BROOKSVILLE, FLORIDA | One of the pleasures of being on the architecture beat is watching a place evolve from a dusty construction site full of bulldozers and backhoes to a fully operational golf course. It is hard not to appreciate the process, as arduous and full of twists and turns as it often is, and all that goes into creating a new layout. And there is something special about walking and hitting actual shots off of verdant fairways and tees that when I first visited were fairly nondescript stretches of woods and pastureland.
I have been able to monitor such transformations at some pretty remarkable places, among them Cabot Links in Nova Scotia, where some 15 years ago I rode around the site on which the Rod Whitman-designed course was taking shape in a dirt-encrusted SUV with Ben Cowan-Dewar, the man who was leading that project.
Several years later, I returned to the Cape Breton coast to check on the construction of the second course at that resort, Cabot Cliffs, and spent one sunny autumn afternoon with Cowan-Dewar walking the handful of holes that had been grassed-in with 6-irons in our hands and a handful of balls in our pockets. We stopped to hit the occasional approach shot into one of the greens as we also gawked at the shimmering waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the holes that Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw had so brilliantly crafted from that ground.
More recently, I was able to enjoy a similarly satisfying experience at one of Cowan-Dewar’s latest efforts, Cabot Citrus Farms.
Located on 1,200 acres some 45 miles north of Tampa in west-central Florida, the property previously had been home to the World Woods Golf Club, a shuttered resort that had long struggled financially even though it boasted a pair of well-regarded Tom Fazio courses. The site featured rolling hills, elevation changes of 120 feet, stands of cathedral pines and old-growth live oaks whose branches were strewn with Spanish moss and lots and lots of sand.
“The potential was huge,” said Cowan-Dewar, who purchased the land two years ago.
I certainly understood his enthusiasm when I toured the site the day before the 2023 PGA Show started in Orlando last January and listened to Cowan-Dewar and the architects whom he had hired for the project, Kyle Franz and Mike Nuzzo, describe how they were going to reimagine the 18-hole courses that had previously existed there.
It was also a time to hear Nuzzo talk about the pair of short courses he was fashioning on the property – and to ask Ran Morrissett, the founder of the Golf Club Atlas website and head of course-rating operations at Golf Magazine, what his role would be as “golf course architecture adviser” on one of the 18-hole tracks.
The visit was an informative one, and it certainly made me ponder the possibilities of what the new courses might be even though the construction process had only recently begun. Trees were being felled, largely to open up views and improve air circulation. Some 20 miles of cart paths had been ripped up. Tees and greens were taking shape, as were bunkers and fairways, though nothing had yet to be grassed. And it seemed as if everywhere I looked, I saw sand, which for most course architects and the golfers who favor traditional tracks that play firm and fast is a very, very good thing.
That same day, I also was able to consider some of the other amenities Cowan-Dewar planned for Cabot Citrus Farms. They included lights on one of the short courses for night play, a double-sided driving range, a 2-acre putting course and a few dozen cottages as well as a clubhouse, a fitness-and-wellness center and shops and restaurants.
Needless to say, it made me pine to come back before the 2024 PGA Show to see how things were coming along. Which is what I was able to do this week.
Click on images above for a closer look at the holes taking shape at Cabot Citrus Farms.
Much had changed in a year’s time, not the least of which were the names of the golf courses. Franz’s solo effort was now Karoo, after the call of the ubiquitous sandhill cranes in this area, and not Cabot Barrens, which had been the appellation in the previous winter. And the 18-holer on which Franz, Nuzzo and Morrissett were collaborating was Roost, for the turkeys that proliferated there, instead of Cabot Oaks. As for the two short courses, they had been dubbed the Ace and the Ten when I first visited Cabot Citrus Farms; today, they were the “Squeeze,” which made sense given that this town of some 9,000 residents and the Hernando County government seat was known in the 1920s as the “Home of the Tangerine” and the “Wedge.”
The site was also bustling with cottage construction activity when I visited on Monday of Show Week, with some of the 36 two- and four-bedroom abodes that are part of Phase 1 of the so-called Village at Cabot Citrus Farms rising amidst the whir of band saws and the beep-beep-beep of bulldozers backing up.
Best of all, the Karoo was ready for preview play. And I happened to have my sticks.
A resident of the Pinehurst area, Franz has worked a lot in that part of the golf world, at one point helping Coore and Crenshaw revamp Pinehurst No. 2 and then overseeing restoration projects of his own on three other Donald Ross gems, Pine Needles, Mid Pines and Southern Pines. And the first things I noted during my round on Karoo were the many ways this layout felt like those. The swathes of sand had a lot to do with that. Also, the movement in the ground and the changes in elevation. In no way did the property feel like Florida.
Two-putts were not a given by any means, and Franz employed mounding and small “cups” or depressions in the turf around the putting surfaces to truly test a golfer’s short-game skills.
Franz, whom Cowan-Dewar has described as one of the next “it” talents in course design, gives golfers wide corridors of play off the tee at Karoo, and sometimes multiple ones, with seven holes featuring split fairways. Those require some extra calculation on tee shots as to the better route. But thanks to my caddie, who was guide-dog good in leading me around this track for the first time, I usually made the right choices (though the actual execution was not always up to snuff).
Split or not, the fairways felt pretty ample, and even balls that were badly hooked or sliced remained in play. The mounding worked with the firm turf to give the course a links-like feel, with balls careening in different directions once they landed on the ground.
As for the greens, which ran remarkably well for being so new, they had some size of their own, with a number of them running 50 yards or so from front to back, and plenty of undulations. Two-putts were not a given by any means, and Franz employed mounding and small “cups” or depressions in the turf around the putting surfaces to truly test a golfer’s short-game skills. He even provided us with a double green for Nos. 1 and 6 that extended nearly 100 yards from one end to the other.
And though there was sand as far as the eye could see, the players in our threesome did not have to play out of it very often.
I was enamored with a stretch of holes on the back nine beginning with the par-5 14th, a slight dogleg left that takes players up a gentle hill and uses an angled set of cross bunkers to induce a bit of doubt concerning club selection on the second shot. Then, it is on to a well-contoured green that is guarded by three bunkers short left.
From there, Franz crafted a drivable par-4 on No. 15 to a green with wild undulations, a fun 3-par on the 16th to a horseshoe-shaped putting surface and then another par-5 that, at 432 yards from the Tangerine tees we were playing, gives golfers a very good chance at birdie. Then came the 18th, which is reminiscent of the finisher at the renowned Lido course that Dr. Alister MacKenzie designed for a Country Life magazine contest in 1914 (and that Tom Doak has created at the new Lido at Sand Valley) and forces the golfer to choose from three different routes to the fairway from the tee.
Taken together, these holes make for a rollicking finish, especially when the wind is up, as it was on the afternoon we played.
To be sure, Karoo will no doubt need to be tweaked in places in the months ahead. That is the way it is with all new courses. Some of the more extreme undulations on and around the greens might benefit from a bit of softening, for example.
And it would not hurt to add a couple of hybrid tees to bridge the gaps between the Silver (6,954 yards) and Tangerine markers (6,295 yards) and also the one between the Tangerines and the Greens (5,325 yards). There was also some concern in our group about logjams forming at the short par-4 15th and the 3-par that follows it, given that the greens of those back-to-back holes must clear before players may tee off.
But our overall assessment of the preview round is that this course is a very special one. It should have a long and prosperous run.
Unattributed Photos: Jeff Marsh
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