John Holland, overseer of Winter Park’s century-old municipal golf course, is steering a cart over new, undulating fairways and past bunkers that have grown deeper and a bit more menacing.
“There’s a little more frustration designed in,” the city’s folksy parks and recreation director says with unmistakable satisfaction. Since March, Holland has monitored a makeover of the nine-hole course to ensure that it will be exciting enough to attract newcomers, yet familiar enough to keep old-timers.
Built in 1914 on property then owned by Winter Park pioneer Charles Hosmer Morse, the 40-acre course — which was founded as the Winter Park Country Club — had aged like a rambling historic home whose outward charm belied an increasingly urgent need for repairs and reinvention.
The irrigation system no longer worked reliably, the turf was old and tattered, and the relentlessly flat terrain was uninteresting and offered little in the way of a challenge, even to self-described hackers. Clearly, it was time.
So, the city began a $1.2 million renovation. The result is a course with more character, Holland says, even though it occupies the same footprint and still abuts Palm Cemetery, where errant balls sometimes land. (The protocol, according to Holland: Retrieve your ball, but please don’t play out of the cemetery.)
For a while, the process turned the venerable downtown layout — bisected by Park Avenue North and just steps from the bustling Park Avenue shopping and dining district — into seemingly random piles of dirt and sand.
Gary Diehl, a resident who served on a city task force that recommended improvements, recalls some skeptics asking: “Why in the world are we renovating that golf course? It’s green.”
But Diehl, who spent 37 years in the golf equipment and apparel business, says the more he and his colleagues learned about the course’s condition, the more convinced they became of the need to take action.
The project began with killing the grass, most of which was original. Thatch — 6 to 8 inches deep in some areas — was plowed up and the fairways and greens were reshaped.
The square footage of the notoriously tiny greens, last overhauled in 1937, was more than doubled. Some trees were cleared away — including palms on the eighth hole that sometimes caught balls hit high — and new trees were planted.
The 30-year-old irrigation system was replaced with one that can deliver fertilizer along with water. The course was then replanted, and the public took part in two “sprigging” events.
The new turf, which grew in over the summer for an October 1 reopening, is far more consistent, says Gregg Pascale, the pro shop’s new manager. “It might play a little faster,” he adds.
It also will cost golfers a little more. Residents who played on Monday through Thursday mornings from November through April — the busiest time for the course — previously paid from $9 to $12. Now they’ll pay $14. Annual memberships for residents have jumped from $600 to $900.
There’s a new, free putting course on Park Avenue, near the ninth-hole tee box. Also new: The exclusive-sounding “country club” label — a misnomer, since the course is public — has been banished.
Now it’s simply the Winter Park Golf Course, with a new logo to match. That’s part of an effort to emphasize that the nine-hole, par-35 course is open to everyone, Holland says.
The two golf course architects who led the redesign, Keith Rhebb and Riley Johns, both say they recognized the rare opportunity they had been presented.
After all, the course, which Hall of Fame pro Nick Faldo once dubbed “Winter Park National,” is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. (It’s only the second-oldest course in the Orlando area, however. The Country Club of Orlando opened a year earlier.)
Golf legends such as Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Gene Sarazen and Walter Hagen have played there, sometimes in exhibition matches. It’s been the scene of countless charitable tournaments and has become a second home to many locals, some of whom play nearly every day.
But the two architects, who’ve worked around the world, came to the job with different perspectives.
Rhebb, who lives in Longwood, had often driven by the Winter Park course and was impressed by how it cut across the demographics of the game — attracting, as he puts it, “blue-collar, white-collar and no-collar players.” The course had character, he says, “but it could be something better.”
Johns, a Canadian who calls himself a “hands-on golf course architect,” had seen the course only on Google, and says he was unbiased in his initial assessment: “A typical, somewhat neglected Florida golf course.” But what struck Johns about the course was a quality that also attracts many players: its location.
“I was fascinated with people walking their dogs [nearby], with the boutique shops,” he says. “It didn’t feel like a golf course. It felt like a city park with some pins in it.”
Exactly, says Mayor Steve Leary, a renovation advocate. “One of the reasons we chose these architects was that during the [planning] process it came out that this is a park first — our most visible large park,” he says. “It’s not just a golf course.”
A central challenge was making the course more strategic while keeping it inviting for beginners and those who love the game but possess only modest skills. “It’s the easiest thing in the world to make a difficult golf course,” Rhebb notes.
It’s also easy to spend money, Johns adds. But the two recognized that on a community course committed to low fees, “we couldn’t go in there and build water features and make it more costly.”
Besides adding undulations to the fairways and moving tee boxes, they redesigned the bunkers. A well-placed bunker, they determined, would help “steer” golfers so the balls they hit would be less likely to dent a passing BMW.
There was one thing the architects couldn’t change, though: the streets, sidewalks and other landmarks that define the course’s perimeter. “There’s no negotiation with concrete,” Johns says. “We had to work within those constraints.”
Rhebb and Johns were on site from March through June, often on bulldozers — an approach that allowed for immediate troubleshooting and plenty of improvisation. “They’ve made it a much more strategic course,” Leary says. “Before, it was just ‘Keep it on the fairway.’”
Unchanged is the lovingly maintained but entirely unpretentious clubhouse, with its working fireplace and oak floors. The adjacent pro shop, which was renovated in 2011, features exposed wood on the interior walls salvaged from a 1914 starter shack and from a previous remodeling effort in 1967.
Casa Feliz, a restored Spanish-style farmhouse that was saved from the wrecking ball following an uprising of irate citizens, was moved to a patch of unused city property adjacent to the 9th hole in 2001 and repurposed as a community building. The historic home’s stately presence only adds to the course’s irresistible charm.
As far back as 1899, Winter Parkers had a place to play golf. The so-called “Rollins 9” was a nine-hole course commissioned by Morse that encompassed the west side of the Rollins College campus and part of what’s now downtown Winter Park.
But in 1914, Morse and others decided that a proper country club was needed. The Winter Park Country Club, a nonprofit corporation, was established and a nine-hole course was designed by Harley A. Ward and Dow George, who became the club pro.
The course, and the $3,500 clubhouse, was built on property owned by Morse, who was also elected first president of the nascent organization.
Another 18 holes were added the following year. Although the 27 holes were considered two separate courses, they shared the first fairway and green, and extended all the way to U.S. Highway 17-92, where Winter Park Village now sprawls.
Play was sometime interrupted by stray cows, prompting club officials to erect a fence. Some livestock, including sheep and goats, were welcomed, though. The unwitting animals kept the grass in check and were later slaughtered to help alleviate a meat shortage during World War I.
A decade later, the club’s heyday had seemingly come to a close. The much more posh Aloma Country Club, which encompassed the present-day location of Ward Park and Winter Park Memorial Hospital, opened in 1926 and lured players away.
Aloma’s 6,180-yard course and $45,000 clubhouse made the relatively modest Winter Park Country Club obsolete, forcing it to close shortly thereafter.
The block bounded by Interlachen, Webster and Park avenues was bought by the city and repurposed as Charles H. Morse Memorial Park. (The philanthropist had died in 1921.) The clubhouse remained, and was occupied for a time by the newly formed University Club of Winter Park. The rest of the land was, thankfully, never developed.
But Winter Park Golf Estates, the real-estate development surrounding the Aloma course, ultimately failed, and the course itself was abandoned in 1936, a casualty of the Great Depression.
Later that year, led by the Winter Park Chamber of Commerce, local movers and shakers decided to reactivate the dormant Winter Park Country Club and raise funds to rehabilitate the older course. Donations amounted to $6,250, which was more than enough to do the job.
When the club reopened in 1937, the annual membership fee was $44 and greens fees were $1. Jones, who had been snapped up by the ill-fated Aloma Country Club, was rehired as club pro, a position he would hold until his retirement in 1964.
The new incarnation of the club leased the property, partially from the city but primarily from the Winter Park Land Company, which had been formed by Morse in 1915 when he acquired the vast land holdings of its defunct predecessor, the Winter Park Company.
Later, the Winter Park Land Company’s portion of the property, totaling about 25 acres, was transferred to the Charles Hosmer Morse and Elizabeth Morse Genius foundations, which continued to lease it to the city in 10-year increments.
As long as the land was owned by the foundation and leased to the club, there was no guarantee that this prime swath of real estate would forever remain green space. In fact, as an extension of the lease was being discussed in 1996, foundation officials expressed an interest in selling the land to developers.
City leaders and residents weren’t about to let that happen. In a lively referendum, voters overwhelmingly approved a proposal to raise taxes and buy the course. The $8 million purchase price was backed by a 20-year, $5.1 million bond issue. The bonds were paid off earlier this year.
Was it a good investment for the city? Although officials couldn’t provide an official estimate of the land’s current value, the developer of the new Park Hill townhomes near the course recently paid $5.2 million for about one acre — yes, one acre — at Park and Whipple avenues.
The Winter Park Golf Course may be a historic treasure, but that doesn’t mean it’s exempt from the laws of finance. The city has been paying about $200,000 a year to subsidize course operations, Holland says, but the goal is for it to become self-sustaining.
He hopes that by raising greens fees and memberships and attracting more players, the course can soon cover its operating expenses.
In 2014-15, the last time it was open for an entire fiscal year, the course hosted 34,000 rounds of golf. “We’re certainly hoping for a substantial jump in rounds,” says Holland, who is targeting visitors as well as locals. “It’s surprisingly well known as a course for tourists.”
But loyal locals such as Danny Stanley, 60, who runs a successful trucking and logistics business from his nearby home, remain crucial to the course’s success.
“That golf course has been there a million years,” says Stanley, who played it as a youngster and resumed after he returned to Winter Park in 2000. His wife has made his membership an annual Christmas gift.
Stanley, who describes his skills as “middle-of-the-road,” loves to walk the course. Playing nine holes makes a round of golf “a two-hour goof-off rather than a five-hour goof-off,” he says.
Well, perhaps “goof-off” is too strong a term. Stanley often carries his smartphone when he plays, which allows him to conduct business. “I hit my tee shot, then answer an email on my way down the fairway,” he says.
Of course, Stanley plans to be on the remodeled course often — although he expects he’ll have to adjust his strategy. “Wow!” he says. “They put those bunkers right where we hit our shots!”
Stanley plays five days a week. But he’s part of a shrinking number of truly avid golfers. According to the National Golf Foundation, the number of people who played golf in the U.S. dropped to 24.1 million in 2015. At the height of Tiger Woods’ popularity in 2003, the sport attracted 30.6 million.
Golf courses, many of which have closed, have had an especially hard time attracting millennials. Bloomberg News recently reported that consumer spending on golf has remained flat over the past eight years, and Nike has decided to get out of the golf equipment business. Cast-off clubs go unsold at garage sales and thrift stores.
Yet, the geographical limitations of the Winter Park Golf Course could actually give it an edge as the sport regroups. Busy Americans who can’t spend four or five hours on 18 holes may be willing to spend two hours on nine holes — especially if they can combine golf with lunch, dinner or shopping.
“Most golf courses don’t have the luxury of being attached to an asset like Park Avenue,” says Diehl.
The new emphasis on the compressed round of golf has given rise to hopeful slogans such as “Quick Nine,” “Nine Is the New 18,” “Time for Nine” and even “Wine and Nine.”
So, is it possible that the once-dowdy course could actually become trendy as it heads into its second century?
Leary is optimistic. “The golf industry has a huge push right now toward nine holes — before work, after work, even during lunch,” he says. And he pledges to do his part.
“I love the sport. I don’t play enough, but I’ll be playing more. If you see me out there, duck.”