When golf course architect Richard Mandell first visited the Bobby Jones Golf Club complex as he prepared to bid for its restoration, he was accompanied by his son, Thomas, who was in seventh grade at the time.
To put into perspective the time that has passed since that first visit, as earth-moving machinery digs, hauls and pushes dirt to remodel the Sarasota Municipal Golf Course to its original Donald Ross layout, Thomas is now a first-year student.
“I’m waiting for my five-year pin (from the city),” Mandell joked during a recent visit to the project, one of three he has underway in Florida.
Much has happened since Mandell, based in Pinehurst, North Carolina, was asked to restore the course associated with two of the most iconic names in the game – Jones, the player, and Ross, the famous architect – who are attached to it.
As the scope of the project changed several times over the five-plus years that followed, with the frequent changes causing a series of delays, the club operated as normal until it closed at the onset of COVID-19. Although golf has seen a renaissance throughout the pandemic, the decision was made to keep Bobby Jones closed until it was renovated.
During this time maintenance operations ceased and the 45-hole property became overrun.
By 2016, when discussions about renovating the club began, it had already entered the death spiral that afflicted many golf courses in the 2010s – declining revenue leading to reduced capital investment leading to a deteriorating conditions resulting in reduced gambling resulting in reduced income, etc.
“On my first visit in 2016, what I saw was declining conditions based solely on a lack of capital being put back into the golf course,” Mandell said. “It’s typical of courses that haven’t been renovated for 30 years or more. At that time, the new holes were 29 years old and tired. Still, there were other holes there that hadn’t been touched for much longer than that.
“What I’ve seen are numerous drainage issues, outdated golf course features and poor turf conditions.”
Built on a floodplain between Fruitville Road and 17th Street, drainage has always been an issue at Bobby Jones. Water management in 1925, when Donald Ross designed the original 18 holes, was guesswork at best insofar as it was considered. Future extensions which added an additional 18 holes incorporating the front nine and front nines into the US and UK courses only exacerbated the frequent flooding and persistent wet conditions.
The latest iteration of the restoration plan has returned Bobby Jones to the original Donald Ross layout, incorporating modern golf course design, engineering and drainage techniques to alleviate flooding and waterlogging conditions. Originally slated to open this fall, delays in starting work have pushed construction into the rainy season, causing further delays.
Mandell said he expects the course to open in mid-summer 2023, likely to be followed shortly by the short nine-hole course on Circus Boulevard.
At $12.5 million, the golf portion of the project includes the restoration of 18 holes, the adjustable par-3 course, the temporary clubhouse for the training center and possibly a new permanent clubhouse and other utility buildings. The golf resort will cover 187 of the 307 acres there, with the remainder of the site comprising natural parkland and canal drainage.
The work is being funded by a $20 million municipal bond, a $3 million grant from the Southwest Florida Water Management District for Wetland Improvements, which requires a 50 % local government; and a $487,500 grant from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Golf revenues should cover course operating costs and be applied to debt service.
The best laid plans
Mandell didn’t have to look far to find Bobby Jones’ course layout, which Ross drew in 1925, along with the hole-by-hole notes and detailed drawings. Just over two miles from his Pinehurst office is the Tufts Archive, where the drawings are kept. Mandell uses the sketches to restore the 6,240-yard course as Ross envisioned it, but the elevations, mounds and shaping will vary from the original to facilitate drainage.
“The first step is to get dirt in the right places and control water and drainage,” Mandell said. “Then it’s shaping the mounds and building the drains.”
With rough grading, irrigation and drainage installed, Mandell and the construction crews turn their attention to arguably the most important part of this golf course or any other golf course, the greens. Here, Ross’ sketches are a bit light on detail.
His notes for green #1, for example, read: “Elevated body of green with a drop of 2′ to 2 1/2′ from the back left corner to the front right corner. Large undulating mound very easily leveled on all sides.
For par 3 n°13: “Built 3′ at the front and 5′ at the back – slight terrace effect. Terrace at the left corner 6″ under the body of the green. Terrace effect in the front, lifts the sides and the back having a slight rippling effect. Long slopes on all sides. Sand pockets 1, 2, 3 on the front left and right corners and the back at the edge of the channel.
Mandell replicated the shapes of the greens and adapted the elevation changes and desired green speeds to modern play for the recreational golfer. Wavy greens, he said, don’t have to be lightning fast to be fun.
“I will be looking at the slopes every 10 feet both vertically and horizontally to make sure everything is draining properly and there are no pockets and to make sure there are pinnable areas ( flat areas where holes can be cut) down the slope, and make sure there is variety in those slopes,” he said.
Bobby Jones is Mandell’s 11th Donald Ross restoration. He takes personally the task of preserving the legacy of one of the most renowned golf course architects in the world.
“A lot of people don’t know Ross, so this is an opportunity to show people why people like me consider him one of the greatest of all time,” he said. “I almost feel like a project manager for Ross in this case because I’m trying to implement all the information we have. On the right, we only have 26 antennas, which are not not very informative other than telling us how few trees there were originally.
As the crews removed earth from the nature park area to use on the golf course, they shaped the wetland as they went.
In addition to draining the golf course, the wetland will serve as a natural water purifier as it will gradually filter runoff entering the property from 17th Street and surrounding neighborhoods before exiting at Fruitville Road.
“In the park, we created this wetland, and that was always the plan, whether it was a golf course or a park,” Mandell said. “We diverted one of the channels so we could route the driving range to the clubhouse, but it also allowed us to divert that water to a fairly large wetland area. This is where it is a community project in that everyone who is not even a golfer benefits in the sense that their site is a stormwater impoundment. Once it goes through the canals and goes through the wetland and is filtered, when it leaves Fruitville, it’s much cleaner. And when it arrives at its final destination, Bobby Jones has done his part in cleaning up that water.
“The purpose of a floodplain is to retain water, and it always will be. The whole front nine was still lower than the floodplain, so it’s no surprise that it was still wet. Now we are trying to solve this problem while providing our service to the city. »
Once the areas of the golf course are completed, the fairways, roughs, greens and green complexes will be laid out. Break-in requires six to eight weeks before the course is playable. Areas that can be will be planted this fall, the rest in the spring. The course will open with a temporary pavilion and the timeline for a permanent installation is yet to be determined.