two years, and it has been the biggest competition yet held on the course. The players said crowds resembled those at the U.S. Women’s Open, but the tourney was discontinued after two stagings.
Garl, meanwhile, has emerged as perhaps the most prolific architect in his native state. Based in Lakeland, he opened his first course in 1972 and has designed over 100 in the Sunshine State. The best-known of those, in addition to Golden Ocala, are TPC of Prestancia in Sarasota, Fiddlesticks in Fort Myers and Palm Beach Polo in West Palm Beach.
Moving beyond Florida, Garl has designed or renovated over 250 courses and worked in 10 other countries. He’s completed such award-winning courses as Wooden Sticks in Canada, Alpine in Thailand, Gudymaral in Colombia and Nine Dragons in China and is currently deeply involved in a course for the King of Morocco.