Not Out of the Woods Yet With groundbreaking set to start, preserving a rare plant threatened to stop the project

May 06, 2001

"I really appreciate the effort the design team has made," says
associate professor of landscape architecture, Peggy Carr,
looking across the big conference table toward the golf course
architects, the consulting botanists, the civil engineer and the
assistant athletic director. "It's extraordinary." The smiles of
the petitioners are starting to bloom when Carr throws the
unexpected punch. "I move," she says, "that we reject any
encroachment to the Northwest Quadrant plants." The room is
silent, as if the design team can't absorb the words. An eyebrow
arches here (puzzlement), a mouth gapes there (disbelief). "I
second the motion," says professor Walter Judd, a botanist. Just
like that, This Old Course is on life support.

It's Monday, April 23, the scheduled day for groundbreaking on
the University of Florida Golf Course restoration project.
Bulldozers are supposed to be roaring, trees are supposed to be
falling. That, however, was before the design team learned that
the wooded strip it planned to clear for its new 5th hole was
home to several rare plants, including a colony of spotted
wake-robin trillium. Now the designers are on their third trip to
the university's Lakes, Vegetation and Landscaping Committee, a
12-member board that reviews campus development and makes
recommendations to university vice president Ed Poppell. On its
last visit the design team was told that it had to reduce the
impact on the 6.6 acres of woods in the northwest corner of the
site to get the committee's approval.

The course architects, Weed Golf Course Design, went back to the
drawing board and cooked up Design Option F, which moved the 5th
hole 20 yards to the east and shortened the 15th hole, a par-3,
from about 225 yards to 210. Besides the weakening of the 15th
hole, the new plan eliminates the course nursery and one of the
practice greens for the Gators' golf teams. But Option F saved
80% of the threatened plants.

"Clients are always telling us, 'We want you to restore our
original course,'" Bobby Weed had earlier told the committee
during the designers' presentation. Right on cue a projector
displayed a 1935 aerial photograph of the course, built on the
site of a hog farm. In the picture, only a few stunted oaks
populate an otherwise treeless layout. "To do that," Weed said,
"we'd have to log the whole site."

Speaking in defense of the trillium, retired botany professor
Dan Ward pushed the time frame back a few years: to the
Pleistocene Epoch, around 15,000 B.C. That's when the advance of
glaciers in North America cooled the climate to the point that
Trillium maculatum--a three-leaf plant found in abundance in
today's Appalachian Mountains--could grow in north-central
Florida. It was a marvel, Ward says, how these plants survived
the subsequent shift to a warmer climate. "This is a unique
ecosystem...the equivalent of the sequoias. Back off! Keep this
area sacrosanct."

That's exactly what the committee is about to do when Weed asks
for clarification. Has Professor Carr changed her position? Is
she now saying that the standard is zero encroachment on the
habitat, or is she asking for less encroachment? Carr hesitates.
"Couldn't we just delay 365 days?" she asks. The design team
reacts with gurgling noises and groans. Contracts have been
signed. A pump station for irrigating the course is on order, as
is the turfgrass. The workers are poised, and they have families
to feed. "Where there's a will, there's a way," Professor Carr
responds. But then she softens, accepting the goal of "saving
more of the plants."

That leaves the issue of timing. Can the committee hold a special
meeting to consider a revised routing plan and make its
recommendation before the university's Land Use committee gives
final approval to the whole package in early May? Better yet--this
suggestion from Weed--can the committee meet again this very day?
"We're all here," he says. "We can have a new option ready by
this afternoon."

Weed is desperate; it's as if he's hitting driver from the
fairway on the final hole with out-of-bounds on both sides and
water guarding the green. The committee members, striving to be
fair, consult their calendars and agree to meet again at four
o'clock to consider a revised plan. "Bobby saved the day,"
whispers Jay Brown, the team's consulting engineer.

The design team hustles down the hallway to another room, where
Weed's senior associate course designer, Scot Sherman, slaps a
routing plan on the table and begins to sketch. "There is an
option," he says. "You cut down this big oak tree..." His tone
is sarcastic, but he's trying to figure out how to lengthen the
par-3 6th hole in the woods to the south, which would make up for
the shortening of number 15.

Weed, bent over the plans, straightens up and says, "I need to go
to the site."

Ten minutes later we're dodging hanging vines and stepping over
broken bottles in the disputed area behind the golf course
maintenance building. The trillium plants, marked with little
blue flags, are spectacularly unspectacular, indistinguishable to
the untrained eye from the noxious weeds that choke the hammock.
Bobby Weed, brainstorming furiously, is considering every
option--shortening number 15 even further, lengthening number 6,
narrowing the drainage basin south of the new maintenance barn,
lengthening the par-3 8th hole, flipping the nines so that the
longer par-3 will come later in the round. "Ideally, you want the
course to strengthen coming in," Wood explains. Sherman looks at
his watch. It's 1:43.

By 2:15 the designers have made their way across town to the
engineering offices of Brown & Cullen, where Sherman joins Jay
Brown in sketching out solutions to the impasse. On the new
drawings Option F is shaded in orange and Option G in blue--the
university's colors. The new plan calls for the 5th tee to be 50
feet farther east, which preserves the buffer of trees that
shades the trillium. The 15th green slides 65 feet to the east,
which, with the change in the nearby drainage basin, reduces the
impact on the woods by an additional acre. Brown checks his
numbers with a calculator, ventures a tired smile and says,
"Option F protected 80 percent of the habitat. With this plan, we
save 94 percent." He sends off the drawing to be plotted and then
sinks back in his chair with a sigh. It's 2:46.

At 3:50 the design team is back at the athletic department,
preparing its final presentation. Assistant athletic director
Chip Howard says to Weed, "So, Bobby, are you all right with
this?" Weed grunts his assent.

At four o'clock the Lakes, Vegetation and Landscaping Committee
reconvenes. The professors listen to a brief presentation and
bend over the table to study the new plan. "This provides a much
better buffer for the population," says Judd. Howard, hoping to
close the deal, says, "We think this is a plan everybody can live
with." After a few more minutes of amicable discussion Professor
Carr says, "I move we approve the modified plan. It may not be
ideal, but it's a hell of a lot better than it was in the
morning." The motion is seconded, and at 4:22 p.m. every
committee member raises a hand.

The golf course renovation plan is approved.

In the next installment of This Old Course, the bulldozers will
roar, trees will fall, and--yeah, yeah, that's what we said last
time. But really, the demolition phase is about to begin. The
last apparent hurdle is the university's Land Use and Facilities
Planning committee, which meets on May 1. Be there or be
square.

For previous installments of This Old Course go to
golfplus@cnnsi.com.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID WALBERG At the 11th hour (from left) Howard, Sherman and Weed inspected the disputed area. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID WALBERG The trillium plants are spectacularly unspectacular, indistinguishable to the untrained eye from noxious weeds choking the hammock.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)