Santa Rosa Golf & Beach Club may be in the middle of nowhere, but there’s a civilization of good golf once you arrive. (Click on images to enlarge.)
It’s one of those places that shocks you. Pull up the Santa Rosa Golf & Beach Club on your map app and you’ll likely furrow your brow. Located a half-wedge shot from Highway 30A, the Gulf Coast hotspot in the Florida Panhandle between Pensacola and Panama City Beach, the old club looks like it’s in the middle of a pulpwood forest. In fact, the only things you pass between U.S. 98 and the club’s entrance are Clark’s Service and Repair and row upon row of spindly pines.
Even at the entrance, you aren’t sure that you’re in the right place until you see the driving range on one side and a chipping area on the other. The modest clubhouse that sits atop a hill gives away nothing. It could be one of thousands of structures at clubs from Eustis, Florida to Eureka, California.
It’s not until you’ve unloaded, parked and walked to the back side of the clubhouse that you get it. Only then does the splendor of this gem kiss you on the mouth.
“Pretty good, isn’t it?” the director of golf, Zach Phillips, said to me as I stared south toward the Gulf with the course in front of me.
Hidden between a busy four-lane highway and the sugar beaches of the Panhandle, Santa Rosa is one of the most visually impressive courses in the Southeast. (Click on images to enlarge.)
No answer was expected. The place speaks for itself. Hidden in a strip of land between a busy four-lane highway and the sugar beaches of the Panhandle, Santa Rosa Golf & Beach Club is one of the most visually impressive and eminently playable courses in the Southeast.
But it was my next bit of conversation with Phillips that made the story even more interesting.
“So, when did this open?” I asked.
He paused and said, “Well, the club has been here since 1969. But we closed for a redesign and have only been reopened a year.”
Then came the part that rocked me. “We have 400 members,” Phillips said. “Memberships are full. And we closed the waiting list because it got too long.”
And therein lies the story, especially for those club operators or members who are agonizing over the need to renovate. Do you fix the irrigation this year? Do you do the greens next? Then do you get to the bunkers three years down the road?
The answers to all of those is an emphatic, “No.”
If you want to revitalize a tired or ailing club, there are no half measures.
Bill Bergin, the golf course architect who was brought for what can only be described as a magical redesign, said, “Santa Rosa was the typical old club. The fee (to join) was $1,200, and even that was negotiable. Now it’s $50,000, and you can’t get in. You can’t even get on the waiting list.
“The property is close to a state park. It’s the Grayton Beach State Park, with sugar-white sand dunes rife with wild oats. We wanted to tie the course into the same look.” – Bill Bergin
“There are three reasons for that,” Bergin continued. “Florida is booming, and golf is booming post-COVID. The 30A corridor is some of the hottest property in the country, if not in the world. And the redesign.”
Bergin is too humble to admit it, but the redesign is the linchpin of the place’s success. And to do it right, you couldn’t nibble around the edges. As Bergin said, “We kept the routing, but everything else changed. After we were done, I took one of the members around and at one point he said, ‘OK, what hole are we on?’ I said, ‘We didn’t change the routing. This is still 12.’ He didn’t recognize the place.”
Most of Bergin’s designs have an old-world feel to them. His bunkering, which is his signature, is a mixture of Seth Raynor and Donald Ross, flat bottoms and angular grass features – no sand flashing into a steep face that requires a crew with shovels every time it rains, and no craggy fingers of land dipping in and out. If you’ve ever played one of C.B. Macdonald’s originals, you’ll recognize a Bergin bunker. But with Santa Rosa, he had another goal.
“The property is close to a state park,” Bergin said. It’s the Grayton Beach State Park, with sugar-white sand dunes rife with wild oats. “We wanted to tie the course into the same look.”
He did it by taking out trees and so much grass that members were holding their collective breath.
“We had to open up the sight lines, so you got a sense of where you were,” Bergin said. “Once we did that, we were able to take out turfgrass in the areas that were out of play and expose this brilliant white sand that was right under the surface.”
That simple change flipped the maintenance costs. The USGA Green Section estimates that, depending on location, course operators can realize a five-figure annual savings for every acre of grass taken out of play. Not only are fertilizer, chemical, water and labor costs decreased, the remaining turfgrass gets more sunlight and air and no longer has to compete for nutrients. Equipment also lasts longer when it maintains less grass.
“One of the goals when we began the project was to take grass out of areas where we didn’t need it and also add square footage to the greens,” said Kelly Barker, Santa Rosa’s director of grounds. “Before the renovation, I had 73,000 square feet of putting green surface. And we were pushing 40,000 rounds of golf through on these tiny greens. So we increased the green size while at the same time we made our overall (turfgrass) footprint less.”
You see the same trend all over the world. Desert courses are building islands of playing area and letting everything else go back to sand, while any new construction in sand-belt regions from Madison, Wisconsin to Macon, Georgia are cutting out sod and adding wild native grasses to the powder underneath.
“You’re reducing your turf footprint, so you are reducing your input into the turf,” Barker said. “When I first got here, we were at 85 maintained acres. One of my first priorities was to cut that back. Now, with the new design, we are at about 46 acres maintained.
“You don’t need it,” Barker continued. “We wanted to go the route of Pinehurst and Streamsong, those golf courses with a lot of natural areas that players think are spectacular. The thought process and the preference among players now is that you’re green in the playing areas, but there’s no reason to have a football field of grass around your tee box. It’s not necessary.
“It definitely helps me out because I’m not using all that fertilizer and chemicals and all that stuff that you do to maintain turf,” Barker said. “There is some maintenance that you have for the dunes, which we expected. So there’s a little bit of a tradeoff. But I wouldn’t change a thing.
“Aesthetically, it looks amazing, but also, it’s a much better end product. You’re playing within the corridors of the design, but it’s a much different look and feel outside of that. And it’s better. We went from 73,000 square feet to 101,000 on the putting surfaces. It’s absolutely better any time we have a player pulling out a putter.”
Bergin, who now owns a home off the first fairway at Santa Rosa, is a superintendent’s friend. But, as a former PGA Tour player, he also understands the player’s wants and needs. “When you open up (the sightlines of) a course like Santa Rosa, it expands what you, as a player, see and it enhances the experience,” he said.
It also enhances the economics of the club.
Higher fees to join, a full membership, a closed waiting list, and cost savings in agronomy and maintenance. It wouldn’t have happened if the owners had tried to piecemeal the redesign.
Desperate times require radical change. As Santa Rosa Golf & Beach Club proves, going all in can have an extraordinary payoff.
Photos: Courtesy Santa Rosa Golf & Beach Club
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