Space Coast saviors

Features - Spotlight

In the shadow of Kennedy Space Center, a talented trio and new ownership have helped revive La Cita Country Club.

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May 5, 2020

The irrigation system is 38 years old. The greens are 10 years old. The thousands of trees scattered around the course provide so much shade that even with the most aggressive watering schedules, large patches of turf remain brown for months. The director of golf just wants to be able to drive home at the end of the day without some new problem popping up. The superintendent returned from a six-year sabbatical filled with teaching yoga and finding waves. The clubhouse manager is a former underwater welder who lives on the property and is so dedicated that the owner refers to him as “the coordinator of everything.” The owner, for the record, was dispatched by the bank to shut down the course with a single signature.

Instead, she fell in love with the place and purchased it herself.

Welcome to La Cita Country Club in Titusville, Florida, where the Kennedy Space Center still drives the economy and the course is so packed with potential that calling it a rocket is not unfounded. After years of neglect, the right stewards for its revival have gravitated toward the Space Coast, first fixing up the clubhouse and now the course. They are almost two years into what they say will be probably a five-year turnaround. It has not and will not be easy, but it is far better than the alternative.

Unlike so many other courses across the country, up and down the state, even around the city, La Cita never shut down — saved instead by fate, or dumb luck, or love at first sight.

Back in the 1990s and early 2000s, during the height of the course development boom, La Cita was “almost perfect.” Those are the words of Brant Craddock, today the director of golf and back then a club professional who played rounds all over Florida.

“It was a really, really good golf course that was in really, really good shape year-round,” he says. “My buddies and I would make a point to play here at least a couple times during the summer. You knew the greens were going to be perfect, you knew the ball was going to sit in the fairway perfect, you didn’t have to roll it, you didn’t have to touch it.”

The 10-year-old Champion Bermudagrass greens were so spongy that mowers would sink in and scalp the turf.
© Courtesy of La Cita Country Club

The club was still private then, packed with more than 1,000 members, about a third of them there for golf. That number dwindled from the hundreds to the dozens as the Ron Garl and Lee Trevino design withered under years of neglect — to the point where Craddock says the course was “unplayable” from 2014 to 2016. “The goosegrass and the tropical signalgrass weren’t mowed hardly at all,” he says. “Balls were lost in the middle of fairways, balls were lost off the edges of greens, balls were lost in approaches and fringes.” Craddock was working at Walkabout Golf Club, about 11 miles north on Interstate 95 and today redubbed Indian River Preserve Golf Club, and he “wanted to see it with my own eyes.” He played nine holes. “It wasn’t being maintained,” he says. “It was basically an abandoned golf course.”

Craddock arrived at La Cita in June 2018, lured by the challenge of the revival. He knew what the course had been and what it could be, and he had good ideas about how to bring it back.

But first he needed a superintendent.

“The superintendent that was here, he quit the day before I started,” Craddock says. “So, I walked into no superintendent.”

He posted the opening and immediately received a resume and an email from a familiar name: Jason Gross, who had worked with Craddock at Walkabout from 2002 through 2005 before heading out for a renovation project at another area course. Gross had walked away from the industry in 2012 — the club where he worked no longer had “the money in the budget anymore for a superintendent,” he says, and opted to run maintenance as a family. Gross and his girlfriend already operated a yoga studio. He decided that night to shift gears and focus on yoga and surfing. The industry itch returned, as it almost always does, after six years.

“I think I was just ready to get back out and do something again,” says Gross, who received a call from Craddock almost immediately. He toured the club that weekend — showing up with a ponytail halfway down his back, “still yoga-ed out” — and every time Craddock asked him, “You sure you want to do this?” he responded with an emphatic “yes.” He started two weeks later, in the middle of July. The first aerification in who knows how long followed by Aug. 1, along with topdressing every month.

“The greens were spongy,” Gross says. “We would walk on the greens and turn around and see the imprint of our feet. We ended up having to set the mower at a higher height of cut because it was sinking into the turf and would scalp it. There was no power to the irrigation on the whole front nine when we got here. The assistant was spending her whole day, every day, just trying to turn water on to water fairways, tees, greens. There were a lot of issues in the boxes, which we still fight every day. This system is from the ’80s. There have been upgrades through the years, but the computer system, all the hydraulic tubing and piping is all since ’82ish.” Factor in some river salts, lots of coquina rock, serious bouts of fairy ring and Pythium root rot, and so much unwanted shade from so many unwanted trees and there was no shortage of challenges. Good thing Gross and Craddock are both workaholics.

Designed by Ron Garl and Lee Trevino, the course at La Cita was neglected for years before Vivian Zumot Dumond purchased it in December 2017.
© Courtesy of La Cita Country Club (2)

“There are times I have to make him stay away,” Craddock says. “In the summer, he’s in before 6, he’s syringing greens at 2 in the afternoon because the canopies are in the mid to upper 90s and he’s back at 6:30 or 7 to turn the pump system on, or it’s a pre-emerge application time and he’s here till 7:30 or 8 at night three or four days in a row. I tell him, ‘Don’t come in here,’ and then the next morning, he’s standing there having a cup of coffee. ‘Dude, you’re not even supposed to be here.’ ‘There were no waves.’ ‘There aren’t going to be any waves in Florida in July or August. Go find something else to do.’”

“We try, but we do work nonstop,” Gross says. “And the kid works nonstop, all day, every day.”

“The kid” is Justin Belz, officially a 28-year-old former member of the crew who arrived at La Cita from the commercial boat industry two months before Craddock and three months before Gross, and unofficially the coordinator of everything. He is everywhere and does everything — handling the clubhouse renovations, working with Gross on course maintenance requirements, maintaining the website and promoting the course, even pouring drinks and serving food in the dining rooms. His Apple Watch step count tops 20,000 more days than not. “I spend maybe six to eight hours a week off the property,” he says. “I really like this. It’s the challenge. It’s just the challenge of fixing this.”

The first (and probably second and third) priority is that irrigation system, which is approaching the end of its fourth decade of use. Removing or at least pruning some trees and replacing those decade-old and no-longer-quite-so-spongy Champion Bermudagrass greens are on the list, too, but the irrigation system is at the top of the list.

“We need all new pipe,” Gross says. “We need to get rid of the old hydraulic system. All those little black tubings have been in the ground since ’82 and they’re brittle. A lot of times, if one breaks, you got to wait for it to show itself, because some of our pipe is waist-deep, some is head-deep. We don’t stay pressurized. If I turn the system on now, there are so many leaks that heads will be poppin’ all over the place. We have to strategically water. It’s been pretty tough. If you can’t control the water, manage the water … believe me, we get stressed out.”

“If it doesn’t happen in ’20, then I don’t know how much more progress can be made,” says Craddock, noting that the new irrigation systems they’re looking at runs about $850,000 — nearly $300,000 more than the club’s current annual maintenance budget. “That’s the biggest issue right now with what we have. Other work that can be done without the irrigation system being done is, I mean, we can start removing some trees and that will help. If no new irrigation system comes in, we’re going to have to start to remove some of these trees and get rid of some of this shade problem.”

As for the shade, “We have some old oak trees out here that haven’t been pruned — root pruned or top pruned, so there’s a lot of shade and root intrusion in the greens that we’re still working on addressing,” Gross says. “We always have dreams of removing them, but —”

“There are probably a few we’re not allowed to remove.” Craddock interjects.

“ – And some are probably hundred-year-old oaks,” Gross says. “Some of them have trunks as big as a dining-room table. We don’t even have a saw to cut through them.”

Gross has rebuilt what was a depleted equipment roster, too, purchasing a fairway unit, a new spray rig, a bunker rake, a greens mower, a tractor and an aerifier the last two years. That has helped plenty. So has the decision Craddock made almost immediately after starting to shift the club from private to semi-private, a necessity thanks to the evolving space engineering industry.

Brant Craddock, Jason Gross and Justin Belz arrived at La Cita within three months of each other and have sparked the turnaround.
© Matt LaWell

And so has the presence of Vivian Zumot Dimond, the self-described “bad guy from the bank coming to shut it down” who fell in love with the property and rather than shutting the door purchased the whole thing in December 2017.

“It was a neglected place, but it felt nice, it felt good,” she says. “I cannot express it. I cannot explain to you more than I was sent there to figure out what to do with it and I decided to buy it. I don’t golf, I don’t swim and I don’t play tennis. Don’t ask me why I bought the place.”

Dimond has worked in all sorts of industries, most recently and most notably South Florida real estate, but she does manage a 675-acre orange grove and knows about agriculture and, to some degree, agronomy. Along with her sisters Beatrice and Karoline, she also has tremendous faith in the property — and in Gross, Craddock and Belz. “I looked at pictures of what the place used to look like,” she says, “and I think they are magicians. I cannot be more thankful that La Cita has the three of them. It’s looking prettier every day.”

She knows the course needs a new irrigation system. She knows trees need to fall. She knows how far $1.6 million can go on the real estate market and what another $2 million is worth toward renovations. And she knows what the future should hold for La Cita.

“I would like to see a small hotel on the property,” she says. “With the Space Coast recovery and everything going on there, I think the area can handle it.”

Gross, Craddock and Belz certainly can. They just need to hold on tight to the rocket.