Eagle Dunes Golf Club epitomizes Mike Dasher to the proverbial tee

By Derek Duncan, Contributor

SORRENTO, Fla. - During Mike Dasher's tenure as Art Hills' Southeastern U.S. project manager from 1980 to 1996, he became accustomed to increasingly larger budgets and superiorsites as the firm grew in stature. By the time he left Hills to embark on his own in 1996, thebiggest Hills projects could rival most national firms in size, support, and constructionbudget.

Eight years into his solo career, Dasher has yet to see his commissions rise to the nationallyprominent levels that his former employer's did in the early 1990s (thanks in no small part toDasher's own efforts). To date, Dasher's projects operate on a more humanistic, intimate scale,typically in the budget range of one to two million dollars per design, a mere fraction of what heformerly had at his disposal with Hills (one of Hills's more prominent Southeastern designs, TheGolf Club of Georgia, a 36-hole private club in Alpharetta, was constructed for a reported $40million).

For his part, Dasher seems to have embraced working on the shorter side of the budgetary scale,finding different ways to demonstrate how deep pockets aren't always necessary to achieveinnovative results. Currently there's no better place to view his minimalist, grass roots style ofdesign than around Orlando at a noteworthy triad of courses including HighlandsReserve (1998), North Shore(2001), and most recently, Eagle Dunes, opened in 2003.

Located roughly 30 minutes north of Orlando near Sorrento, Eagle Dunes exhibits qualities thatarea players will recognize from Dasher's previous efforts: an efficient, walkable routing; broadfairways; a naturalistic approach to ground contour; lack of extraneous mounding or features; and ascintillating mixture of holes emboldened by exuberant par-5s and both short and prodigiouspar-4s.

The issue for Dasher at Eagle Dunes (and the same could be said for all of his designs, inFlorida, Texas, and Georgia) was to coax in informed and effective design from the property withoutthe luxury of "creating" a golf course where needed. Because of budgetary limitations, the designis inextricably linked to whatever intricacies the ground naturally possessed, succeeding orfailing largely on how the architect utilized those quirks and charismas. If the landscape wereflat or listless, the option to change it-to shovel it around in a Jones-ian (or Hills-ian) manner- would not be an option.

Fortunately the Eagle Dunes property - a broad wash of sand and flowing ridges, broken by ahandful of tree clusters and several low, wet parcels - was endowed with the kind of up and downpersonality that translates well into golf holes, at least under the guidance of Dasher.Structurally the site was close to what he found at Highlands Reserve, but without the pinesanctuaries.

"The properties are similar in that they both have a deep sand base and good movement in thetopography," Dasher says. "The Eagle Dunes site is one of the best I've ever worked on."

The riding movement of the property is ultimately the source of Eagle Dunes' character. Theridge to the north side of the property gives the routing a platform from which to launch outwardat numbers one and 10, as well as something to aspire toward on its return to the clubhouse; bothnine and 18, robust par-5s, ride home along the crest of this ridge from opposing directions.

After a downhill, warm-up par-5 the routing turns serious. The 463-yard par-4 second(championship yardage) begins with an unsettling right-to-left drive over a diagonal wetland to a fairway that also slopes right-to-left. Number three is a mid-length par-3 to a shallow green set staunchly over a water hazard, followed by a drivable 316-yard par-4 around a sandy arroyo.

This juxtaposed start will be played out continuously over the round, demonstrating Dasher's feel for pacing and controlled energy. Even during a string of four consecutive par-4's (four through seven), there's no sense of repetition - each hole features a unique setup and plays to avastly different yardage.

The topography intensifies on the second nine as the holes cover more undulous terrain, weaving between dunes and bumpers, or cresting and sliding off slopes. The player is kept alert with a stretch run of pars numbering 4-5-4-3-4-5 that slowly rises toward the house, highlighted by the zigging par-5 14th and the stout 208-yard 16th.

Dasher's Orlando output could easily serve as the model for how to construct better golf courses for less money. At least they prove that while millions of dollars might buy better facilities and landscaping, it's not necessary for engaged, thought-provoking golf. Investors and municipalities should take note.

If there's a drawback to tight purse strings, however, it might be the inability to correct problem areas in the routing. It's uncertain if the small lake in the 10th fairway was man-made or existing, if it might have been relocated, or if the hole could have been designed around it, butas it currently resides - cutting off the landing area almost completely - it seems terribly out of character. The elevated nature of the tee on this par-4 beckons players to swing the driver freely,but most will lay up short of the lake with an iron or fairway metal since there's little benefit to trying to place a drive on the sliver of fairway to the right of the water, considering the raised green favors no particular angle. As such, the hazard is more awkward than strategic, more risk than reward.

And while the low-level green complexes are thankfully devoid of unnecessary mounding or other innocuous features, they're also on the unenthusiastic side. Most are simply tilted back to front,or separated with a riser-tier. Perhaps the modest contour is acquiescence to the budget or the windy site, but an opportunity to really punch up the design with a bold set of greens might have been missed (the exception, of course, is the large 12th with a trough running through the center,a green Dasher says his shapers termed "the giant butt-crack").


It will eventually be adorned by a housing development, when and if urban sprawl creeps this far north, but for the meantime Eagle Dunes is pleasantly open and bare, not to mention inexpensive.

Tee to green the course is a joy to play, keeping the golfer entertained and off-balance,especially when the wind is up - for sportiness it's difficult to beat. Orlando is rife with pricey, immaculately serviced courses and Eagle Dunes fits splendidly into a growing counter-culture, one of a handful of courses surrounding Orlando that stress affordability,walker-accessibility, and no-frills, naturalistic golf. It's a category that Dasher himself has helped to create.

Eagle Dunes Golf Club
24000 Marabella Drive
Sorrento, FL 32776
(352) 357-0123

Opened: 2003
Architect: Mike Dasher, Dasher Golf Design
Par: 36-36-72
Yardage: 5,101 to 7,024

Derek DuncanDerek Duncan, Contributor

Derek Duncan's writing has appeared in TravelGolf.com, FloridaGolf.com, OrlandoGolf.com, GulfCoastGolf.com, LINKS Magazine and more. He lives in Atlanta with his wife Cynthia and is a graduate of the University of Colorado with interests in wine, literary fiction, and golf course architecture.

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