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Side of Ranch

The grass is greener after $5M renovation at Waterlefe Golf & River Club

The Bradenton upscale community is improving the golf course and expanding its clubhouse.

General Manager Steve Dietz shows off the pristine conditions at Waterlefe Golf & River Club.
General Manager Steve Dietz shows off the pristine conditions at Waterlefe Golf & River Club.
Photo by Jay Heater
  • East County
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As you walk the Waterlefe Golf and River Club course with General Manager Steve Dietz, it's apparent the golf wars are raging in East County.

It's September, and every fairway, every bunker, every green is pristine as always. The only thing missing is ... well .... golfers.

The course is closed until Oct. 1 when a course renovation — part of a $5 million-plus project to upgrade the course and clubhouse facilities — is deemed ready for play.

It looks ready now, but Dietz knows that some of the work could be ruined with a few preemptive strikes. The new grass has to mature a bit more.

While it's hard to have such patience when the club members are dying to test all the renovated greens and tee areas, Dietz knows that pristine has to be a way of life in an area that is bursting with new or renovated courses.

Fortunately, he never has had to experience the non-pristine side of the business since starting in 2005. You don't have to go far, though, to see the ugly side of that equation.

Those who have played Heritage Harbour Golf Club or Legacy Golf Club over the years have seen those layouts dumped into the abyss. Both courses have been saved by new ownership and management, and the millions of dollars spent to bring them back.

In this area, dog patch doesn't cut it.

In the way an area can benefit from grocery store wars, or hamburger wars, or pizza wars, it can absolutely benefit from golf wars. Well, you will benefit if you like golf.

Just announced have been two high-brow projects in Myakka — the Soleta Golf Club that will have a course designed by Hall-of-Famer Nick Price and the Miakka Golf Club, which has among its architects Major winner Paul Azinger. Add to that the beauty of The Concession course, and recently added Esplande at Azario course, and Lakewood National, plus the aforementioned revamped Heritage Harbour and Legacy courses, and you have a golfer's paradise.

Now Dietz knows that Waterlefe is a different animal considering it is both a golf club and a river club, and the others are not. Even so, when you hear golfers talking about best golf courses in the region, you want to be included at the top.

In previous trips to Waterlefe's golf course, I have thought Dietz must have had those Disney World landscapers on his payroll. You don't need to walk the stretch of the course along the Manatee River to see the beauty. It's all around you.

Somebody had to be carrying a tape measure to make sure all the blades of grass were even.

In fact, Waterlefe's hierarchy decided long before this renovation project that it needed to be done. This current work was scheduled for the summer of 2021, but something called COVID-19 put that project off.

It finally began on April 1 while work on the clubhouse began on July 1.

Dietz said that aging — the course opened in 2000 — was reason enough to do upgrades, but I noted that is sure looked in sweet condition before any work started.

While that might be true, Dietz said, in order to maintain premium playing conditions, you have to stay out in front of potential problems.

So this renovation was concentrating on tee areas and greens, along with expanding the clubhouse to accommodate increasing membership.

While golf, and boating, are king and queen at Waterlefe, eating is a close third. The expansion of the clubhouse, which is due to be finished in the spring or summer of 2024, has to do with more dining, and drinking, options.

The old clubhouse had an area to serve breakfast and lunch, but no bar — a real bar with stools and a bartender.

During COVID, Dietz and his staff saw an increased demand from members and residents for take-out, and they began to understand that if they built it, they certainly would come and eat it.

For the renovation, that meant a bigger kitchen.

It should be noted that Waterlefe is a semiprivate club, which means you can play golf for a day fee, (currently at about $100 per round) or even eat at the restaurant if you so desire. Waterlefe has 617 homes, and they aren't bundled into the golf club like many communities have done. Of the current homeowners, about 25% are members, but Dietz said the percentage is growing along with the excitement over the renovation.

If you want to join the club, whether or not you own a home there, you can do that, too. 

This year alone, before the renovation even began, membership at the club went from 218 to 300.  Since April, nobody has even been able to get on the golf course.

The crowd comes back Sept. 30 when members only can get a preview round. There also will be a ribbon cutting.

"That's as long as Mother Nature doesn't do anything crazy," Dietz said.

When the course does open, golfers will find that the renovation didn't change the design of the course, but only enhanced the conditions. The greens will be back to their original size because greens tend to shrink over the years as the grass around them tends to overgrow. The course, which is 6,098 yards from the tips (par 72) has not gotten any longer.

The renovation took about 4 to 6 inches off each green before adding soil and the TifEagle grass. The tee areas will be a bit bigger.

The course is withstanding more play. Before COVID, Dietz said it handled about 42,000 rounds a year. That number is up to 54,000 rounds a year.

The course has 65 employees and some of those took off during the renovation while others joined the grounds crew to get their hands dirty before coming back to their regular jobs in October. 

Dietz noted the course was not damaged by Hurricane Idalia, which submerged the mangroves along the river banks, but didn't get up to the greens and tees.

Other improvements will be a new short game area, a renovation of the men's and women's locker rooms, and the addition of a community room in the clubhouse.

Dietz said they currently are hiring cart staff, starters and course rangers. Call 744-9771 if interested.

"We have to stay competitive with the new communities," Dietz said.



Jay Heater

Jay Heater is the managing editor of the East County Observer. Overall, he has been in the business more than 41 years, 26 spent at the Contra Costa Times in the San Francisco Bay area as a sportswriter covering college football and basketball, boxing and horse racing.

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