A complete, $6.3 million renovation to The Oaks Club’s Heron Course, one of two 18-hole golf courses at the property on the southwest Florida coast, has resulted in significantly improved playability and greater ability to withstand the whims of Mother Nature.
Poor drainage, repeated threats of severe weather, and an amenity in decline created the perfect storm that prompted The Oaks Club in Osprey, Fla., about 12 miles south of downtown Sarasota, to renovate its Heron Course, one of two 18-hole layouts at the property.
“We had an aging asset that didn’t reflect our brand,” says General Manager and Chief Operating Officer Jeff Hartigan, CCM, CCE. “We wanted to update it so that members could enjoy it a lot more.”
The Oaks Club certainly appears to have accomplished what it set out to do, and more. Since that $6.3 million renovation project, which began in August 2014 and was completed in November 2016, the Heron Course has received strong reviews from the membership for how it offers improved playability. At the same time, it has weathered severe threats that have since been posed by tropical storms and Hurricane Irma.
Prior to the renovation, playing conditions of the Heron Course, which was 31 years old by the time the project was finished, left much to be desired. The golf course had major infrastructure problems caused by poor surface and subsurface drainage; an old, inadequate irrigation system; and poorly constructed greens and bunkers.
“Drainage was a big issue with the rainfall we get in Florida,” says Hartigan, who has been at The Oaks Club for seven years. “A lot of water accumulated after it rained, and flooding would lead to long delays and lots of labor and cleanup. The flooding also went into neighboring yards.”
Director of Green and Grounds Nick Kearns, who has been at the property for six years, agrees. “The course stayed extremely wet, and water was slow to run off,” he adds. In addition, the age of the soil profile was problematic.
The golf-course conditions also paled in comparison to those of the property’s Eagle Course, which was renovated in 2006-07. Director of Golf Tim Beckwith, who has been at The Oaks Club for 19 years, says discussions about the Heron Course project began when the Eagle Course was being renovated. Plans tapered off during the economic downturn, but resumed in 2012.
According to Beckwith, the Eagle Course project influenced the goals of the Heron Course renovation, by focusing on the need to improve drainage, irrigation and playability.
And convincing the membership to undertake another major renovation project was not a tough sell. In fact, Hartigan says, “It was very much member-driven.”
A grass-roots effort by influential members brought others on board, he explains, and the membership overwhelmingly voted to approve the Heron Course project.
Ripping Off the Band-Aid
One of the first decisions The Oaks Club had to make about the Heron renovation was whether or not to keep the course open during the project.
“In the initial conversations, we thought about doing one nine and then the other nine, but we decided to do it all at once,” says Hartigan. “We decided to rip off the Band-Aid and do it as quickly as we could.”
Having another golf course for the membership to play also made it easier to decide to close the course during the complete tee-to-green renovation.
“Every square inch of the [Heron] golf course —the greens, tees, fairways, and bunkers—was disturbed in some manner,” notes Hartigan.
During the Heron course renovation, the property installed a new drainage system with 200 additional drains and a new irrigation system. With almost 1,500 heads, the new system has nearly doubled sprinkler coverage (previously, the Heron Course had 750 to 800 heads).
To choose the new irrigation system, Kearns explored all available options. Ultimately, however, he relied on consultations with other golf courses and the opportunity for continued support from the local distributor to make the selection.
The property also installed Better Billy Bunkers, which minimize sand erosion and sand contamination from native soils during heavy rainstorms, on the Heron Course. In addition, the project included state-of-the-art greens construction, new and improved turfgrasses, and new landscaping.
Since the golf course reopened for play after the renovations, Hartigan says, “There has been a drastic change in reciprocal play. We don’t see many members leave to play other reciprocal courses.”
No doubt, improved golf course maintenance inputs and enhanced playability have contributed to the members’ enjoyment of the Heron Course. The addition of the new bunkers has made the hazards easier to maintain, and the greens were reconstructed to reduce maintenance and water usage.
“The new irrigation system keeps the moisture of the golf course more consistent now,” says Kearns. “Before, we had to run the sprinklers longer, but moisture consistency is much easier than it was in the past.”
Both golf courses also earned Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program certification six to eight months after the completion of the Heron Course renovation.
During the project, the property removed invasive Brazilian peppertrees to create new habitat. Material was pumped out of the bottom of the lake and used to replenish its banks. The Oaks Club also has a bat house and 24 birdhouses on the property.
In addition, Kearns, the current president of the Florida Golf Course Superintendents Association, is certified in best-management practices.
The project also achieved its goal of enhancing the playability of the Heron Course, to further accentuate a key distinction of The Oaks Club.
“One of the unique features of the club is that the [two golf courses] do not have the same variety of grass,” Kearns explains. The Heron Course has Bermudagrass greens and fairways, and the Eagle Course has Supreme Paspalum greens and fairways. The turf, color, and design of the two golf courses are completely different, notes Beckwith, which makes their playability significantly different in a number of ways.
For example, golfers don’t play their short games the same way on the two courses because of the difference in the turf. “You can land your ball and roll it across the Bermuda [of the Heron Course] better,” Beckwith explains. “The Eagle Course catches the ball more. It doesn’t bounce and release. The paspalum has a stronger leaf blade, grows vertically and has less grain. and the ball sits up on it better.”
The Heron Course, with slopes on the backs of the greens that let players hit balls long and roll them back toward the pin, is also more forgiving than the Eagle Course. “The playability of Heron promotes the ball to go to key locations,” says Kearns.
“One of the great things about the [Heron] course when it comes to playability is that, for the high handicapper, there are a lot of areas around the green to miss and still make bogey,” Beckwith adds. “Low handicappers still have the expectation to make par. The course is still a challenge for the low handicapper, but it was designed for all players.”
While the Heron Course gets more play, notes Beckwith, members tend to bring guests to the more difficult Eagle Course. For golf outings, however, the property tries to balance the use of the two courses.
“For events, we’ll play one day on the Eagle and one on the Heron,” says Beckwith. “It’s a really, really good balance. That was not the case prior to the Heron renovation. Now we have two great courses.”
Hurricane PreparednessWeather is a constant challenge for The Oaks Club staff, and the effectiveness of the Heron Course’s new drainage and irrigation systems was quickly tested by tropical storms, as well as Hurricane Irma in September 2017. Not surprisingly, The Oaks Club has a hurricane-preparedness plan in place for uninvited, one-named intruders.
The most effective ways to get ready for a hurricane, Hartigan says, are to communicate, be over-prepared, and be proactive. The Oaks Club staff communicates plans to members by e-mails that include videos and photos. Other preparatory actions include boarding up the facility, bringing pool furniture inside, moving clubhouse furniture to the center of the building, and putting sandbags around the clubhouse.
Maintenance staff members remove potential flying debris such as trash cans, bunker rakes, tee markers, signage, and pins from the golf courses. They also make sure equipment is secured properly.
For Hurricane Irma, Hartigan says, “The key staff stayed to ensure that there were boots on the ground. Nick [Kearns] had tractors strategically placed around the golf course, to be ready to clear debris.”
After the hurricane, Kearns cleared tree debris from the driveway to create ingress and egress for staff personnel and members. He and Hartigan also took a golf car around the property to clear drains, and personally checked on some members’ homes. “We do as much as possible to protect the members’ asset,” Kearns says.
Home Sweet Home
While The Oaks Club complements the Heron and Eagle courses with other amenities, golf is the main attraction and a vital part of the facility’s overall operations. “Golf remains the number-one reason why people purchase homes here,” says Hartigan. “If someone buys a home, club membership is required. We have not been able to allow non-resident members for four years, and the Heron Course renovation is a prime reason we have reached the membership cap.”
Feedback about the improvements to the golf course from the membership, which includes many retired baby boomers, has been positive, Beckwith adds. “It was a 100-percent success,” he says. “Every single comment was positive. As it stands now, it’s still positive, with the way the members talk about it and play the golf course.”
And that reaction is gratifying to The Oaks Club staff. “Our members travel all over the world and play great golf courses,” says Hartigan. “Now we hear the comment, ‘It’s nice to come home and play our courses.’”
THE OAKS CLUB
Location: Osprey, Fla.
Club Website: www.theoaksclub.com
Golf Holes: 36
Hurdzan & Fry (Heron Course);
Arthur Hills (Eagle Course)
Property Type: Private
No. of Members: 680; Golf is capped and on five-year golf waitlist
Year Opened: 1985
Golf Season: October to May
Annual Rounds of Golf: 18,000 per course
Eagle Course – Supreme Paspalum
Heron Course – Celebration Bermudagrass
Eagle Course – Supreme Paspalum
Heron Course – TifEagle Bermudagrass
Title: Director of Green and Grounds
Duties and Responsibilities: Responsible for the golf course grounds, clubhouse grounds, club-owned property within the Homeowners Association, and entrance to the club
Years at The Oaks Club: 6 1/2
Years in Golf Course Maintenance Profession: 20
• Director of Golf Grounds & Assistant Superintendent, The Ritz-Carlton Members Club, Sarasota, Fla. (7 1/2 years)
• Assistant Superintendent, Laurel Oak Country Club, Sarasota, Fla. (1 1/2 years)
• Intern and Turf Graduate, Augusta National Golf Club, Augusta, Ga. (1 1/2 years)
• Groundskeeper, Yankee Hill Country Club, Lincoln, Neb. (3 years)
Education and Training: Associates Degree in Horticulture, with an emphasis in Turfgrass Management, from Southeast Community College, Beatrice, Neb.
Certifications: Florida Pesticide License, Green Industry Best Management Practices Certification, Golf Course Best Management Practices Certification
Honors and Awards:
• 2019 North Florida Southwest Chapter – Superintendent of the Year
• 2014 North Florida Section – Superintendent of the Year
• 2013 North Florida Southwest Chapter – Superintendent of the Year
• Served as President, Vice President and Secretary of the Suncoast Golf Course Superintendent Association
• Currently serves as President of the Florida Golf Course Superintendents Association
The Heron and Eagle golf courses have earned Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program certification. The Heron Course was a 2016 American Society of Golf Course Architects Design Excellence Recognition Program honoree.
Course + Grounds Operations Profile
THE OAKS CLUB
Annual Course Maintenance Budget: $2.9 million
• Jason Ziegler, Equipment Manager (12 years)
• Dale Taylor, Golf Course Superintendent (4 years)
• Max Rudder, Assistant Superintendent (1 year)
• Kyle Bender, Assistant Superintendent (4 months)
• Guillermo Villegas, Irrigation Technician (11 years)
Irrigation System: Toro Network VP Satellite Control Boxes & Lynx Central Control; Toro Infinity & 850 Series Sprinklers; 3,000 Sprinklers
Water Sources (2018 Usage):
• Stormwater transfer system (6.849 million gallons)
• Reclaimed water (76 million gallons)
• Well water (119 million gallons)
• Pumpstation (201.866 million gallons)
Equipment: John Deere mowers and Toro utility carts (all leased)
Technology: GPS sprayers
Maintenance Facility: Recent upgrades include ESD equipment washstation/ESD chemical storage building, and mix load area/fuel station
Aerating and Overseeding Schedules: Begin course closures for summer maintenance in May. Begin alternating Monday closures in October. Only the driving-range tees are overseeded.