Duffer Dan and the Undercover Gang at Sara Bay Country Club
Took a trip this month to Sarasota to experience a Donald Ross masterpiece right here in Florida.
There are over 400 courses that claim they are designs of Donald Ross, but with numerous reworks, poor maintenance, and changes over the years, they are a far cry to what Ross envisioned. One course that has stayed true to the original design and just last year gone through a thorough reconditioning under the watchful eye of Ross contemporary architect Brian Silva is Sara Bay Country Club. Fairway bunkers were restored to their original design, tee complexes leveled and squared, drainage improved, and the infamous turtle back greens, nearly identical to Pinehurst #2, were converted to TifEagle Bermuda.
The club originally opened under the name of Whitfield Estates Country Club in 1926 with Tommy (the Silver Scott) Armour as the head pro, and Bobby Jones as sale manager of real estate. We all know Jones won the Grand Slam, but Armour himself won the U.S. Open, the PGA Championship and the British Open in his 25 career wins. The movie ‘The Legend of Bagger Vance’ storyline was based on the “Battle of the Century” between Jones and Walter Hagen, which was played there. By the way, Hagen beat Jones in a 72-hole match play 12 & 11. Jones said later it was the worst defeat of his life. Despite the loss Jones told a sportswriter “The course is one of the finest I have ever seen, it is what I call a true championship layout and Donald Ross sure extended himself in the design”.
Our host for the day was Dennis Budny, Sr., Membership Director for Sara Bay. Dennis and the excellent staff treated the Gang to a wonderful lunch in the clubhouse, the original building from 1926, beautifully maintained with exquisite flowers and foliage adorning the grounds. The dining area looks out onto the practice putting area and the 1st and 10th tees.
The course has 4 sets of tees to suit the low to high handicapper. After visiting the pro shop and meeting General Manager J. Gavin Darbyshire, we began our game on the hallowed fairways of Sara Bay. The only water that comes into play is Bowles Creek, which winds its way throughout the course and was just in the right place on a few of the holes to cause for some high scores.
The 1st hole is a straightaway 429-yard par 4. About half way down the fairway is a bald eagle nest whose inhabitants have been returning yearly like most of the snowbird members. The creek, which empties into Sarasota Bay, provides some fine dining choices for the brood. That eagle was the closest to birdie we were all day. After two more par 4’s, and some tough short play we came to the 152-yard par 3 fourth hole with the creek cutting across near the green. The next hole is the shortest par 4 and one of my favorites. The sheer majesty of the bougainvillea bushes in full bloom almost take your breath away and help you forget about the ball bouncing next to the pin and then rolling all the way off the green. I was a good duffer, no profanity, just a few prayers and some “oh my gods’ along the way. The fairways are bordered with a full array of mature native trees, and Ross’s signature fairway bunkers dictate where your drive should land. We had some of the May winds contend with which held up our approach shots, or gave us a boost when they were at our back. The number 1 handicap hole was the par 5, 7th with 588 yards, creek, bunkers and a dogleg left to make it all the more challenging. The one thing we can say is we didn’t have to take off our shoes to count our score. The ninth hole plays back to the clubhouse and is a short par 5 reachable in 2 if you don’t hit your ball in the creek. Needless to say the Duffer was swimming with the fish and scoring poorly. After refueling with some much-needed beverages, we were off to the back nine. The back plays a little longer than the front. The total course yardage is 7021 yards from the tips and 5264 from the forward tees. The back closes with 2 great par fives. I usually pick my favorite, but with the diversity of the layout, both sides are equally fun and interesting. Let’s just say I got whipped, not as bad as Jones but almost. The cold ones in the clubhouse with our favorite host, Dennis, made the pain slip away.
Sara Bay Country Club is a golfer’s delight. They will be hosting the Florida Senior Amateur Match Play Tournament in July. With a limited membership it is truly one of the finest golf experiences available in Florida with its unique tradition and classic beauty. To find out more about membership you can call 941-355-7688 or go to www.SARABAYCC.org.