The greens at Sara Bay Country Club are said to most closely resemble those at another great Donald Ross design, Pinehurst No. 2.
Founded in 1926, as Whitfield Estates Country Club, Sara Bay Country Club has flown under the radar for more than nine decades. Several unsympathetic renovations down the years erased much of the initial design intent.
In 2017, the club commissioned Kris Spence to restore the greens and bunkers which Donald Ross envisioned. Spence used Ross’ original hand drawings to painstakingly return each bunker and putting surface to the character intended. The work completed in 2018 and many commentators believe Sara Bay is now Florida’s truest Ross design.
Kris Spence clearly agrees: “The finished product is splendid, Donald Ross in all his charm. Say what you will about Seminole, but Sara Bay may be the most authentic Donald Ross design in the Sunshine State.”
I played Sara Bay twice before the most recent work by Kris Spence and came away feeling empty both times. The previous restoration/renovation efforts seemed to fall in to the "every Ross green is a turtle's back" school of laziness. In fact, prior to the work I put Sara Bay as the worst (actual) Donald Ross course I played up to that point.
Armed with both data and a desire to actually do the job Kris Spence restored nuance and sophistication to the course. Sara Bay is now in the upper echelon of my experience.
As with most flat site Ross courses (Fort Myers CC another notable example) drainage canals/waterways feature in some of the quirkier moments and the first real blood pumping tee shot happens on the short two-shot fifth hole. Your level of aggression will dictate the selection of any number of shots and lines off the tee.
The same feature figures on the dueling one-shot third and eighth holes, especially pernicious on the right side of eight where the omnipresent wind can and will toy with the carelessly trajected shot.
The three-shot holes traverse the outer boundaries of the property effectively and the ninth and back-to-back seventeenth and eighteenth form a great appoggiatura to a round with ample opportunity to walk away having gained (or lost) a shot or two to old man Par. The uphill approach to nine is well-guarded and always satisfying to execute.
The remaining two-shot holes form a core challenge to the approach game, as one would expect from anything designed personally by Donald Ross. Spence's work especially highlights precise approach requirements on the similar length first and tenth, the long second, the drive-and-pitch sixth, and the wooded twelfth and fourteenth.
Sara Bay now passes both my "walk in the park" and "greater than the sum of the parts" test flawlessly. Little could be improved upon, especially as the previous bunker restoration is slowly removed and replaced with a more thoughtful, and accurate, representation of Donald Ross under Kris Spence's steady guidance.
Sara Bay was originally called Whitfield Estates Country Club. It was developed by a friend of Bobby Jones, named Perry Adair, who brought in Donald Ross for the course design. Bobby Jones worked as the real estate sales manager for three winters 1925-1927. It was here that the “Match of the Century”, between Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen commenced. The format was 36 at Whitfield Estates and another 36 at Pasadena Golf Club, Hagen’s home club. It was not much of a match as Hagen won soundly 12 and 11. As with most Ross designs, there are lots of table tops greens and they do not hold especially well (or at least in the dry season)
The first hole is welcoming. A what you see is what you get par 4, straight ahead with a fairway bunker right. The 2nd is wee bit tougher, longer with a fairway bunker left and another greenside. The green tilts back to front. Three through six provide good birdie opptys. The 3rd is a slight dogleg left. Favor right of center off the tee. This is a multi-tiered green with a bunker front right. The 4th is the shortest. A neat little par three over a creek to a green that tilts back to front and is protected by right and left front bunkers. The dogleg left 5th is a birdiehole, but DO NOT HIT DRIVER. You must carry the creek twice, off the drive and on your approach. To be safe leave yourself a 125 yard shot to the green. The 6th is straight forward, favor the left off the tee to avoid the right fairway bunkers. The green is protected by 3 bunkers, right, left and front. However, the center bunker is about 10 yards short of the tabletop green. The 7this the longest hole and the number one handicap hole. That I don’t see. Yes, there are 6 fairway bunkers right and 3 left, but it is a 3 shot hole. Yes, one must carry a creek about 70 yards short of the green that has green-side bunkers front right and left, but three average shots have you putting for par. The 8th is a mid to long par 3 with a creek near the green. If the flag is right of center the tree on the right provides a bunker in the sky affect. The 9th is an interesting par 5. Dogleg right and definitely reachable, but there are some decision points along the way. Th right hand bunker is a drive eater. If you are a big hitter you can fly it or favor the left. A creek cuts across the fairway about 110-130 yards out. If you are laying up plan accordingly, but in most cases don’t be a wimp. The elevated green is protected by a greenside bunker right and three on the left.
The back starts off almost identically as the first and second, they are within 5 yards of each other and run parallel. The 12th is a relatively straight par 4 with a creek about 80-110 yards in front o f the green. The 13th is a long slightly uphill par 3 with a very narrow green and a bunker right. Difficult to hold this green. The 14th is a good birdie oppty, straight away, fairway bunkers right and the classic bunkers left, middle and right. The 15th is a long par 4 and the number two handicap hole. The omnipresent creek is about 120-140 yards out, greenside bunkers right and left front to another green that does not hold very well. The 16th is 194 yards and is ranked the easiest hole on the course. The 17th is a bombs away par five. Fairway bunkers left and a gaggle of bunkers on the right side in front of the green. Defintie birdie oppty. The finishing hole is also a par five. Favor the left off the tee to avoid the right fairway bunkers. Warning, warning, you cannot see the creek on your next shot. It looks like clean sailing fairway all the way to the green. It is not. Just about anything inside of 110 yards will end up in the %$&*^% creek. Layup.
My expectations were probably too high. The designed felt like production golf, as opposed to making the most of the piece of property. I encourage you to spend time in the clubhouse. There are some really neat artifacts, awards, articles and trophies on display. Glad I went, don’t need to go back
In 2018, Sara Bay hired Kris Spence to restore their course. His work here is at least the equal of his past successes at Roaring Gap and Sedgefield.
Previous changes had eliminated much of the original design and rendered Sara Bay’s greens so heavily contoured that hole locations were severely limited. Spence not only improved the greens (while still retaining challenging contouring) but also improved the bunkering. His best work came on the four par 5s. Bunkers confronting every tee shot require strategic decisions as well as on each second shot, an area where architects often fall asleep.
Though Donald Ross is the original architect, Spence also channeled some Alister Mackenzie. Two bunkers on # 11 appear to be greenside but are, in fact, well short of the putting surface. It's not all Spence's work however. An interesting pot bunker on #5 came at the suggestion of member Gary Cole.
With this work complete, Sara Bay is now ready to move from “Gem” to a spot among Florida’s top courses. I liked it better than Sawgrass, Burnt Pine or Dye’s Valley and thought it comparable to North Palm Beach, Timuquana, Pine Tree, Indian Creek and Country Club of Orlando, placing it easily among top 50 in the state on this site.