From Golf Digest Architecture Editor emeritus Ron Whitten:
There’s so much to learn about Sara Bay Country Club. Let's start with its history. In his 1927 autobiography, Down the Fairway, Bobby Jones, then 25, (still three years shy of the Grand Slam climax to his golf career) offered one of the more ironic golf course appraisals of all time. "I regard the Whitfield Estates course as one of the best in America," he wrote.
It's ironic for two reasons. First, the course had gone belly up by the time Jones book’ hit bookstores. OK, the book was based on a series of articles previously published in Liberty Magazine, so the course was still viable when Jones first wrote the line. The course wouldn't be revived until 1937, first as Sarasota Bay Country Club, renamed in 1964 as Sara Bay Country Club.
It's also ironic because Jones was on the staff of the firm hired to promote real estate sales around the course, so arguably his was a paid endorsement, although he didn't reveal that at the time.
It was certainly a big-time Roaring Twenties operation. The club hired famed golfer Tommy Armour (who would win the 1927 U.S. Open at Oakmont) as head professional and amateur Perry Adair, of Adair Real Estate was retained to sell homes. Adair made his good friend Jones an "assistant sales manager," with the apparent sole duty of playing promotional golf exhibitions on the course in front of prospective buyers.
Despite all the marquee names, the development struggled, and in 1927 Whitfield closed. It was revived 10 years later, briefly as a public course, by digging the course out from under 10 years' growth of shrubbery. Apparently the reclamation wasn't ideal, for a few years before his death, Ross told a reporter that, other than Pinehurst No. 2, Whitfield was as good a course as he'd ever designed, "before the membership messed it up."
In the early 1990s, architect Brian Silva reestablished the original dimension of Sara Bay's domed greens, considered by many Ross fans (including me) to be the closest things to those at Pinehurst No. 2. He also added chipping swales around several greens and reclaimed about 40 overgrown bunkers. While the club trumpeted their newly restored Ross design, they gave no credit to Silva.
In 2016, golf architect Kris Spence of North Carolina, a Ross devotee whose previous restorations include Sedgefield Country Club in Greensboro, rebuilt the entire course on an incredibly small budget. To fit it, he and longtime design associate, Jim Harbin, did much of the reshaping themselves. They started with the famed dome greens. Spence had noticed Ross’ hole plans were hanging on a clubhouse wall and realized Sara Bay's greens weren’t anything like those depicted in the drawings.
So he dug into some greens and discovered most of the domed effect was the result of decades of topdressing, unrelated to Ross’ original contours. So he carved away the domed portions of all but four greens (using the excess to raise bunker floors and firm up approach ramps) and still had sufficient green mix above the drain tiles to allow him to stir up the sandy soil and reshape the greens in close proximity to the Ross diagrams.
The par-3 fourth green is of particular note. Given its plateau on the back right, Spence calls it a modified Volcano green. It reminds me of sixth green at Augusta National, which supposedly was based on the Redan green at North Berwick in Scotland. That raises two questions: Was Sara Bay's fourth green a Ross version of a Redan? Was Sara Bay's fourth the template for Bobby Jones's sixth hole at Augusta National?
Spence also relocated and rebuilt bunkers, removed hundreds of trees and simplified grassing patterns so that many areas are just one height of cut, flowing from greens onto next tee boxes. Best of all, Spence recaptured some of Ross’ illusions. Three fairway bunkers on the par-4 11th look as though they’re right in front of the green, but they’re actually 75 yards short of it. Bunkers in front of the 14th green look huge from the tee, but they shrink in size as you approach them.
Spence is big on optics. “I want long views on this course,” he says. “I want golfers to see landforms, to see the definition of bunkers and greens. I want the angles of play to be apparent.”
The finished product is splendid, Donald Ross in all his charm. Say what you will about Seminole, but I consider Sara Bay to be the most authentic Donald Ross design in the Sunshine State.