Look familiar? The par-3 11th hole at Golden Ocala Golf & Equestrian Club in Ocala, Fla., is a tribute to No. 12 at Augusta National. Photo courtesy of Jack Creveling
Ocala, Fla., is roughly 300 miles south of Augusta, Ga., but Jimmy Letterly might tell you they’re not really that far apart.
When he steps onto the par-3 11th tee at Golden Ocala Golf & Equestrian Club, Letterly, a member at the private club, finds the spot strikingly familiar — and that’s exactly what gives Golden Ocala a major-championship-venue feel over and over. Letterly’s vantage point resembles the famed 12th hole at the home of the Masters, Augusta National Golf Club, which Letterly has played. He says since Golden Ocala shifted the 11th tee significantly left, it resembles the angle at Augusta that Tiger Woods or Dustin Johnson would encounter. To accentuate the real-deal factor, Golden Ocala has a creek that protects the hole in a similar fashion to Rae’s Creek at Augusta.
It’s what makes Golden Ocala its own version of fantasy golf, and there’s more of it coming in 2021.
Opened 34 years ago, Golden Ocala is an 18-hole course where nearly half the layout pays homage to renowned — and recognizable — holes. The eight re-created tribute holes include:
- Two holes from the Old Course at St. Andrews in Fife, Scotland: No. 1 and the Road Hole, No. 17.
- The par-3 fourth hole from the Lower Course at Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, N.J.
- The Postage Stamp par-3 eighth hole at Royal Troon Golf Club in South Ayrshire, Scotland.
- The ninth hole at Muirfield in East Lothian, Scotland.
- Three holes from Augusta National: No. 12, the par-5 13th hole and the par-3 16th.
For Letterly, the entire set dazzles. “It’s so nice to get to play some of the greatest holes in the world in your own backyard,” he says.
What may make Golden Ocala’s GCSAA Class A superintendent Jack Creveling smile is how Letterly evaluates the whole course, not just the homage holes: “The other 10 holes are equally as good,” Letterly says. “Jack does an unbelievable job.”
A 12-year GCSAA member, Creveling understands the wow that Golden Ocala packs. His focus, though, is on the big picture. “As a superintendent, my job is to be consistent, one through 18,” says Creveling, a University of Florida graduate who has spent nearly eight years at Golden Ocala and was previously an assistant at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.
Golden Ocala’s fourth hole, a replica of the eighth hole — known as the Postage Stamp — at Royal Troon Golf Club. Photos courtesy of Jack Creveling
No. 5, a replica of No. 9 at Muirfield in Scotland.
No. 11, a replica of No. 12 at Augusta National Golf Club.
No. 14, a replica of the first hole on the Old Course.
No. 15, a replica of No. 4 on Baltusrol’s Lower Course.
Golden Ocala was the brainchild of architect Ron Garl. “I thought it would be good for golf, good for the game,” Garl says. He visited a number of Florida sites, including several near his home in Lakeland, but those failed to match Ocala’s rolling terrain. “We didn’t have Google Earth at that time, so I walked it,” Garl says, adding that it cost nearly $500,000 for images that offered the precise appearances of the elite holes. Each course was asked for permission and to approve the likeness of the replica holes. The response? “Some said it was OK. Some places never responded,” Garl says. “One of the courses in Scotland said it would be an honor and a privilege.”
The Postage Stamp hole presents maintenance challenges for Creveling’s crew. Playing 128 yards from the tips (at Royal Troon, the hole is 123 yards), the green is only 3,500 square feet and ranges from 15 yards wide to as narrow as 10 yards wide on the back portion. Golf legend Gene Sarazen double-bogeyed the original in the 1923 Open Championship, eventually losing by one stroke. “(The green) has some steep runoffs. We use a push reel mower and make sure the ball is trundling down into those bunkers,” Creveling says. “It’s the only hole we use that mower.”
Golden Ocala even tries to mimic the colorful azaleas spectators see during traditional Masters weeks. “We have some azaleas scattered about. They last only a few weeks,” Creveling says. “We also use roses. They aren’t an exact match to Augusta, but the color lasts throughout the season.”
As for the Scottish-inspired holes, Creveling says, “It calls on us to do unique things. The warm, prolonged summer Florida climate prevents Golden Ocala from growing tall fescue found in Scotland. So, we mow our bermudagrass mounds at 8 inches with limited mowing annually to mimic the (Scottish) look on mounds surrounding the green.”
Jack Creveling, superintendent at Golden Ocala, on the course’s Postage Stamp hole. Photo by Tammy Griffin/TammyPortraitArt.com
The best women golfers in the world will test their skills at Golden Ocala this month. The LPGA Tour’s Drive On Championship at Golden Ocala, presented by JTBC, is scheduled March 4-7. The club has hosted the LPGA before, but that was five years ago, and the layout has changed in that time. In 2020, the 20-year-old greens were rebuilt. The top 6 inches of thatch and organic matter were stripped before being regrassed with TifEagle, which was used in 2000. “We recovered greens areas that had been lost from when it had been overseeded wall to wall. We modified some slopes to accommodate for today’s green speeds,” says Creveling, adding that course length was stretched and more tees were built last year as well.
Meanwhile, the building continues. A new nine is in the works (Garl’s senior designer, Ricky Nix, is collaborating with Creveling on it) that will expand the facility to 27 holes, and they’re hoping for a November opening. Yes, tributes are included — the church pews bunker between the third and fourth fairways at Oakmont (Pa.) Country Club; the par-5 fourth hole from Bethpage Black in Farmingdale, N.Y; and the par-3 10th hole from the West Course at Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y., which features a house in the background. Because Golden Ocala doesn’t have a home to work with, there will be a halfway house to replicate that experience.
“Most people don’t get to play those holes. It’s fun to be part of something that has that kind of character to it,” says Creveling, an accomplished player in his own right who has fired a 2-under-par 70 from the tips at Golden Ocala. “How cool is it to see that every day? It’s an exciting time at Ocala, and I’m glad to be in the middle of it.”
Howard Richman is GCM’s associate editor.