St Augustine Course Faces the End


The countdown has begun. The clock is ticking. Bulldozers are waiting, the carpenters are ready. The oldest Donald Ross course in Florida is about to be transformed into a housing subdivision, and there apparently is no way to stand in the way of economics.
Its the Ponce de Leon, a resort course in the northeast city of St. Augustine ' yes, St. Augustine, the oldest town in the United States. The course has been around since 1916, but appears doomed if something isnt done quickly. Developers have purchased the property and plans are to demolish the course and replace it with a 749-unit upscale housing development.
This week, several entities failed in their effort to raise $5.5 million to buy the course. Unless something is done by June, developer Chester Stokes, CEO of Stokes and Company, will start the transformation.
Stokes is sympathetic toward those who want to preserve the golf course, but he is also a developer. He, along with just about everyone else, realizes that most golf courses today are losing propositions money-wise ' especially when compared to the $35 million that the land upon which the Ponce sits is appraised.
The course is built on marshland with stunning vistas to the north of the city. These vistas, which front the Intracoastal Canal, are what make the property so appealing.
When I came up here and played here for the first time, it was like, it was probably the way God intended golf to be played, said Rosalie Russo, a Ponce member.
The course has a grand history. Numerous professionals have played here, including Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan, Sam Snead and Gene Sarazen. Johnny Farrell, who was the 1928 U.S. Open champion, was the first club pro.
I look at the vistas on this golf course, I look at the marsh and the Intracoastal, and I know that if this golf course disappears, there will never be another Ponce de Leon, said Micheal Fay, executive director of the Donald Ross Society. It ought to be a part of our history.
There was a grand and wonderful place here in 1915. Its still a grand and wonderful golf course in 2003. Theres only so much history, theres only so much tradition. It cannot be replaced, it cannot be manufactured.
Stokes, the man who sits in the middle of this firestorm, tries to be realistic about the situation. A Georgia Tech alum, he says, The markets just not there, its just that simple. Its an economic decision, its unfortunate.
I try to be as friendly and try do everything that makes sense for anybody. But its got to make sense for everybody - including us. When you get right down to it, its very difficult to make a golf course work.
And so goes the charm of the Ponce de Leon, which has been likened to a Van Gough painting that is about to be lost forever. But Stokes says that the course no longer measures up, either in monetary value or as a golf course.
To be honest with you, the Van Gough got trampled on a long time ago, said Stokes. Five of the holes on the golf course just dont even fit the character of a Donald Ross golf course.
Nicholas Melszer is a commissioner of St. Johns County, the county of which St. Augustine is a part. He has tried mightily to save the course, but he realizes he is probably fighting a losing battle. The figures that Stokes throws out makes it virtually impossible to ignore that the land is extremely valuable as a housing development ' but not as golf course.
Hes not wrong, says Melszer of Stokes. He is absolutely not wrong.
But if you want to preserve the oldest Donald Ross golf course in Florida, and (preserve) the archeological sites, and the bird sanctuaries, and the environment and the Intracoastal ' AND preserve the golf course in addition to all that - you have a different perspective.
Mark Knight of the St. Augustine planning and building board looks at both sides of the impasse and says, If they dont have the business end of it that would support operating a golf course, the golf course wouldnt be operated. It would become a development at that point in time.
Meanwhile, the clock is quickly still running. Stokes is paying approximately $120,000 interest each month on a $20 million bank loan he used to purchase the course property. He says if anyone has a plan that is viable, that is equitable to all concerned, they had better come forward quickly.
If anyones interested in preserving it, theyve got to go out and raise the money somewhere. Just to say youd like to see it stay, thats not enough, said Stokes.
The whole community seems saddened. But its a battle of preservation vs. progress, and just as always happens, progress appears to have the upper hand.
My personal feeling is, there will always be places to develop, says George Gardner, the mayor. But there will never be places that occurred in history once theyre plowed under.