Kingsway: The Golf Course that Charley Changed Forever

The 1st hole at Kingsway Country Club (Photo courtesy of Jimmy Karr)

Lake Suzy, Fla.

The national senior amateur golf circuit is known for its wondrous assortment of excellent golf courses.

None of the other courses, however, can match Kingsway Country Club for a survival tale.

Kingsway, located near Port Charlotte, Fla., opened in 1976. Thus it celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2016.

The 7th hole at Kingsway Country Club (Photo courtesy of Jimmy Karr)
The 7th hole at Kingsway Country Club (Photo courtesy of Jimmy Karr)

The course hosts the annual Kingsway Senior Invitational, won this year by Mike Occi of Columbia, Md. Many first-time players have remarked that the layout has a “Pine Valley look” to it. That, of course, is a reference to the highly regarded Pine Valley (N.J.) Golf Club, which is often subjectively ranked as the No. 1 course in the Unites States.

Before Charley, the Kingsway layout looked nothing like Pine Valley. It was full of mature trees and was something of a natural wonderland. In a few hours, Charley changed all that.

Charley would be Hurricane Charley, which in 2004 roared right over the top of Kingsway at speeds exceeding 150 miles an hour.

Charley was the strongest hurricane to hit southwest Florida since Hurricane Donna in 1960. As Charley roared up the Gulf coast, it appeared to be headed toward Tampa. Unexpectedly it veered right, directly toward Kingsway.

Ron Garl designed the original Kingsway. After the assault by Charley, he returned in 2004 and essentially designed it all over again.

Garl tells a revealing story about the trees that were blown down or uprooted at Kingsway. A tree removal company came in and estimated there were 2,000 trees littering the course.

“The contractor took a chance,” Garl said. “He was gambling that the number of trees would be 2,000 or less. He said to us, ‘Here’s my rate for all of them.’ When he got to 3,000, he started crying.”

Garl, faced with 3,000 fewer trees than before, was forced to adopt a new philosophy.

“Back in the 1970s, we had nice trees,” Garl said. “The original idea was to keep it as natural as possible. Suddenly the trees were gone.”

A view of the clubhouse at Kingsway Country Club (Photo courtesy of Jimmy Karr)
A view of the clubhouse at Kingsway Country Club (Photo courtesy of Jimmy Karr)

So Garl created huge, sprawling waste areas and defined the course with large stretches of beautiful white sand juxtaposed with the green, green grass of West Florida.

“Charley hit Kingsway with full force,” Garl related. “The clubhouse had a hole in the roof so big that you could drive a Greyhound bus through it.”

Meanwhile, Garl learned a valuable lesson about the members at Kingsway, which operates as a private club but allows a limited amount of outside play.

“That club had the greatest membership,” Garl said. “They stepped up to support the club. They actually got out there and physically worked on things. It was a heartwarming event to work with them. We kept chipping away and reopened in about four months. It’s stood the test of time since then. Kingsway is really extraordinary. It has a special place in my heart. That’s what golf is all about.”

Charley caused 10 deaths and $15.4 billion in damage. At the time, it was the second costliest hurricane in United States history.

“Every time I come here,” Garl said, “I give thanks for the good people at Kingsway. It’s an amazing story.”

Jim Achenbach, Senior Golf Insider          achenslice@aol.com