Golfers who were planning to play the rejuvenated Bobby Jones Golf Course this fall are going to miss their tee time. That’s because the schedule of a fall opening of the nearly century-old city-owned property turned out to be a little too ambitious.
The city of Sarasota has rescheduled opening of the course until late spring as delays in getting the project started, resulting in more delays caused by weather, have slowed the progress of restoring the property to its original Donald Ross 18-hole layout.
“The schedule for construction was very aggressive,” said Richard Mandell, whose Pinehurst, North Carolina-based golf course architecture firm is designing the $12.5 million rebuild. “We had almost zero days that we could have sacrificed to the weather in this process.”
Viewed from Fruitville Road, where four parallel holes will play, no real progress is apparent. But along Circus Boulevard and 17th Street, earth movers can be viewed reshaping fairways and returning the Donald Ross-designed greens to their original specs. Because irrigation is being replaced from the water source outward, the holes along Fruitville will be among the last ones graded.
"The irrigation was approximately 45 years old,” said Sarasota Parks and Recreation General Manager Sue Martin, who oversaw operations of the 45-hole Bobby Jones Golf Complex for 14 years prior to its closing two years ago. “We couldn’t get parts for it anymore due to its age.”
Natural irrigation was a problem as well. Predating modern water management techniques, many of the holes were often saturated as the course was built, and over the years expanded, below flood level. Much of the work to date has been mitigation of the persistent swampiness.
“The golf course never drained properly,” said Mandell. "It was always wet and that was the big downfall. It was built without any regard to floodplain elevations, so it’s no surprise why it was always wet. That's OK because back in the 1920s, and even into the ‘50s and ‘60s, nobody knew about any of that. While we are building fairways we have been creating more conveyances for water so that when we do get this course restored, it’s not going to be wet.”
Although the course is being restored to its original 18-hole layout — the remainder of the property will host a new driving range, a nine-hole “adjustable” par-3 course, public park and wetlands — regular players may notice the contouring changes to facilitate improved drainage. Likewise, the greens are being reshaped to the original Donald Ross putting surfaces. Mandell’s green shaper arrived on site last Monday.
“The shapes were gone. The Donald Ross greens were gone. Who knows for how long? Since the '50s or '60s, certainly since the 1987 renovation,” Mandell said.
Management now on site
To the untrained eye, opening Bobby Jones by next spring — or even next summer — might appear unlikely. Large mounds of dirt are piled in the area that was once a parking lot, alongside bundles of pipes and other pieces of irrigation equipment. The old granite tee markers for the American and British courses lie unceremoniously together in a row like so many tombstones, a macabre reminder of better days gone by.
Just beyond the overgrown main entrance to the golf complex off Circus Boulevard, massive pieces of concrete culvert await installation. Dump trucks filled with material scurry back and forth, arriving from far reaches of the property to a staging area near where the clubhouse once stood.
The roughing in is progressing well, Mandell said, but the late start has pitted the site work against the rainy season, the almost daily afternoon thunderstorms regularly pushing back against progress.
“It’s a little challenging right now because we're having a lot of rain,” Martin said. "Those afternoon rains are kind of setting us back. It's making it wet and muddy out there and you can't move big equipment. They’re trying to get as much done as possible before before the rain.”
Also running behind schedule is the design work for a temporary clubhouse and other temporary buildings — in the absence of the planned permanent facilities — required to operate a golf course. Last week, the City Commission approved a management contract with Indigo Sports, which manages multiple public golf courses and private country clubs throughout the state. Acquired in 2021 by Arizona-based Troon, the combined companies manage 585-plus locations around the world, comprising more than 630 18-hole equivalent golf courses.
The city will rely on Indigo’s expertise to guide the golf course to completion and eventual opening, then manage operations going forward. The city will pay Indigo $123,697 per year over the five-year agreement with an option for two, two-year extensions.
Mandell and contractor Q.G.S. Development will coordinate with Indigo on the timing of planting the greens, fairways and rough as the rebuild continues.
Once the infrastructure is in place, the grassing is the swiftest stage of the golf course reconstruction. Timing, however, is everything. The warm weather grasses of the renewed Bobby Jones Golf Course will be thwarted once the Southwest Florida version of winter weather sets in.
It’s likely not all of the fairways and greens will be ready for planting this year.
“They will probably attempt to get as much planted as they can while we're still in the growing season, and then it's going slow down or go dormant during the winter,” Martin said. “I can't say that they'll have nine holes planted. …. Once you get that first frost, you're done.”
When planting does begin, the grass will be sprigged, not seeded, for faster growth. Greens will be TifEagle Bermuda; the green collars TifGrand Bermuda; and fairways, tee boxes and rough Celebration Bermuda. Depending on the weather, Mandell said all grasses can be ready for play in 8-12 weeks.
That doesn’t mean it’s ideal.
“You need eight weeks of optimal weather, so June to July is the ideal time to plant,” Mandell said. “Eight weeks is sufficient enough, but the later you get, the more those eight weeks don't necessarily hold up because of the weather. Since we're not opening until late spring or early summer, that doesn't matter. We don't want to just say since we're not opening until then let's just not bother now. We're going forward full steam and we're going to grass as much as we possibly can as late as Indigo feels comfortable.
"We'd like to establish as much as possible as soon as possible so we're not starting at zero in April.”