Victoria Hills Golf Club in Deland: Florida's garden of golf
DELAND, Fla. -- Ron Garl stands on the practice putting green holding a digital camera at his chest, capturing photos of it and the extended practice facility beyond. He is fixated on what he sees in the miniature screen, examining how much of the broad vista before him it has captured. The setting is idyllic under the late declining sun, trees and the green undulating terrain draped in shadows and soft light. Nothing about this seems out of place. Even the practice facility is photogenic here.
It's early April and the official grand opening of Victoria Hills Golf Club is underway. Though the course has been open for play since December, it is only now being baptized as the latest and most identifiable portion of the Arvida/St. Joe community known as Victoria Park, located several miles outside DeLand. While 100 or so employees and guests begin to gather, mingling and munching food from an impressive buffet, Garl is alone, taking in the golf course. Jazz and swing favorites from the band can be heard from the hospitality tent.
Later, when Garl takes the microphone shortly after the ribbon cutting, he will graciously thank everyone involved in the project, from the owner to the landscape architect to the land itself, attributing the certain success of this visually stunning golf course to the efforts of what he calls "the team": Ed Hill of Arvida, Master Planner Brian Canin of Canin & Associates, and Director of Golf David Buth.
Now, person-to-person, gazing out over the tumultuous first hole, a 429-yard par four that is perhaps the most singularly striking starting hole in the state, he is less candid. He cuts a tall figure, his movements agile yet deliberate, and he speaks with a welcoming Alabama drawl. "This will be one of the best golf courses in all of Florida," he says immediately.
In the entire state?
"It has all the potential."
Garl would have clear insight into such matters. Few men have been as involved in the construction of Florida golf courses as the Lakeland-based architect has. Over 120 worldwide projects bear his name, with 2/3 of them located in the Sunshine State. Ron knows Florida golf thoroughly, which is why when he first saw the Victoria Hills site with Ed Hill from Arvida, he immediately said, "Ed, you better exercise that option (to buy)."
"This was a sight that we looked at, trying to decide 'Is it the right sight, is it the right place,' and when we came back from walking (it) we said, 'Guys, this is the right place," Garl remembers.
"It's got magnificent trees on it, obviously it's got some nice movement in the land, and it's a good natural sandy site."
Few recent course openings in Florida have generated excitement equal to that of Victoria Hills Golf Club. Much of the hyperbole revolves around the jaw-dropping beauty of the site and Garl's vigorous bunkering, which oscillates between the expansive and the intricate, depending on the hole. In the roughest of comparisons, Victoria Hills resembles World Woods' Pine Barrens course; both possess dense ground cover and similarly thick surrounding vegetation, as well as a sandy base that frequently ruptures at the surface to create defining visual holes.
If anything, Garl's course is the more graceful and feminine of the two, a lovely Watteau to Tom Fazio's swept, masculine Cezanne. Victoria Hills may be more topographically varied as well, and perhaps less repetitive.
Despite its photogenic aspects, the sandy washes and elaborate bunkering Garl has regaled upon Victoria Hills do provide for strategic fun. The sand is ubiquitous, yes, and severe in places, but six par fours play less than 375 yards from the professional tees while none of the par fives stretch beyond 550 yards. Overall, the bunkering is less ostentatious than merely entertaining and largely avoidable if approached with thought. Some have nevertheless suggested that Garl overplayed his hand with these hazards. He disagrees.
"When you look here," Garl explains, pointing over an intimidating stretch of deep sand, "the big waste bunkers, that's all native, that's here. We didn't have to create it. If I just dug down, that was there. That's not imported."
"You know everyone says to do something minimalist, well that is minimalist here. Even though there are some huge Pine Valley-type bunkers here, just like at Pine Valley [where] that was a natural site, that's the reason you see those-that's the character of the land. This is that sandy, rolling land that you find, fortunately, in this part of Florida."
Since the sand was already present, Garl decided to make the most of it.
"We said we wanted the sand to be the key feature," says Garl. "We actually studied what we thought were the best sand courses in the United States. We went coast-to-coast and said 'What courses are really famous for their style of bunkering.'"
"When you go around Victoria Hills, there are really collections of bunkers," Garl notes, adding that bunker styles from such courses as Salem Country Club, San Francisco Golf Club, Cypress Point, Pasatiempo, and, of course, Pine Valley, are featured on the course. "But if we did a hole, that bunker style was on that hole, and it was dedicated to that bunker concept."
While many of the holes and styles readily presented themselves to the architect, others had to be created. The green at the wonderful short par four third had to be cut into a hill and the 17th, which Garl calls "a world-class" short par 4, is also straight from the board. Here the inner corner of the dogleg left is gouged away leaving a pair of ragged, steep-faced bunkers to gobble up anything too bold or too flirtatious. Numerous, irregular bunkers lace the far side of the fairway to the green.
"Some of the holes that took the most work turned out the best," Garl proudly asserts. "Ron Whitten from Golf Digest was just here and he said his favorite hole on the entire golf course was 14. I'm sending him a note saying 'Thank you Ron', because that's the one I moved the most dirt on, the one the topo fit the least on, so he's saying I did the best job there, better than the holes Mother Nature built."
The Victoria Hills team also took serious measures to preserve the indigenous character of the site by saving as many grandfather trees as possible. Master Planner and Landscape Architect Brian Canin, whom Garl identifies as a major reason why the project succeeds on so many levels, explains: "You can see what an outstanding setting was created and the only way to do that is by integrating the planning, real estate, the golf design. One of the unique things in this project was the extraordinary effort everybody went through to save trees. There is some wonderful, mature vegetation on the site and we worked hard to move things around individual trees and to save individual trees."
Victoria Hills could easily be called "The State of Florida's Garden of Golf,"- inland settings such as this are virtually unprecedented in this state. Yet while the splendor and natural beauty of the property are notable, this is not simply eye candy and lazy golf. Victoria Hills, as one player put it, "is a blast to play". In any evaluation, it's difficult to imagine how a golfer would not rate a round here as one of their most enjoyable in Florida.
The last word goes to Garl, who also believes there is something special beyond description about Victoria Hills. He calls it magic.
"You don't create magic. It's either there or it's not there. It's kind of like charisma or chemistry with women-if it's there it's there. Well this place has the magic. We think time will be very kind to it and will find it to be one of the truly great golf courses in Florida."
"It's one of the best we've ever done. We can say that unabridged."