An award-winning renovation that converted a county-run 18-hole golf course into the first reversible nine in Florida has decreased maintenance inputs – and increased interest in playing the two short courses.
Sometimes less is more. When Sailfish Sands Golf Course, formerly the 36-hole Martin County Golf & Country Club in Stuart, Fla., completed renovations last fall, the public property reopened with a new look and a new name.
The footprint of one of the 18-hole layouts, which originally opened in the 1920s, also was reduced when it was redesigned as a nine-hole reversible golf course—the first reversible course in Florida. Sailfish Sands won a 2021 American Society of Golf Course Architects Environmental Excellence Award for its efforts, as well.
“We needed to modernize our golf course. We needed to do something to stand apart from everybody,” says Kevin Abbate, Martin County Parks and Recreation Director.
He knew the county, which retook control of golf course operations in 2015 from a nonprofit that had had a 40-year lease to manage the property, needed to come up with something special to get declining rounds and revenue back on track.
“I had done some research, and the board gave the architects the challenge to come up with a reversible nine,” Abbate says. “We also considered having double greens, but this was the best design on the available land. This is my baby.”
After nearly 50 public meetings to develop concepts and get approvals for the $8.2 million project, construction got underway in March 2020 right after the pandemic hit. The golf course, which was closed during construction, reopened in October 2021.
Before the renovation, Abbate says, “The worst days were Saturday and Sunday. Now the best days are Saturday and Sunday.”
Sailfish Sands now has about 260 rounds per day for all 27 holes, which includes the Sailfish 18 course, adds Abbate, and 60% of total play has been on the nine-hole course.
Covering 60 acres, the reversible courses—the Sands Black and the Sands Gold—can be played as 18 different holes with par 3s, par 4s, and par 5s. Each hole has five sets of tee boxes, and golfers play in one direction one week and the opposite direction the following week.
The 3,368-yard, par-35 Sands Black Course plays clockwise into a tailwind, and the 2,868-yard, par-34 Sands Gold Course plays counterclockwise into a headwind. “The Sands Gold is the harder of the two,” Abbate says.
‘All About the Environment’
When the former course, the Red and White, was reduced to the nine-hole layout, the overall area requiring maintenance inputs such as mowing, along with chemical and fertilizer applications, decreased by 40% as well.
Twenty acres of unirrigated native areas were retained to reduce the amount of maintained turf, and at least seven golf holes stretching across 40-50 acres from the 18-hole Red and White were removed from inside the adjacent airport’s Runway Protection Zone and allowed to revert to their natural state.
“We’re all about the environment,” says Golf Course Superintendent Joe Brink, who started working at the property six months ago, after the grow-in was complete. “We’re basically farmers that grow turf as our crop. We need to do everything we can to protect the land and conserve water.”
Martin County also has environmental requirements for the products it uses on the golf course, and Golf Course Administrator Michael Saunders says eco-friendly maintenance practices create a “positive image for the golf course.”
While native trees and palms were preserved, nuisance vegetation was eliminated. Water consumption and stormwater runoff into waterways has been reduced, and the elevation of low areas improved site drainage. Brink also follows South Florida Water Management District specifications.
“This property drains quite well because it is on a sand ridge that runs through the east coast of Florida,” he says.
The superintendent also calls the irrigation system, which was installed on all of the holes four or five years ago, “the best one I have ever had.”
“Now I can be very detailed and specific on what I want to water and when,” he says. “It has in and out sprinkler heads on the greens that can water just the greens or only the slopes outside the greens.”
The reversible golf course also has a combination of sand bunkers and waste bunkers. While maintenance staff members rake the sand bunkers daily, the waste bunkers require edging, weeding, and trimming.
In addition, Brink says that the staff mows the reversible course just like a traditional golf course. Crew members mow the greens daily. They mow the tees and fairways three times a week and the rough as needed.
The maintained area of the reversible nine includes 25 acres of fairways, 2 1/2 acres of greens, and 2 acres of tees. The rough covers 20 acres, and the no-mow areas, where native grasses grow, are located in various spots on the course.
TifEagle greens and Celebration Bermudagrass tees, fairways, and rough on the Sands courses have improved maintenance inputs as well.
With its ability to handle lower mowing heights and frequent verticutting to control thatch buildup, the TifEagle turf recovers more quickly from mechanical injury. The cold-hardy, drought-tolerant, disease-resistant Ultra-Dwarf also has better color than traditional grasses. In addition, the TifEagle grass has improved the speed, consistency, and playability of the greens.
The dense, deep blue-green Celebration Bermudagrass stands up well to wear-and-tear, heat, cold, shade, drought, and salt.
The new and improved Sands Black and Sands Gold courses don’t only benefit the maintenance staff. The reversible nine provides advantages to golfers as well.
“They love it. The course is in great condition,” reports Saunders. “The ball rolls well. It rolls true. The conditions are second to none.”
PGA Golf Professional Will Reilly agrees. “A huge advantage is the condition of the golf course,” he adds. “When we flip the golf course, it’s completely different. The general public always gets a golf course that’s in really good shape.”
Brink, who oversees all 27 holes, says maintaining the Sands courses is no different from maintaining the 18-hole course.
“My agricultural plan is pretty much universal throughout the whole property,” he says. “I still maintain the turf the same way I would maintain turf on any golf course. The only difference is setup.”
Golf for Generations
Along with its favorable environmental impact, the project, which was seven years in the making, was designed to grow the game as well.
“Our goal is to get golf clubs into the hands of first-timers,” says Abbate. “The goal was to create a golf course for any generation. We’re trying to appeal to the masses as a public facility that provides something for everybody in the golf world.”
Martin County has been getting calls from people about the golf course, he adds, and the reversible nine is a conversation piece as well as a marketing tool.
“It’s a competitive advantage overall. When somebody hears about it, they want to know about it and they want to come play it,” Saunders says. “It’s a brand new golf course, so it’s creating a lot of excitement with people inside and outside the county.”
Player development is a big part of Sailfish Sands, he adds, and being the first reversible nine in Florida—and one of only four in the United States—has become an important aspect of the property’s identity.
“It’s huge,” says Saunders. “You can’t overstate it. A lot of it has to do with Kevin’s vision. He came up with the idea. It’s not just a regular, 18-hole golf course that you’re going to come out and play. It’s for everyone from a 36-handicap to a scratch golfer.”
Reilly, who has worked at the property for six months, says one of his chief roles is to describe and explain the reversible course to people so they’ll want to play it.
“The first time people play it, it’s a little confusing. The second time, they love it,” he says. “The only way to truly get all the angles and understand why the greens are built a certain way and the bunkers face a certain way is to play it.”
Reilly also is in charge of the multiple programs at Sailfish Sands such as its Family Golf Program, Get Golf Ready, Power Principle Program, and Welcome to Golf, and he uses the nine-hole course to attract new golfers.
“The tees make it more interesting because we can move them all over the course,” says Reilly.
Other new amenities at Sailfish Sands include a 13-acre, Toptracer Range-powered practice range that includes lighting for evening practice or play, LED glow balls, interactive targets, and ball-tracking technology.
“Toptracer appeals to people who are serious about working on their game,” notes Saunders.
When golfers download an app, Abbate explains, cameras or radar on the range follow their ball so that the technology tracks the ball speed, accuracy, distance and trajectory of every shot. “That range has been unbelievably busy,” he adds.
A restaurant and 20 climate-controlled hitting bays that have Toptracer technology will open in the late spring or early summer. From the double-decker bays, golfers can hit to the natural grass on the driving range.
Unlike the previous range that ran east to west, the new driving range, which also opened in October, runs north to south, Saunders says, so the sun no longer is an issue.
Reilly, who previously worked with Saunders and was recruited by him to run the golf programs at Sailfish Sands, credits the property’s newfound success to the staff’s innovative, cutting edge, forward thinking.
He quickly has developed a rapport with Brink as well.
“Joe has been very open to everything we wanted to do,” says Reilly. “Our superintendent has done a fantastic job. He always says, ‘yes.’ It’s great to have a superintendent that’s on your side.”
For instance, on the Sailfish 18, Reilly says they asked Brink to verticut the greens, remove the thatch from them and roll them when some people said they were too slow.
“The greens roll at a pace that’s appropriate for a public golf course. It’s set up to provide golfers who come here to have a positive experience,” Saunders says.
Before the season started, he adds, they also asked Brink to widen the fairways on the Sands courses.
The three of them get together every day to discuss golf course setup, pin positions, and the speed of the greens.
If Reilly gets an e-mail in praise of the putting surfaces, he makes sure to forward it to Brink. “Joe doesn’t get to hear the compliments,” says Reilly.
While Brink has separate six-man crews and equipment for each golf course, the two staffs operate as a team, as well.
“We use all manpower as needed if there’s a project on one golf course or the other,” states Brink. “We recently had all hands on deck for a PGA Junior event on the 18-hole golf course.”
Brink and Reilly compile a master schedule of major maintenance projects and golf course outings, and the superintendent also drops by the pro shop regularly to find out if there have been any complaints or if anything needs to be addressed.
“Communication is number one, and Joe does a good job of fostering that,” Reilly says. “When no one cares who gets the credit, a lot of good things can be done.”
Sailfish Sands Golf Course
Club Website: www.sailfishsands.com
No. of Holes:
27 (Championship Sailfish 18, Reversible 9 Sands Black and Sands Gold)
Designer: John Sanford, Reversible 9
Type: Public/daily fee
Year Opened: 1926 pre-renovation; 2021 post-renovation
Golf Season: Year-round
Annual Rounds of Golf: 50,000
Reversible 9 – Celebration Bermudagrass;
Championship 18 – 419 Bermudagrass
Reversible 9 – TifEagle Bermudagrass;
Championship 18 – Jones Dwarf Bermudagrass
Years at Sailfish Sands Golf Course: Six months
Years in the Golf Course Maintenance Business: 30
Previous Employment: Lake Worth Beach (Fla.) Golf Club
Certifications: Class A member of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA); Restricted Use Pesticide License
Honors and Awards: Brink won the Most Improved Condition Award in 2018 at Lake Worth Beach Golf Club and has three safety certificate achievements. In 2021, Sailfish Sands earned an American Society of Golf Course Architects (ASGCA) Environmental Excellence Award and a Golf Range Association of America Top 50 Range Award.
Course + Grounds Operations Profile
Sailfish Sands Golf Course
Annual Budget: $2,105,908
Staff: Four fulltime; 16 part-time
Key Staff Members:
Michael Saunders, Golf Course Administrator; Will Reilly, Golf Professional
Irrigation System: Toro Lynx
Water Source and Usage: Sailfish Sands Golf Course’s water source comes from the ponds and lakes on the course itself, with usage of 1.5 million gallons a month.
Equipment: Sailfish Sands Golf Course uses Toro equipment and currently owns all of the equipment.
Technology: GPS on golf carts equipped with geofencing; Toptracer technology on driving range, glow range nights with LED targets, leadership boards and challenge boards like “beat the pro,” “closest to the pin,” and “precision” competition game plays that alternate monthly.
Maintenance Facility: Sailfish Sands Golf Course maintenance facility includes a large break room equipped with a restaurant-grade coffee machine, 25 lockers, two restrooms, three offices, a storage area, and mechanic shop designed to be able to move large equipment in and out of the shop easily.
Aerating and Overseeding Schedules: Aerification on greens three times a year, tees three times a year, and fairways two times a year. No overseeding.
Upcoming Capital Projects: Sailfish Sands Golf Course’s upcoming capital projects include a restaurant with a full bar and 20 hitting bays with Toptracer technology, where well-known courses will be able to be played virtually along with different games. New tee boxes, new fairways and greens will be built on the 18-hole Championship course.
Duties and Responsibilities: At Sailfish Sands Golf Course, staff duties and responsibilites include the entire golf operation, tee time reservations, golf cart operations, lessons and programs, leagues, re-gripping and club repair, glow ball range nights, Toptracer range management, inventory and pro shop management, golf course conditions, and pace of play.