Rebuild it and they will come

What was once old is new again as the trend for golf course renovations continues, Florida's St. Johns County serving as an example

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At St. Johns Golf Club, coffin bunkering work left of the 10th green was completed this summer. 

In one of the nation’s fastest growing areas where developed green spaces are getting harder to unearth, St. Johns County, Florida, offers a microcosm for a national trend in golf course construction. The mantra should be: Renovate to motivate.

In three locales in the Northeast Florida region, many course-adjacent residents and regional golfers are enduring the mostly summer-long, no-home course doldrums in 2022. The effect is akin to watching paint dry or water boil as they wait for growing grass to conclude at least a five-month golf respite. It’s as if a secret, massive landscaping venture is going on in backyards instead of golf carts passing. Heavy equipment trucks in tons of sand and dirt to rework greens, tees and fairways and work crews are insistent that curious foot traffic does not encroach on the work.

That’s a small price to pay for what can be deemed a new course, indicated by the National Golf Foundation estimation that at least 80 percent of all golf course work nationally in the past five years has been renovations with a total investment of more than $9 billion. Most of that work is in the most populous states, California, Florida and Texas. The NGF facility database notes public facilities that have or are undergoing renovations include The Match Course at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida; Sailfish Sands reversable muni course in Stuart, Florida; the bunker-less muni Preserve at Eisenhower Golf Course near Annapolis, Maryland; and The Yards 12-hole course in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida — also a St. Johns County publicly accessible course. The list also includes classic private courses such as Baltusrol Country Club’s Lower in Springfield, New Jersey; Oakland Hills Country Club in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan; and Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Maryland.

“It feels less ominous to own a golf course these days,” says John Brown, the CEO of Brown Golf. “A lot of properties that are being renovated have a little age on them, like our course at Julington Creek. When there’s a lot of play, it encourages owners to look at their assets and reinvest in the courses. The market where our course is located is fantastic. You’re probably not making the right decisions in business if you don’t reinvest in properties right now, especially here.”

St. Johns County shows that clearly. Julington Creek Golf Club, a public facility, has been closed since June to rebuild the greens for the first time in its 35-year history. The county-owned course, St. Johns Golf Club, has been closed since January for an $8-million intensive renovation from 27 to 18 holes, unusually funded by various county resources. Both reopen in the fall, each with an approximate $10 increase in greens fees. Lastly and in contrast, an age 55-over community, Stillwater, has opened this summer with a new and very different Bobby Weed course design amidst a private community and in concert with a large homebuilder.

With the arrival of nearly 1,200 tons of sand in April, the Jurlington Creek Golf Club parking lot took on the appearance of a massive sandbox as renovations to the course's bunkers began.

Located in the southern shadow of Jacksonville and approximately 30 minutes west of PGA Tour headquarters in Ponte Vedra Beach, these three courses display an uptick in golf course work in a county where the population has nearly doubled over the past decade, according to U.S. Census figures. This direction is a prime financial result of the pandemic’s infusion of increased golf rounds.

Julington Creek is located at the center of a community laid out over 4,000 acres with 5,800 homes. The golf course and the community property owners’ association are entirely separate entities, with no working relationship other than being within the same boundaries. For a couple decades, the biggest drawback to the Robert Walker and Steve Melnyk separate nine designs was that the greens were often very spotty and overall conditioning was inconsistent, mostly due to no green renovations ever taking place and partially due to three ownership groups.

Brown Golf, based in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, purchased Julington Creek and sister course Windsor Parke, located in Jacksonville, in 2015 on a 20-year lease. The 2021 season drew a brisk 40,000 rounds and further motivated construction after originally planning to start in 2020. The previous configuration remains intact with work consisting of elimination of nearly half of the course’s bunkers and shrinking greenside bunkering to make the course more playable and to cut back on maintenance costs and taking down 125 trees that infringed on grass growth and greens and had become too large for their original positioning. Approximately 1,200 tons of sand were loaded into the parking lot in April and the greens are being planted with TifEagle bermudagrass as the new surface. The reopening is scheduled for October after nearly $1 million in renovation work in what is termed a mid-sized project scope or “resetting the foundation” as Brown calls it.

The St. Johns Golf Club is a much larger scale revival. The course, located in a 550-home subdivision, was established from farmland as a county-owned facility in 1988 and operated as a 27-hole course for years despite poor conditioning and with nine holes going fallow a decade ago. After weighing whether to sell some of the land for housing, the county opted in 2021 to approve funding on an $8 million renovation to develop an 18-hole course, with the money drawn from recreation impact fees, a transportation trust fund, utility fund, bed tax and general fund. The county will use the excess 80 acres to build a new fire station and sheriff’s substation and to-be-determined amenities in a southern expanse of county where massive growth is soon coming.

Course architect Erik Larsen is leading the development of the new course and brainstormed with director of golf Wes Tucker to bring back old-school design principles — “Traditional throwback,” Tucker calls it — by taking three overgrown holes and changing others drastically to produce wide fairways, Biarritz, Punchbowl and Redan green designs in places and square, low maintenance "coffin" bunkers throughout. These shoutouts to C.B. McDonald and Seth Raynor are rare offerings for a public course that has attracted as many as 70,000 rounds in a year. An expansive short-game area is also burgeoning in what will be a completely new track.

The first new course build around Jacksonville, Florida, this century is Stillwater Golf and Country Club, a Bobby Weed design that incorporates European-style all stacked-sod bunker faces.

“This course is one of the real jewels of St. Johns County,” says Henry Dean, the chair of the St. Johns County Commission. “It’s a wonderful amenity and the public has demonstrated that, with about 35 percent of the rounds coming from out of the county. We were able to fund this not from the general ad valorem tax that affect homeowners, but to utilize the 7 million visitors per year that we see here. As a commissioner, I would be irresponsible to walk away from this golf course.”

Stillwater Golf and Country Club, developed by homebuilder Lennar with management by Hampton Golf, is the first entirely new course built in the Jacksonville market in 20 years. The layout features all stacked-sod bunker faces (using more durable artificial turf layering from UK inventor EcoBunker), gently rolling fairways and smallish greens, loops of less than nine or 18 holes and a technologically designed practice facility. The Bobby Weed design will initially be semi-private, with a higher green-fee rate than most area courses (at least $125), before returning to a private, community facility within a couple years. Community rules require each household to have a resident age 55 or above and no one can be age 18 or younger.

“When I hear superintendents say they’re spending as many hours on bunker maintenance as they are on greens, I listen,” Weed says. “Stillwater’s bunkers give us a distinct look and they’re a throwback along with offering lower maintenance and longer lifespan.”

Weed was speaking in late July from a bulldozer seat while reworking Waynesville Inn and Golf Club in western North Carolina. He’s also renovating other properties, including Spanish Oaks in Austin, Texas, his original 2004 design.

"From what I’ve seen, courses are still closing, just less, and the renovations are much more comprehensive, not just basics, with costs approaching what it took to build a new course 20 years ago," Weed said. "Renovations are so prevalent that I’m starting to redo my own original courses."