El Diablo Golf and Country Club: A Most Authentic Florida Treat
Citrus Springs, FL - One of the top ten courses in Florida resides just east of the small town of Citrus Springs, near, well, not much else.
Of all the places to build a nationally acclaimed course, this is as unlikely a location as any. The secluded El Diablo is shrouded in thick woods, backwoods if you will, with scant few homes or industry to speak of nearby. Neither of the two major roads that lead in provide so much as a glimpse the course. First impressions aren't much.
It's all a very inconspicuous introduction to one of the most authentic treats in Florida golf.
El Diablo is a visually impressive golf course. The intricacies of landscape and the richness of modulation, particularly near the greens, takes longer to absorb than there is time for. Even for the core locals, the group of players from Citrus Springs, Dunnellon, and Crystal River who can be found at the course every day, there is something new to be gleaned from the course's many shapes.
A Modest Beginning
For years Steve Pyles, a successful anesthesiologist from Ocala, spoke of building a golf course. For him and his group of investors, it wasn't a matter of if, but of when and where.
"We were working on purchasing land for a course for seven or eight years, just down the street from here," says General Manager Nathan Pyles, who is also Steve's son and part owner of El Diablo, making this a local and a family affair. "It just wasn't getting done. Then this property came available. We never knew what we had when we purchased it, until we started clearing the trees."
Jim Fazio was hired to assist with the routing and design, but the Pyles remained active in the design stages. As they walked the land and began studying the topography, dropping balls in the dirt and hitting them into what they imagined would be the trademark greens, the course began to formulize in their minds. "My father played golf all over," Pyles says. He had a clear idea of what type of course he wanted."
At the point when Fazio and the Pyles were walking and sketching El Diablo, it was little more than a jungle, and the construction of a golf course in these deep woods would become a massive undertaking. Yet in July of 1998 it had been completed, and one year later Golf Digest would name this piece of land "The Best New Affordable Course in America."
Driving into El Diablo is a little like arriving at an off-the-beaten-path Cracker Barrel that's nestled back against the pines off a narrow state highway, or the home of a relative who never made it into the city. For the moment, the clubhouse is nothing more than a temporary building, consisting of not much more than a roof for the desk, some snacks, and two offices. The entry into the small parking lot lacks nearly all ornamentation.
The minimalist offering is mere subterfuge. Who knew that this modest structure is actually a portal into an Eden of golf, depending on your understanding of that place?
Beyond the clubhouse the Pyles, Fazio, et al, have birthed, a visually spectacular garden is cloaked amongst the pines and hardwoods common to this part of the state. Not only does El Diablo move fluidly up and down over the terrain, but a concerted effort has been made to further beautify the course.
The botanical touch is unrelenting. Every hole offers exhibits of flowers and varieties of plant life. It lines and crosses fairways, appears in bunkers, and frames shots. "There's more landscaping here than at almost any other course," Nathan Pyles explains, adding that the scenery was added strictly for aesthetic purposes.
Unique looks were created at each turn. "We wanted to make sure every single hole was different," says Pyles, not only different from each other, but from other holes too commonly experienced in Florida.
Where are we?
At a time when the highest compliment a Florida golf course can be paid is that it plays like a course in North Carolina, El Diablo plays like a course in, say, Georgia. Or Alabama. Or Carolina or Eastern Texas. The point is that it possesses none of the tired looks the Florida terrain too often produces, and none of the popularly manufactured ones either. "When my father and I started to examine the property, we knew it was a great piece of land for a golf course," confides Nathan Pyles. "We were pleasantly surprised."
To their credit, they did not try to force a golf course style that clashed with the land. "The course looks very natural, like it's been here 100 years," Nathan Pyles says. "But the truth is we moved a lot of dirt."
Few would know. El Diablo is laid naturally over the bumps and hillocks here like a carpet. It seems like the land was waiting to be a golf course. And despite what Pyles says, no number of D-9's could create the uphill-downhill effects of 9, 10, 11, 12, and 13.
"The credit goes to the shapers," Pyles insists, citing the work of Vero Golf Constructions, led by Mike Polverari. "They're really the ones who made it happen. They're the best construction company in the business. Mike's got a great touch and vision."
Some of Polverari's best work is visible in the bunkering, fetching sweeps of sand and sharp craters dug at angles largely forgotten in golf course architecture. If it isn't the swiftly moving greens that players remember with El Diablo, it will be the artistic presentation of the bunkers.
Most holes feature on one side or another enormous pods dimpled with white sand that rise to define fairway boundaries, and traps that are cut deep into the sides of green complexes and melt longingly away into the pine needles, trees, and flowers. The outlines and perversity of sand provide the course a simple visual balance against the mass of greenery.
A Golf Ideal
The Pyles had a clear vision of what El Diablo should be.
"The goal was to build the best possible golf course that could be made. We've tried to build a course that incorporates the type of golf shots that we like to play, and that we think most golfers like to play."
That type of golf is an advocacy of the aerial game. It calls for placement drives and intelligent, contemplative approach shots into swift, undulating greens. At 7,045 yards and 75.3/147 championship rating and slope, the course delivers a supreme challenge for the advanced player. A milder test between 6,688 yard and 5,144 yards is also available, and from these distances El Diablo is quite playable without becoming banal.
Like most excellent designs, the key to El Diablo is the greens, which are large and sloped but slide in a fashion not commonly found in the area, or in the state. They are oriented so as to give the player open looks from a variety of vantages in the fairway, but certain pin placements are accessible only from certain angles.
Fortunately these wicked greens are soft and specifically designed to hold iron shots. Though the fairways are closely bordered by trees, there is enough room in them to allow different lines to be played. Nonetheless, getting to the correct side of the green at El Diablo is a must. Calculating the proper position is every bit the intellectual endeavor.
Pin placement dictates how the course will play from day to day. The proper way to advance upon El Diablo is from the pin backward, calculating in reverse the most advantageous manner of attack, keeping in mind that putting from above the holes is a virtual death sentence. Pyles says they typically keep the greens running 91/2 to 101/2 on the stimpmeter. "We like to keep them quick," he deadpans. When the Hooters or Teardrop Tours pass through on their annual stops, the greens are shaved to 10 or 12 or more, or one level below glass.
El Diablo asserts itself on the first tee, a 441-yard downhill par four (from the championship tees) featuring a fairway that tumbles wildly as it nears the wide green. A good example of how an absolutely diabolical pin placement affects the strategy is when the hole is cut toward the front. Anything stroked from above the hole or from the middle of the green will have a hard time staying on. The best play is to actually lay-up just short of the green and to the right of the front bunker, and chip up.
The stimulating 529-yard fifth rides a slope down to a green guarded short by two bunkers. Aggressive tee shots that avoid the sand on the right will settle on a wide launching pad overlooking a green that runs away left to right at the bottom of the hill. From this shooting gallery, the green appears reachable, offering a choice to lay up straight, fly right at it, play to the bunkers short, pound it down the left side and ride the contours in, or lay up left in the spacious landing zone that provides the best view of the putting surface.
The fifteenth hole is a solid 3 par at 187 yards, offering an alluring front right pin and difficult center and back left positions. The hole's notoriety, other than the pleasing view of its shared green complex with the 13th and the 14th tee, comes from the monumental pot bunker guarding its front, one of the deepest and most penal this side of the Road Hole. A Dante-esque moniker such as "the Devil's ***hole" (in keeping with the devilish motif) is not too severe a title for this steep and gnarly trap.
A Relevant Course
The fact that El Diablo could be anywhere in the country makes it all the more important for Florida, a state infamous for it's lack of geographical variety, a place where every golf course is flat. In this climate, El Diablo is distinctive and vivid.
The fact that it lays outside a town of only three thousand or so people, with the nearest major metropolitan area (Tampa) more than an hour south, protects it from over stimulation. There is little danger of it becoming overrun with tourists and condos. And it's obscure placement takes nothing away from either its quality or its prospects. After all, Pinehurst was once off the beaten track.
What's more, if you believe that golf courses are organic products that are never fully realized, there is evidence that it is passionate insistence that makes possible their amelioration. Golf has a wonderful tradition of careful owners who constantly and meticulously create and then refine their courses. Pinehurst is the best example. Donald Ross worked for decades honing #2, attempting to achieve in it his conception of the perfect course. Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts hired the best architects of their era, one after another, to tweak Augusta National. Jack Nicklaus is once again updating Muirfield Village, and Mother Nature has never stopped at St. Andrews.
The Pyles seem to have their eyes in this direction. There is a plan for a true clubhouse, located possibly off the quarry on the eighteenth hole, but there is also talk of another nine holes first, maybe more. Golf comes first. Pyles states, "We haven't stopped with all the extra touches. It seems like we're never done. We're still growing, still trying to improve."
Judging by what they already done, the future of El Diablo and other accompanying projects looks exciting.
Rates range from $49 to a twilight rate of $29. Call the clubhouse for exact fees and directions.