University Park Country Club: Ron Garl Designs with a Classic Touch

By Derek Duncan, Contributor

SARASOTA, FL -- Now that the 1980’s are more than ten years in the past, it’s safe for golf course architects to talk freely about what they were doing during that era.

Many speak of their design excesses, and even their mistakes, with a smile, much like a parent might look back at their wilder high school or college days with both fondness and slight embarrassment. For some, the past is more forgettable than for others, but in general, the 1980’s were, to put it delicately, a great learning curve for the industry. It certainly was a time for extremism.

Architect Ron Garl puts it this way: “In the ‘80’s everybody was into so many radical things – some of which was quite good by the way – but they weren’t necessarily sustainable. Everyone was trying to outdo one another, trying to make the course longer, trying to make it more difficult, make the bunkers more bold, a ‘my course is better than your course’ mentality. That was pervasive in the entire industry.”

Golf course architecture on the whole has matured since then. The latest period has shown that kinder, gentler styles are what sells. Current designs tend to favor integration and subtlety. Sooner or later most architects have turned away from triumphant, monolithic design to courses that, whether imposed or genuine, strive to fit harmoniously within their landscape.

For Garl the change began in the late 1980’s during the design stages for University Park Country Club in Sarasota. It would have been easy to vamp up the typically overgrown site on the north side of the city in the mode of the day. Any unique features would have to be manmade anyway since the only natural asset the flat land possessed was the lush vegetation. In other words, it was the perfect canvas on which to install another “hard bogey, impossible par” golf course.

Garl and his staff, however, sensing perhaps that modern architecture had gone too far – or at least that the types of golf courses he and his colleagues were building had become severe beyond enjoyment or maintenance – embarked upon a study of America’s most heralded older courses.

“We decided to get a handle on what traditional golf was, which obviously was a very hard thing to define,” Garl says. “We came up with what we call ‘classic golf,’ going back to what are considered great golf courses from different parts of the country, which ones have stood the test of time, which ones have improved in stature…which ones stood out in their area.”

The research resulted in a list of qualities that most of the finest traditional courses share. Using these commonalities as a guide, Garl began what he called “The Classic Design Series,” and University Park became the first course in this series to be constructed.

Instead of producing yet another water infested, over the top Florida golf course, University Park was built using traditional design principles, with an eye toward longevity.

“Strategy is the first key element,” Garl explains. “Strategy has to be the defining (factor) of the golf course. You have to be able to read the fairways and tell where you’re supposed to hit it. Some golf courses, you look out there, and I don’t want to use the word ‘tricked up’, but there’s so much going on…you go ‘Where am I supposed to hit it?’ We want you to say, ‘That’s where I’m supposed to hit it.’”

“We want to offer options too, so you can play it again and again and it never gets old.”

Completed in 1991 to accompany a high-end real estate development by the same name, the semi-private University Park is a beautiful golf course in the traditional sense, particularly the first nine. There’s plenty of green grass and everything, from the hazards to the landing areas to the green, is clearly visible. While not exactly resembling Merion, University Park does have an aura of class and place that many courses in this golf rich territory lack, even if it does share with them the bulkhead supports that line each water hazard.

While conditioning has always been a priority (and one that University Park carries out with flair), it is the no-nonsense visual openness and retention of the abundant vegetation that Garl believes gives the course its classic feel.

“One of the things we learned was in most classic golf courses the native vegetation played a huge part in the look and feel of the golf courses,” he says. “You can see as you look around here how much the native vegetation means. We haven’t introduced anything that wasn’t natural.”

The fourth at University Park – the haut couture hole of the course – could very well be the model for Garl’s classic design philosophy. The 411-yard par four rolls easily through the densest tree cover on the course. The tees also are set in a ring of trees, closed off from the fairway by a swath of native marsh. Blooming white bunkers rise on the left side of the fairway and stately oaks frame the hole right. The elevated green offers an attractive target, flanked by a trio of raised bunkers on the left and a depressed waste area on the right.

The par threes at University Park, however, are the lynchpins in the design. A stronger set may not be found in Sarasota, with two playing across water recalling visions of the 2nd and 17th at Medinah No. 3, and two more possessing very Floridian roots.

A third nine was added by Garl in 1996, this one routed through the treeless territory on the eastern side of the property. With wide playing corridors and massive, relatively open greens, this course doesn’t portray the same sense of place as does the core 18, but its green complexes are the most imaginative and playful of the three nines.

Another significant element of “The Classic Design Series” was to create courses that would stand the test of time. So how is University Park resisting change after more than a decade of life?

Garl thinks just fine.

“The members are bringing us back to put in new grass and maybe a little more irrigation,” he says, “but they have a committee (that has) told us, ‘Don’t touch the golf course the way it looks or plays. Just put a new coat of paint on it and we’re happy with it.’”

“It’s ranked the number one golf course (by the Florida Golf News reader poll) in one of the most competitive markets in the United States, which Southwest Florida is. When you’re ranked number one, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

In early 2002, University Park began a transition to become a private club. When the remaining memberships are full, which could occur as early as 2003, University Park will be a member-owned equity club. For membership information call 941-355-3888, ext. 223.

University Park Country Club
7671 Park Blvd.
University Park, FL 34201
Phone: (941)359-9999
www.universitypark-fl.com

Who’s It For?

Fans of Ron Garl, those who enjoy a country club like atmosphere and country club conditions, and those who want to play the course before it goes private, possibly sometime in 2003.

Where To Stay

The new Ritz-Carlton in downtown Sarasota, opened in the Fall of 2001. Sitting on the bay overlooking the Gulf of Mexico and a marina, it’s one of the swankier hotels in their lineup. It isn’t cheap, but do you really need an excuse to stay at a Ritz? Call 941-309-2000 for reservations.

Vitals

Opened: 1991; third nine added in 1996
Architect: Ron Garl
Par: 36-36-36
Yardage 1-9: 3,548; 3,284; 3,023; 2,696; 2,402
Yardage 10-18: 3,453; 3,157; 3,067; 2,815; 2,512
Yardage 19-27: 3,699, 3,441; 3,138; 2,880; 2,487

Location

University Park is located on the north side of Sarasota. From I-75 turn west on University Parkway (exit 40) and go 2 miles. Golf course entrance is on the right (north).

Rates

Green fees are $50 before 12pm, $40 after 12, and $35 after 2:30. Call pro shop to confirm.

Walkability

Carts are mandatory, and a few long treks between green and tee would make it a difficult course to walk, but not impossible.

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.


Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Lost cell phone

    Jack Hulse wrote on: Feb 15, 2011

    We played today and enjoyed the course. One guy in our group lost an LG cell phone. Please call 941-349-9197 and let us know where and when we can pick it up. The person rode in cart number 103. Thanks! Jack Hulse

    Reply

  • almost

    Paul wrote on: Sep 6, 2010

    University Park is a well groomed and beautiful course. It is challenging and manicured. The only issue is lack of effective management. I am a relaxed and easy to please person. The outside staff was less than subtle about the fact that they resented being there. When we greeted the caddymaster at the range with a "smile and how are you" he responded with a grim face one word "bored." He treated the customers who tried to be friendly with strong distain and resentment. When we finished our round we delivered our cart to the cart area and said "have a nice weekend" to the cart gentlemen. He responded "well you see where I am stuck all weekend" and gestered to the tent covered area where he was stationed. The problem is either the employees are unhappy because of the work culture or the policies and procedures dictate tasks without focusing on the customer as an ingredient. In either case, it is a management issue. I was going to join this club today. But where evidence of mismanagement is obvious, there are probably stronger problems under the surface that would make this club undesireable for anything more than an occasional visit.

    Reply

  • Awesome Course!

    Dee wrote on: May 29, 2009

    Love playing University Park CC. Come back every year! Staff is A+ from Golf to restaurants and everywhere in between! Beautiful course, views and great food!

    Reply