On a day perfectly suited to tee up a Titleist and play 18 holes, city leaders and community stakeholders talked about doing just that, and more, on Friday morning at Bobby Jones Golf Club.
That first drive down the fairway and that first stroll amid a new wetland will have to wait — probably until November — as the municipal course undergoes a renovation into a layout that would look familiar to a golf legend from a bygone era and the equally legendary designer of the nearly 100-year-old original course.
But when it’s completed, the facility will appeal alike to golf enthusiasts and people unfamiliar with woods and irons, birdies and bogeys.
The groundbreaking ceremony under a sprawling oak and adjacent to two of the closed facility’s fairways attracted dozens of residents Friday along with the speakers panel to kick off what will become a new 18-hole golf course, a new nine-hole short course and a natural preserve, set aside as green space in perpetuity.
"I remember my first time riding my bike through Bobby Jones, and I remember thinking two things: first, 'I’m really out of shape,' and two, 'Wow, this is amazing green space,'" Mayor Erik Arroyo told the assembled crowd. "This is amazing for our kids and our kids’ kids. This is truly a legacy property."
City commissioners in January approved sweeping plans for the municipal golf facility on Circus Boulevard. In addition to approving a plan to reset the design of the course to a path drawn by famed golf architect Donald Ross in 1924, city leaders also approved an agreement with the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast to hold the 261 acres as a conservation easement forever.
Initially, the city’s $20 million bond will finance the golf course construction and the framework of a wetland. The foundation will raise money to transform that natural landscape into a nature park.
Storm runoff from as far away as the University Town Square area will drain and filter through the wetlands, improving downstream water quality in Phillippi Creek and Sarasota Bay.
The history of Bobby Jones — named for perhaps the greatest amateur golfer to ever play the game — was on full display as city commissioners and other speakers recalled some of the course’s finest moment.
Baseball legend Babe Ruth played there.
Jones himself, a superstar of the sport in 1927, shot 73 in an exhibition round that year to dedicate it.
It was one of the first integrated courses in the U.S. In 1959, four Black caddies asked then-City Manager Ken Thompson permission to play on the all-white course. He granted them permission.
Golf course architect Richard Mandel said the planned park and the restored golf course will complement each other and helping to grow the sport one visitor at a time.
"Golf is a great game, and municipal golf is what brings generations together," he said. "The park concept is a grow the game initiative. If Mom playing and Dad is out there with the kids on the playground, that park is a window into golf for people who don’t know about golf.
"My plan is that people will see the golf course from the park and say ‘you know, I want to try that game.'"
Bobby Jones’ two regulation courses and its nine hole course have been closed since 2020 but reopened as a nature park later that year, attracting cyclists, runners, walkers and nature lovers. Since early February, the property has been closed again as initial construction work began.
The city’s initial timeline includes the reopening of the 18-hole golf course in November, with the nine-hole course in early 2023. Plans for a clubhouse are in progress.
And although the course’s golfers look forward to trying out the new design in the fall, City Manager Marlon Brown said he also looked forward to a milestone celebration three years into the future.
"I invite you back in 2025 when we celebrate the centennial of Bobby Jones," he said. "What an awesome day that’s going be when we celebrate 100 years of Bobby Jones. A true ‘Central Park’ for the city of Sarasota."