Flounder to flourish

Features - Spotlight

How one Florida community saved a course from developers — and itself.

November 8, 2022

© Courtesy of David patterson (3)

When you think of your classic golf comeback story, you may think of Ben Hogan or Tiger Woods. But golf courses have comeback stories too, and the one involving River Hills Country Club in Valrico, Florida, proves just what can happen when a community takes collective action.

Taking action 

In 2018, the homeowners surrounding River Hills Country Club were approached by their elected HOA board of directors and asked to purchase the property. The owner at the time was selling and red flags were flying at the possibility that it could be sold to another developer and turned into something completely different.

The community chose to act.

“The community itself, having nothing to do with the golf course, is one of the prettiest and well-maintained communities in Florida,” River Hills general manager Bob Swezey says. “It’s like driving through Disneyland.”

Wanting to maintain the value of their homes and the aesthetic of the area, the homeowners voted in favor of purchasing River Hills.

© Courtesy of David patterson (3)

“What could have been a very contentious practice or procedure, the overwhelming majority — far above what was needed — voted to buy the golf course,” Swezey says. 

Choosing to not only preserve the course but also their community, they got to work. And there was a lot to do. The renovations and restorations that followed have proved a test of patience, will and community strength. 

From the ground up 

River Hills was built in the late 1980s as part of a development project and business was booming. Filled with high-profile members and host to championship tournaments, it was an extremely active facility and community. When the development filled its lots, the club was then sold in 2000. Maintenance started to become somewhat neglected.

“There was a massive amount of deferred maintenance to the golf course infrastructure, to the pump systems, to everything you can name,” Swezey says. 

“The infrastructure was in disarray,” GCSAA Class A superintendent Dave Patterson agrees. “Nothing worked. If you had to do something or get something fixed, you had a challenge to meet a challenge.”

Patterson was hired in October 2019, immediately after the HOA took over.

“Our conditions are so much better now because the superintendent we hired had previous experience in bringing golf courses back to life,” Swezey says. “He’s done an excellent job through an excellent pest management system, a really great agronomic plan, to the biggest part — the elimination of weeds.” 

It was abundantly clear that Patterson faced a difficult task.

“It was from the ground up, it was a pretty extensive in-house renovation,” Patterson says. “The decision was made three years ago, ‘Do you just regrass and start over? Or do you try to fix what you got and look to renovate two or three years down the road?’” 

River Hills decided to essentially start fresh. From installing a new pump station, upgrading the irrigation system, and just trying to keep the course alive, the ongoing process has taken nearly three years.

“We had to do some extensive work in the field to get things working but once we got the irrigation system kind of under control to keep things alive, at that point we started applying our fertilizers and chemicals, and aerifications were immediate,” Patterson says.

On top of the other challenges that Patterson was battling, COVID-19 hit months later.

“A myriad of projects were going on, and an overwhelming majority of those projects were happening in the first six months,” Swezey says. “And then COVID hit March of 2020. There were a lot of speed bumps that had to be overcome in terms of recruiting new members — the retention level on the past membership was very high because they understood the vision. Last year was employment levels. This year is inflation.”

“COVID was a big challenge,” Patterson adds. “We got down to a skeleton crew. We only had maybe sometimes five or six guys and that was the whole staff sometimes.” 

Now, the course has made it out the other side — able to host more events, bring in new members, and feel the success of investing in the course and community.

“Initially, when I got there, the first three years, the membership would roll the ball around if they didn’t have a good lie,” Patterson says. “They would just roll the ball around and find a good lie on some grass, find a weed, find a way to tee it up so they could hit. That’s no longer needed. They’re playing the ball down as it lies now.” 

The other side 

Not only have the course conditions improved greatly, but the overall club and membership has reaped the benefits of the HOA purchase. 

“The first three years, we did not charge a joining fee or an initiation fee,” Swezey says. “Now, we are charging initiation fees. We don’t have any kind of waitlist or anything of that nature. However, we do have people paying those initiation fees, so just like everybody else, the opportunity is now knocking with improved conditions and our reputation in the market.” 

Homeowners automatically became social members of the club.

“They pay $45 a month to the HOA … and that automatically gets them pool privileges, dining privileges, and 24-hour fitness privileges, and no food and beverage minimum,” Swezey says. “Through that, the club has invested the last three years approximately $2.5 million dollars in additional capital over and above purchase price. What that means is a brand-new pump system and satellite boxes, new practice tee with the addition of artificial mats, a new parking lot, new landscaping, new lighting in the parking lot, a complete renovation of the interior of the clubhouse, a new playground, renovated tennis courts, installation of LED championship tennis lights, and equipment purchases.” 

“The biggest thing here in the past couple months that I’ve been hearing is the amount of grass that’s out there,” Patterson says. “We have an enormous amount of grass, we have very thick grass, the ball sits up on the grass a lot better for them to hit it, so their lies are a lot better, their playing conditions are a lot safer, they’re enjoying the rounds of golf and their handicaps are coming down. So, they’re enjoying it.”

Golf isn’t the only thing there is to enjoy at River Hills. Member satisfaction proves that.

“The course and the grounds and clubhouse and the services have all gone beyond expectations in terms of the value and though the service and the quality,” Swezey says. “The club is now hosting a variety of high-profile events, state events, outings, weddings. Like everybody else in the golf industry over the last three years, we’ve had to learn to adapt and respond — and respond proactively and quickly.”

With as much work that has been done in three years, there’s still more planned for the next three to five years.

Focused on the future

“We’re going to continue to make huge capital expenditures for the next probably five years,” Patterson says. “That would involve redressing the irrigation design, newer equipment and more staff.”

“There are future plans to do more to the golf course in the next three, four years,” Swezey adds. “Which will be more extensive redressing, bringing the golf course back to life, eliminating a bunch of trees, new cart paths, clubhouse renovations. So far, the homeowners have made a great decision.”

Aside from the visual upgrades, River Hills has also adopted a “family-centric” mentality. 

“The whole idea is fun,” Swezey says. “Our kids programs are full. I don’t have enough instructors for all the kids. Our vision is to be inviting, distinctive and dynamic. Activity has increased dramatically in the use of the club to get away. It’s private, it’s safe, it’s clean and we have a management staff with over a century of experience.”

The homeowner’s patience has paid off in many ways — not least among them the increased value of their own homes and community.

“While market home prices have increased dramatically, like everywhere else, the homes inside of River Hills increased more than those,” Swezey says. “There’s a continual flow of new property owners throughout not just River Hills but the entire community where the percentage of golfers is going to increase, and therefore also the attractiveness of being somewhere that is private or semi-private. 

“Being in a private facility where like-minded people all gather is going to be huge, especially for families and family golf where it includes the kids, includes the moms, includes the dads, includes everybody in the future.”

River Hills Country Club has come a long way from where it stood two decades ago.

“The brand that had deteriorated over the decades,” Swezey says, “is now again hosting and becoming a standard in the area for private clubs.”

Cassidy Gladieux is a Kent State University senior and regular Golf Course Industry contributor.