PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – One wonders whether there might be a looming ceremonial scissors shortage.
At PGA National Resort & Spa, resort executives, county officials, the mayor and media types gathered last month to cut the ribbon on the reopening of the Champion Course, one of the toughest host venues the PGA Tour visits each year.
To the untrained eye, not much changed this time around at the Jack Nicklaus Signature redesign of a Tom Fazio original.
But “The Champ” had been showing its age. Greens had shrunk inward from their original edges and the surfaces were due for replacement.
So the course closed on June 4 for a million-dollar enhancement project. Led by Chris Cochran, Nicklaus Design recaptured a total of more than 14,000 square feet of putting surface. On greens that are as small as The Champ’s, that reclamation will give Honda Classic officials the opportunity to tuck some new hole locations come the tournament this February, while also providing some welcome relief for resort guests and members; the elevated and well-protected targets give them fits.
The goal of the work was to provide “more consistent, year-round play,” said Chad Goetz, a Nicklaus Design associate, who added that this project would “restart the cycle of aging” that all golf courses experience."
The last year or so has been a particularly busy time of reinvestment and refurbishment all over Florida’s competitive golf tourism industry, and visiting golfers stand to benefit from the arms (and greens) race. And the coming years may see that activity ramp up even more.
More Tour-oriented (and traveler-friendly) updates
As the PGA Tour makes its “Florida Swing” in February and March, every stop will have something new.
A couple hours up the road from PGA National, players in the Arnold Palmer Invitational field at Bay Hill will discover one of the best practice facilities on the schedule.
This wasn’t always the case. Bay Hill does boast one of the more intimate arrangements of first and 10th tees, putting green and range, but its chipping green was average at best until the Arnold Palmer Design Company’s Brandon Johnson and Thad Layton carved out two acres left of the range and ninth green to fashion a brand-new short-game facility with several greens and bunkers and a broad, undulating expanse of fairway-length turf. Members, guests and pros now have no excuses around the greens – they can replicate virtually any shot they might encounter inside 120 yards at Bay Hill’s new digs.
From Bay Hill, pro golf’s elite will head north to Ponte Vedra Beach and TPC Sawgrass, where the Players Championship has reverted back to its original March date. Since Sawgrass is in the PGA Tour’s backyard, new tweaks happen there constantly.
This year, the changes are a little more subtle in nature than the last major round, which brought about a brand-new, drivable par-4 12th hole for the 2017 tournament. Because of the date change for the event, TPC Sawgrass overseeded its Players Stadium Course in order to provide as lush a playing surface as possible for players and TV viewers.
Over on the west coast of the state, Innisbrook Resort is in the midst of some updates of its own. The South Course just reopened after receiving brand-new TifEagle greens. After playing it during a "Grand Reopening" event, I came away convinced it's the second-best course at the resort, edging out the tougher and better-known but occasionally awkward Island Course. The South gets by on the strength of the open, rolling stretch of holes from number five through 15.
The resort is also putting the finishing touches on comprehensive interior renovations of all of its guest accommodations, bringing a contemporary aesthetic to spaces that date back to the early 1970s. The new rooms will be available soon after the beginning of 2019, and certainly by the time the Valspar Championship kicks off in late March.
More Florida golf and travel updates from bottom to top
Two major Miami-area resorts are finishing up their own renovation projects to the tune of a combined $200 million. The lionshare of that figure - $175 million – is being spent at the former Turnberry Isle Resort in Aventura, about 20 miles north of Miami, now called the JW Marriott Miami Turnberry Resort & Spa. It is soon debuting a new, 16-story Orchid Tower, which will comprise more than 300 new guestrooms. Though the luxe new accommodations – plus 110,000 square feet of new meeting space – are primarily aimed at appealing to conventions and large group business, golfers should enjoy increased access to Turnberry Isle’s two golf courses, the Miller and Soffer layouts.
A few miles southwest, in Coral Gables, The Biltmore is also finishing up a $25 million renovation project of its own. The historic resort has updated all of its guestrooms and corridors (including $5.5 million on windows alone), and also brought Brian Silva back to make further updates to its circa-1925 Donald Ross-designed golf course, which Silva first renovate back in 2007. This time around, Silva’s team is regrassing the course, bumping the back-tee yardage from 6,800 to 7,100 yards and making some adjustments to the practice facility and a handful of holes.
"[T]he original plan suggested a thumb print style green on the 14th hole and a much larger green on 18 that we thought about restoring in 2007 but lost our nerve as the restored green would have been so large and wildly rolling," said Silva. "2018 and the original plan gave the necessary motivation to get the green back to its more original size."
In the Palm Beach area, two municipal courses are on different arcs. First, the good news: North Palm Beach Country Club, owned by the Village of North Palm Beach, is set to reopen its Jack Nicklaus-designed course soon after a regrassing project, as well as some modifications to its controversial greens, which some golfers would decry as overly difficult when at higher green speeds. Word is that the number and size of the bunkers is also being reduced.
Deeper into the county, the future of West Palm Beach Golf Course seemed secure with the announcement of an $86 million renovation and redevelopment plan that included, among other projects, the conversion of the course’s practice facility into a new TopGolf location. As of a few weeks ago, though, that plan seems unlikely, as Palm Beach County and the City of West Palm Beach have reached an impasse over transfer of ownership of the land in question.
This may be a blessing in disguise. The big plan would have required the rerouting of part of the course, originally designed by Dick Wilson and later reworked by Mark McCumber. A new, more modest plan focused on making the course a great amenity for the city could potentially turn it into one of the country’s best municipal facilities. The open, sandy, breezy site is perfect for golf. Here’s hoping the right things happen here.
In North Florida, Jacksonville area residents are excited at the reopening of Jacksonville Beach Golf Club, coming off a $2 million renovation project helmed by former Arnold Palmer design associate Harrison Minchew. Recent visitor and Golf Advisor reader HeidiPVB wrote in her recent review, "The new course design is really nice! They really did a fantastic job on the new layout."
One other renovation project that took place this year was the replacement of the greens at the well-regarded Nicklaus Course at Bay Point Resort in Panama City Beach on the Panhandle. But four days after it reopened, Hurricane Michael plowed through the area, which will be in recovery mode for months to come.
Still more assorted projects are on the horizon. Outside Miami, the Diplomat Resort is set to undergo more than $220 million in renovations, which will include a redesign of the golf course by Greg Norman as part of a new luxe SLS resort/residential play. But that project isn't estimated to be finished until 2022.
Up the road, in Boca Raton, Nick Price's design group, along with Tom Fazio II, won the contract to design the city's new municipal golf course, made possible by a lucrative land swap that will see the current Boca Raton Municipal Golf Course turned into a housing development. The new course, Boga National, will include an 18-hole course and a nine-hole short course.
And in Delray Beach, the Delray Beach Golf Club, with nine holes designed by Donald Ross, is set to receive up to $7 million in renovations.
Fans and alumni of Florida State University will be pleased that their beloved school's Don Veller Seminole Golf Course will be receiving around $10 million in improvements, with redesign work being performed by Jack Nicklaus and Jack Nicklaus II.
Private clubs are in on the spending spree, too
Resorts and municipalities aren’t the only entities hungry for improvement of their golf facilities. Private clubs – of which Florida has hundreds – have taken advantage of favorable lending rates and general economic good feelings in order to finance some hefty projects of their own, all in the name of keeping existing members happy and attracting new ones.
In Palm Beach County, several clubs have recently spent eight figures on clubhouse enhancements alone. Mirasol’s new 75,000 square foot clubhouse came at a price tag of $40 million, and The Club at Ibis and BallenIsles spent $37 million and $35 million, respectively, on their own recent capitol projects. The $9.2 million spent on clubhouse improvements at Bear Lakes County Club seems like pocket change by comparison.
Golf courses are receiving plenty of attention, too. At the 36-hole Harbour Ridge Yacht & Country Club in Stuart, Bobby Weed Golf Design recently finished a redesign of the Golden Marsh Course. “The updated course has more enhanced native features and coquina rock walls, along with greater variety and visual appeal,” said Weed.
Further south, golf course architect (and recent Golf Advisor Podcast guest) Jan Bel Jan recently completed a project at Boca Lago Country Club, where the scope of work included 30 holes: 27 main-course holes, plus a three-hole practice course, in addition to work on the practice facilities.
In Estero, between Fort Myers and Naples, Dana Fry and partner Jason Straka recently finished up a similar renovation project at West Bay Club. Fry/Straka Golf Design earned considerable praise earlier this year with the opening of the South Course at Arcadia Bluffs in Michigan. The firm is set to renovate the two Donald Ross-designed courses at Belleair Country Club in Clearwater over the next couple years.
Just down the street from Belleair, Pelican Golf Club is nearing its debut. The former Belleview Biltmore was originally designed by Donald Ross, opening in 1925. Architect Beau Welling, who designed Bluejack National outside Houston alongside Tiger Woods, has led the redesign of the course, which aims to “[recreate] many classic stylistic elements while increasing overall strategy and playability.” The club is being developed by the Doyle family, owners of Dex Imaging, a Tampa-based document dealer in printers, copiers, scanners and related software.
Said club owner Dan Doyle, Jr., "We want it to be one of the top 10 courses in the State of Florida."