Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 17, 2022

Last Visit To An Old Favorite

The first tee on the Pine Barrens course at World Woods Golf Club sits on the property’s highest point, with the broad opening fairway stretching out before the golfer as it runs down a gentle slope to a landing area guarded on the left by a large expanse of sand.  Still, the generous width of short grass invites players starting their rounds to swing away on their first shot of the day.  It is, as famed golf course architect Alister MacKenzie said about the first hole at one of his own creations, “a gentle beginning.”

MacKenzie of course never laid eyes on either Pine Barrens or Rolling Oaks, the other 18 at World Woods, tucked away in Brooksville, Florida.  The club opened in 1993, realizing the dream of a group of Japanese investors to develop a high-end daily fee golf experience.  Their chosen site was 1,200 acres an hour north of Tampa in a part of the state that is far more rural and with terrain far more rolling than visitors to the condo strewn flatlands of both Florida coasts are used to seeing.  In addition to the two regulation layouts, on opening day World Woods featured a 9-hole short course, four practice holes, a massive circular practice range, separate iron range, and multiple putting greens.

The club was an instant hit with the sport’s media, who heaped praise on both Pine Barrens and Rolling Oaks.  One of many reasons for the acclaim was that designer Tom Fazio managed to use what the land gave him to produce two strikingly different golf courses on the same site.  He exposed acres of the naturally sandy soil at Pine Barrens, creating a visually arresting layout featuring vast waste bunkers on many holes.  Just yards away, at Rolling Oaks, Fazio left the turf in place, yielding a more traditional parkland course that winds its way through the mature woodlands that cover the property.

Both courses were immediately ranked among the best public-access layouts in the United States.  Golfweek magazine’s ranking of the country’s top modern courses had Pine Barrens at #26, and both tracts were consistently ranked among the top ten public courses in a state with more than 1,200 places to play the ancient game.

But the acclaim for the quality of golf at World Woods failed to mention that the experience faltered once one left the 18th green.   The clubhouse was rudimentary, with a pro shop and restaurant that reminded most visitors of their favorite muni than any high-end experience.  And plans for a third course, along with a hotel and real estate development on the considerable available land were always part of the club’s “phase two.”  As the years went by, with Pine Barrens and Rolling Oaks turning ten years old, then twenty, it became apparent that the project’s developers lacked the resources to turn phase two into anything more than words on a website.

Given the property’s remote location, the absence of any draw other than 36 impressive holes of golf was inevitably going to be insufficient to support a viable business plan.  In turn, years of stretched finances resulted in a gradual decline in the club’s infrastructure and course maintenance.  By last year Pine Barrens had fallen to #172 in the same Golfweek ranking, and while both courses were still among the top 25 in the state, they had long since lost their pride of place.

The long, slow decline of World Woods meant that the golfing community was heartened by January’s news that Cabot, the Canadian company cofounded by Ben Cowan-Dewar and Bandon Dunes creator Mike Keiser, had purchased the Florida property with plans to make it Cabot’s first U.S. golf destination.  In multiple press releases since, Cabot has described plans to renovate Pine Barrens, remake Rolling Oaks, and completely redo the rest of the site’s golf offerings while beginning work on a hotel and starting real estate sales as soon as later this year.  Already Cabot Citrus Farms, as World Woods will soon be known, has its own glossy website where the well-heeled can sign up to receive further information on plans for residential development and an eventual third 18-hole course on the site.

Any golfer who has made the drive to Brooksville multiple times over the years, be it from Tampa or Orlando or wherever, knows that Cabot’s purchase of World Woods is good news for Pine Barrens.  Presumably less so for Rolling Oaks, since the plan is apparently to completely redo that course, but the point remains.  Regular visitors came because of the solid bones of both courses but could not ignore the gradual deterioration in conditioning. 

Still, for the golfer standing on the first tee at Pine Barrens on an early afternoon in mid-March, the words Joni Mitchell wrote long ago cannot help but come to mind.  “Something’s lost, but something’s gained, in living every day.”  World Woods is being rescued, but at a cost, in the most literal sense of the word, for many golfers.  The site will soon close for its reimagining, depriving local players of 36 holes they regularly enjoy.  When it reopens sometime in 2023, most of those golfers, and many of the thousands who have visited over the years, will no longer be able to afford the $300 or $400 it will cost to play. 

Looking down at the opening fairway from the property’s highest point, the golfer knows this, but for a few hours must set aside thoughts of the future.  What matters is the next shot.  His tee ball sails into the air, hanging for a moment against the bright blue sky before dropping to the short grass, safely clear of that yawning waste bunker.  The next swing, with a hybrid, is pulled a bit, but his ball lands on the green and rolls to a stop on the very left edge of the putting surface.  A putt of more than 30 feet, on wiry Bermuda grass, rolls up to within inches of the cup, leaving a tap-in for par.  The golf gods are smiling, at least for the moment.  One more round at Pine Barrens is underway.

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