Seven years in the making
Patrick Price, Brew Media

Seven years in the making

Fast-growing Florida county set to debut revamped golf course designed by Erik Larsen.

Golf course architect Erik Larsen, ASGCA, and St. Johns County are nearing the completion of a model public golf course project at the St. Johns Golf Club. The changes are set to debut as part of a grand opening ceremony on Nov. 29.

Larsen, a Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, resident and former executive vice president of Arnold Palmer Golf Design Company, has been working on the Florida project for seven years – from feasibility study to planning and finalization.

Larsen worked in concert with longtime director of golf/general manager Wes Tucker and his staff, St. Johns County, its board of county commissioners and Wadsworth Golf Construction Company of Plainfield, Illinois. The St. Johns Golf Club work follows Larsen’s successful 2015 reinvention of the Atlantic Beach Country Club course and its infrastructure east of Jacksonville. Atlantic Beach was the site of the 2016-18 Korn Ferry Tour Championship.

“The St. Johns Golf Club is a terrific example of publicly owned, accessible golf and interesting architectural work coming together to make the players’ experience much more fun,” Larsen said. “Job one was to fix the golf course, which suffered from poor drainage, broken irrigation, outdated features and contaminated grass. This led to making St. Johns a properly functioning course. Then we brought starting and finishing holes, the practice facility and an additional ‘wee-links’ concept nearer to the clubhouse to allow people to interact more. We layered on a ‘throwback’ design style unlike anything around, all which will create more fun and social interaction.”

The St. Johns Golf Club is in Elkton, Florida, amid the 550-home Cypress Lakes subdivision two miles west of Interstate 95 at State Road 207 and approximately 10 miles west of historic downtown St. Augustine, Florida. St. Johns County is one of the fastest growing counties nationally, with a 40 percent population increase in the last decade, according to the U.S. Census Report.

St. Johns Golf Club was established from potato farmland as a county-owned facility in 1989 and operated as a 27-hole course for years despite poor conditioning and with nine holes going fallow a decade ago. After weighing whether to sell the land for housing, St. Johns County opted in 2021 to approve funding on an $8 million renovation to develop an 18-hole course, with the money drawn from recreation impact fees, a transportation trust fund, utility fund, bed tax and general fund. The county will use the excess 80 acres to build new fire and sheriff’s stations and establish to-be-determined amenities.

The work is the continuation of a national trend where the National Golf Foundation estimates that at least 80 percent of all golf course work nationally in the past five years has been renovations with a total investment of more than $9 billion.

“This course is one of the real jewels of St. Johns County,” said Henry Dean, the chair of the St. Johns County Commission. “It’s a wonderful amenity and the public has demonstrated that, with about 35 percent of the rounds coming from out of the county. We were able to fund this not from the general ad valorem tax that affects homeowners, but to utilize the seven million visitors per year that we see here. As a commissioner, I would be irresponsible to walk away from this golf course.”

Larsen brainstormed with St. Johns’ Tucker to use “traditional throwback” design principles by taking three overgrown holes and changing others drastically to produce new routing for a course which has attracted as many as 70,000 rounds in a year. Features include wide fairways, Biarritz, punchbowl and redan green designs and square, low maintenance “coffin” bunkers throughout. These tributes to architects C.B. Macdonald and Seth Raynor from the early 1900s are reminiscent of courses in the United Kingdom’s links-style layouts or Northeastern United States and provide a rare offering for a public course or any course in the Southern United States. An expansive short-game area and finishing and beginning holes and the practice area situated much closer to the clubhouse are also part of the revamped complex. The course includes TifEagle Bermudagrass greens, TifTuf Bermudagrass fairways and zoysiagrass bunker faces. The course will play to par 71 and stretch from a maximum of 7,009 yards to 4,803 yards at the shortest tees.

Greens fee rates were established in August by the St. Johns County Commission. They range from $25 for afternoon walkers to $59.50 for out-of-state visitors.