Santa Rosa Sets A New Standard For Natural Area Integration

 As seen in Golf Business March/April 2022 

By Steve Eubanks:

As clubs look for ways to cut costs without sacrificing course conditions, the trend toward turfgrass minimizing continues apace. The USGA Green Section estimates extraordinary levels of savings for every acre of maintained turf a course owner removes. Depending on your region of the country, you could realize a five-figure savings annually for every acre of grass you take out of play, which makes sense. Not only are your fertilizer, chemical, water and labor costs decreased, your equipment lasts longer when you maintain less grass.

But, how, exactly, do you take out turfgrass without leaving a mess or adding to pace-of-play problems? 

One course on the North Florida panhandle answered that question in an eye-popping way.

The Santa Rosa Golf & Beach Club, located along the laidback 30-A roadway between Destin and Panama City Beach, hired Bill Bergin to freshen up a layout near one of the most beautiful stretches of oceanfront in the world.

One of the first things Bergin did was look at the surrounding area. What makes the Florida panhandle so special is its sugar-white sand, so bright you sometimes can’t look at it, and so soft and powdery that it collects in towering dunes held in place by sea oats and a smattering of love grass.

“We had to open up the sight lines, so you got a sense of where you were,” Bergin said of his philosophy on the project. “Once we did that, we were able to take out turfgrass in the areas that were out of play and expose this brilliant white sand that was right under the surface.” 

He was also able to make a popular golf course much more playable.   

“One of the goals when we began the project was to take grass out of areas where we didn’t need it and also add square footage to the greens,” said Santa Rosa Director of Grounds, Kelly Barker. “Before the renovation, I had 73,000 square feet of putting green surface. And we were pushing 40,000 rounds of golf through on these tiny greens.

“So we increased the green size while at the same time we made our overall (turfgrass) footprint less. We have a state park nearby, so when we brought Bill (Bergin) in, we talked about building a golf course that looked like it belonged in among those natural dune areas.”

You see this trend everywhere. Areas that should be out of play are converted to azaleas and mulch. Tee boxes become islands of green in a waste-bunker sea. Any area where players do not go is often given back to nature. 

“You’re reducing your turf footprint, so you are reducing your input into the turf,” Barker said. “When I first got here, we were at 85 maintained acres. One of my first priorities was to cut that back. So, when we shut down for the redesign project, we were down to about 75 maintained acres. Now, with the new design, we are at about 46 acres maintained.

“You don’t need it. We wanted to go the route of Pinehurst and Streamsong, those golf courses with a lot of natural areas that players think are spectacular. The thought process, and the preference among players now, is that you’re green in the playing areas, but there’s no reason to have a football field of grass around your tee box. It’s not necessary.”

Think of the most talked-about courses of the last two decades–Bandon Dunes, Sand Valley, Sand Hills, Cabot Links, Streamsong–and you will find that they all have a similar theme: The playing areas are pristine and green, and a few paces outside of those corridors rests the wilds of nature.

“When you open up a course like Santa Rosa, it expands what you, as a player, see and it enhances the experience,” Bergin said.  
Barker agreed, saying, “It definitely helps me out because I’m not using all that fertilizer and chemicals and all that stuff that you do to maintain turf. There is some maintenance that you have for the dunes, which we expected. So there’s a little bit of a tradeoff. But I wouldn’t change a thing.

“Aesthetically it looks amazing, but also it’s a much better end product. You’re playing it within the corridors of the design but it’s a much different look and feel outside of that. And it’s better. We went from 73,000 square feet to 101,000 on the putting surfaces. It’s absolutely better any time we have a player pulling out a putter.”
So far, the members love it. Sometimes too much. When Santa Rosa reopened in the fall, everyone wanted to play, even though the greens were new and the winter weather on the northern end of Florida got more cold snaps than normal. 

“People think of Florida and they think of Miami or Naples or Jupiter,” Barker said. “Our weather is closer to Birmingham or south Atlanta. So we were having to be very careful to get enough material down to protect those root zones. There were some (winter) days when we had 140 rounds and I had to throw the white flag and say, enough.

“But once we get a full grow-in, I think we’re going to get a better representation of what it will be in the future. But even now, it’s a wonderful experience.”