Driving down Ponte Vedra Boulevard you can see the Ocean Course at the Ponte Vedra Inn and Club is starting to come back after being torn up for renovation. Same thing in town when you drive down San Jose. San Jose Country Club is re-doing their fairways and greens and changing one of their par threes nobody liked anyway. You can’t see it from the road but Pablo Creek off Butler Boulevard has also been taken down to the dirt and being rebuilt. And driving down A1A in Ponte Vedra you might notice the part of the Oak Bridge golf course you could see from the road is gone. Leveled to make way for an expansion of the Vicars Landing assisted living facility.
The Ocean Course, San Jose and Pablo Creek are going through the kind of renovation maintenance any golf course needs for long-term viability.
But at Oak Bridge, they’re doing something completely different.
“We’re looking to change the golf experience,” Oak Bridge Head Professional and General Manage Mike Miles said this week.
Miles is a former PGA Tour player who still has plenty of game, playing in the Senior PGA last year in Rochester. He shot 69 in the opening round at Oak Hill and played well enough to be paired with Bernhard Langer on Sunday. He hit it past Langer off the first tee but said he didn’t play well alongside the former Masters champion.
“He shot 67 and when I took my hat off to shake his hand on 18 I told him what an honor it was to play with him,” Miles recalled. “And I joked that I hoped my playing wouldn’t hinder his game in the future. He looked right at me and said, ‘I don’t think so.’”
Ponte Vedra resident David Miller is the developer of the project and brought Miles in to make it happen. They met through golf when they both lived in Southern California and have a big vision when it comes to what Oak Bridge will become when it’s opened under it’s new name, “The Yards.”
The “Front Yard” is an update of the front nine at Oak Bridge.
“It’ll be plenty of a challenge for what I like to call the ‘Big G’ golfer,” Miles explained. “But we’ll also have it set up so just about anybody can play here.”
Miles oversaw the re-construction and redesign of the new/old nine holes, with MacCurrach Golf giving it plenty of “playability” with only ten bunkers in the loop. He recreated the holes with a nod throughout to famed golf course architects like Jack Nicklaus, Pete Dye, Arnold Palmer and others.
“We want people to have fun while they’re here,” he said pointing to a spot on the ninth hole where there used to be a bunker that everybody seemed to hit into. “I want guys to come in and have a beer and a hamburger when they’re done. Not stomp over to their car, throw their clubs in the trunk and drive off.”
I heard the word “fun” a lot talking to Miles this week, especially when we moved to the “Backyard.” What used to be the back nine on the old golf course is now unrecognizable. A beautiful new lake, stately oaks, practice greens, a huge putting green and a walking three-hole short par three course called the “beer loop” fill your vision as soon as you clear the back of the clubhouse.
“We want people to have options,” Miles said. “You can come over here from the Front Yard and play 12, 15 or 18 holes. Or just come straight here sit on the patio with your friends, enjoy the view, laugh, walk the beer loop, whatever.”
That’s a far cry from the rules-laden, stiff upper lip image that golf has in a country club setting.
Is this where golf is going? Judge Smails probably would not approve.
“I call it ‘fun golf,’” golf course architect Erik Larsen said when I asked him about the concept. Larsen is a past president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects and was the Executive Vice President of Palmer Course Design in Ponte Vedra. He redesigned Selva Marina into today’s Atlantic Beach Country Club. He’s seen plenty of hidden entrances and stuffy locker rooms but thinks there’s a change in the game on the horizon.
“There will always be a demand for traditional 18-hole golf courses,” he explained. “But golf play has reduced because of the time it takes. Time is a valuable commodity. Want to play less? Just go play three, four, six and come back. No big deal. We don’t have to recreate the wheel, there’s a practicality to all of it.”
When Larsen’s former colleague and fellow golf course architect Harrison Minchew did the redesign at the Jacksonville Beach Golf Course he specifically was thinking about giving players a chance to play, but play in less time.
“There are some scenarios at Jax Beach where they could play six or nine or twelve holes,” he said noting that the operator of any golf course has to be willing to create that scenario “Part of the design philosophy is to allow clubs to have players play less than 18 holes. You bring them back to the clubhouse not just at nine and eighteen. There are ways to do that if that’s part of your market.”
The popularity of Top Golf facilities around the country (there’s one you can see from I-295 at the Town Center) has brought a lot of new people to the game, somewhat unexpectedly.
“More than 70% of the people who go to Top Golf have never touched a club before,” former TPC at Sawgrass General Manager Bill Hughes explained. Hughes is now the GM and CEO at the Country Club of the Rockies outside of Vail, Colorado but while in Ponte Vedra was an early advocate for a new kind of facility for Miles and Miller at Oak Bridge.
“You can’t just be another golf course,” he explained. “I love the ‘fun golf’ thing. Ponte Vedra already has world-class golf courses. You have to build something that fits the population. An aging community along with a lot of young people you want to bring to the game.”
Nobody is going from Top Golf to the first tee at the Stadium Course. But that’s where the new Yards and places like Jax Beach get involved.
“Top Golf is that kind of phenomenon,” Larsen added. “It’s fun, and that’s what a practice facility can be. Light it, put some targets out there, play some music, have a bar and make it fun. That experience is fun and successful, so some resorts are looking into that.”
“Fun golf has to be beautiful,” he continued. “Lighting and landscaping will be the key. It’s on top of what the game is built on. Will it bring people to the game? Maybe. But it’s an interim step to bring non-players eventually to the first tee of a golf course.”
“Oak Bridge is going to fill a void, introducing people to golf,” Minchew added. “They’re playing music at Jax Beach outside the clubhouse. There’s room for them to expand the putting green to a putting course. They’re covering the practice tee. There’s a Top Golf feel going on there. I think most places are going in that direction. Golf needs to be fun, if that’s part of it, they should have at it.”
And Minchew added an important part of the equation.
“They made money in their first year and that’s unheard of these days. That’s a success story, making it fun, playing music. Just being there is fun, that’s what it’s all about.”
Larsen agreed that the new Yards is a perfect fit for the shifting demographics in Ponte Vedra and golf in general.
“The location makes it popular because Oak Bridge is in a community with a young population. It fits what’s going on there. If they promote things for kids, evening play, take two clubs, walk a few holes, they’ll hit a home run.”
Hughes believes The Yards will be the start of a trend in the golf business.
“The game has to figure out how to get people over to the ‘green grass,’” he said. “Building a facility like this can become the epicenter of health and wellness, a hub of activity for an entire community.”
In addition to the golf, The Yards will have a state-of-the-art pickle ball facility starting with twelve courts. A new grill with an outdoor patio as an adjunct to the Three Palms restaurant that’s in there now and they’ve even planned a spot for weddings under the oaks and alongside the lake.
“That’s exactly what we’re looking for,” Miles said with a smile. “We’ll have members but we’ll be open to the public. We’ll make it affordable. We want people to come out and enjoy themselves. There’s no better place to do this than right here.”