Commissioners could have unceremoniously approved expenditures of nearly $5 million along with multiple other items on the consent agenda. Instead, Commissioner Jennifer Ahern-Koch requested the commission remove the items from the consent agenda — not to debate the merits, but rather to highlight progress being made on the project Commissioner Hagen Brody added will be transformational for the city’s District 3.
In addition to the golf course restoration, the $18.8 million project — funded by city bonds — will also include a nine-hole adjustable par 3 course and preserve 153 of the 261 acres for a public park with a variety of green space uses and wetlands conservation, all along one of the city’s primary east-west corridors.
“I have received some emails from people curious about what's going on with Bobby Jones, and when you look at it, it's in a state of transition,” Ahern-Koch said. “People have been sending emails wondering what's going on. I thought it was important that the community know that the city has received these funds and we are going forward, and though the community may not see things happening, they are happening. We are doing great things out there.”
Commissioners unanimously adopted resolutions to establish a revenue and expenditure budget of just more than $3 million for a Southwest Florida Water Management District grant for wetlands improvement at Bobby Jones, which requires a 50% local government match; and another line item of $487,500 for a Florida Department of Environmental Protection grant for the Bobby Jones Water Quality Improvement Project. That grant requires no local match.
“Just a shout out and thank you to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection,” Brody said before the vote was taken. “I know we all individually met with them when we were in Tallahassee and focused on this project as a priority. It's great to see that we received such a sizable grant for that and, of course, from SWFWMD as well.”
‘Not a Ross course'
Even after the golf course opens this fall, work adjacent the course to complete wetlands improvements and green spaces will continue.
The local funding match for the $3 million grant will earmark $1.06 million from the Bobby Jones project bond proceeds and $453,460 from the one-cent sales tax fund to build an 18-acre wetlands treatment system adjacent to the golf course, which will improve water quality discharging to Sarasota Bay.
The SWFWMD grant of $487,500 is destined for water quality and improvements associated with the restoration of wetlands on the eastern side of the property. QGS Development is performing the work to build the golf facilities and the nature park’s wetlands restoration, a contract worth $12.5 million.
The golf course redesign is overseen by Richard Mandell Golf Architecture.
Opening in 1926 as Sarasota Municipal Golf Course, it was renamed in honor of Jones, the star amateur at the time, in 1927. The facility evolved over the decades to include the 6,000-yard American Course and 6,700-yard British Course. The original Donald Ross layout followed the path of the back nines of the two courses.
“It was not a Ross course anymore,” Mandell said Monday from his office in Pinehurst, North Carolina, home of Donald Ross’s most famous design, Pinehurst No. 2.
In 2015, city leaders began discussing what to do with the valuable property bounded by Fruitville Road, Circus Road and 17th Street. Reaching a high of 164,000 rounds in 1997, play had fallen to 143,000 rounds in 2007, then to 102,000 rounds in 2013. Bobby Jones operated until the beginning of the pandemic, when it closed in March 2020. Since then, the course had become overtaken by nature and the clubhouse was demolished.
The restored course is expected to open to the public for play as early as November with the new nine-hole course across Circus Road to follow in January 2023. A new clubhouse will open a year or so later. The city is in the process of seeking a management company to operate the golf facilities.
Mandell is no stranger to restoring Donald Ross courses.
“This is the 11th Ross project that we've done, and it's always a special thing when we get to restore a Ross course,” Mandell said. “We have his drawings, so we converted them into working grading plans and we've made some adjustments to improve stormwater issues because it's in a floodplain.”
The original layout was largely devoid of trees, and many that were planted in the years since have been removed. Passersby on Fruitville Road, Mandell said, can already notice the difference.
“A lot of trees were haphazardly planted and were planted in such a way that they compete with each other,” he said. “We had to remove trees in order to get the flooding under control and improve stormwater management, but the result, especially when you look from Fruitville Road, is you can see how much better the trees that remain look than they did before when they were surrounded by lesser trees.”
What the golf course won’t have are the turtleback-contoured greens often associated with Donald Ross. It’s all a misnomer, Mandell said, because of Pinehurst No. 2. The ultra-challenging greens at Pinehurst Resort's flagship course, which is part of the U.S. Open rotation, were the result of a redesign in the 1970s.
Ross himself never designed such putting surfaces, Mandell said, and the rebuilt greens at Bobby Jones will replicate the original designs.
“The greens were flared out on the sides and they were sandwich bread slice shapes with tiers and quadrants,” Mandell said. "To replicate Pinehurst No. 2 greens is not what we're doing here. We're literally taking the original drawings and rebuilding them.”
As golf course renovation enters the latter states, Mandell said he intends to travel to Sarasota every other week to ensure an authentic Donald Ross golf experience.
“Golfers will see a fully restored Ross course that's eminently playable for all levels,” he said, “yet challenging for those who are looking for that.”