The vast majority of golf in the United States is played at municipal courses.
Munis are often stereotyped as courses with small, circular green complexes and shallow, undefined bunkers that look like their grass was simply ripped out and replaced with sand. These courses also typically have narrow fairways that don’t allow for any strategy. This is what the city of Winter Park, Florida, had with their nine hole Winter Park Golf Course.
Built in 1914, Winter Park Golf Course has been an integral part of the Winter Park community for nearly a century. The nine-hole course sits on a small, 40-acre plot of land and winds through the beautiful Winter Park neighborhood, routinely crossing its historic cobblestone streets and providing its community a place to play a quick and relaxed round.
Over the years, the golf course fell victim to invasive grasses, tree overgrowth and greens that shrank to the patterns of its dilapidated irrigation system. The city decided it was time to make a change and revitalize civic pride in the golf course. A task force was appointed in 2014 to secure funding and select an architect to give Winter Park Golf Course a fresh look.
After an extensive and competitive bid, the city landed on the young and relatively unknown architect duo of Riley Johns and Keith Rhebb. While the pair lacked a portfolio of extensive solo design work, they had a ton of talent, a clear and unique vision for the golf course and an infectious passion that won over the committee.
Credit: Riley Johns
The pair contracted renowned bunker specialist Blake Conant and irrigation guru Don Mahaffey, and prepared to show the world what the future of municipal golf could look like. Armed with a lean $1.2 million budget and a minimal equipment, the team broke ground in early March with a September end date in mind.
Any concerns among players and residents transformed first into curiosity and then enthusiasm as the new Winter Park began to take shape. Members of the community even came out to help the crew for a sprigging party. Rhebb and Johns had not only delivered a new golf course, but also a reinvigorated community vibe.
They moved quickly and efficiently, so much so that they were able to overdeliver on the project. Finishing weeks ahead of schedule and significantly under budget, Johns and Rhebb decided to give back. Rather than pocketing the savings, they chose to pour the spare cash it into a 10,000 square foot putting course for the community that sits off of the ninth tee.
The putting course is a popular hangout for locals of all ages
The course opened in September to critical acclaim. Gone were the narrow fairways, characterless bunkering and small green complexes. Instead, golfers found wall-to-wall fairway, massive and undulating green complexes and strategic bunkering that infused strategy and shot-making into the 2,400 yard setup.
WP9 has now become a destination for golf tragics making their way through Orlando, especially during the week of the annual PGA Show.
The first thing you notice about Winter Park G.C. is that it is literally in the middle of a neighborhood. The busy streets bisect many of the holes. Despite undergoing the renovation, the course hasn’t lost its affordability. Greens fees, yardage book and a gatorade will run visitors a cool $20.
Standing on the first tee and looking over the scorecard, the thought of a round in the 20s on the par 35 setup crossed my mind. Rhebb and Johns beg the long-hitter to play aggressively and go for WPGC’s short par-4s and reachable par-5s, but what I learned on the first hole is that an aggressive play that isn’t executed will turn into a tough par save very quickly.
HOLE #1 – 241 yards – par 4
The first hole gives players a glimpse of what to expect: wide fairways, clean and beautiful bunkering, and undulating and thoughtful green complexes that dictate strategy and provide plentiful options around the green.
A drivable par-4 for many, the first hole rewards a perfect shot with an eagle opportunity but its well conceived green and surrounds make you think twice. With out-of-bounds running down the right side, the natural place to bail out is the left, where Johns and Rhebb created a brutal angle to recover from for anyone pin-high or long of the green. The width of the fairway creates ideal angles to approach based on the pin location. If the pin is left the right side is preferred. If the pin is on the right, being left is ideal.
HOLE #2 – 146 yards – par 3
Players cross a street and arrive at the beautiful second, a par-3 that has shades of the famed Eden hole at St. Andrews. The small and deep pot bunker guards the front of the green and another meticulously-shaped bunker lurks on the right. The green possesses a great deal of back-to-front slope and moves gently from left to right. Hit the ball the correct yardage or you will find yourself with a challenging chip.
HOLE #3 – 430 yards – par 5
Again players cross a street and head to the first of back-to-back par-5s. A wide fairway has a small gash bunker down the left side and narrows where a long hitter will find their drive. The star of the third is the massive green complex which features a high left shoulder and wraps its way around a bunker protecting the left half of the green from a running shot. Misses long will find bunkers or a chipping area on the right side.
HOLE #4 – 495 yards – par 5
For the third time, players cross the street to get to the fourth, a dogleg left that hugs a graveyard, in which overzealous golfers may find their tee shots. Johns and Rhebb widened the fairway here like most of the holes but also added a bunker on the inside of the dogleg, right on the line that longer players want to take. Keeping with a theme of the course, the 4th plays its way into a spectacular green complex surrounded by beautiful bunkers that were clearly sculpted by an artist.
HOLE #5 – 354 yards – par 4
Again following the fourth, players cross the road for the fifth, a hole that can be seen on the drive into the course. The lengthy – by Winter Park standards – par-4 runs parallel to the road on the left and has another wide corridor that allows golfers to swing away. More great fairway bunkering leading up to the stellar green awaits golfers. Johns and Rhebb took a page out of C.B. Macdonald’s template hole book, using a double plateau green complex to place a premium on approach angles and precision.
HOLE #6 – 262 yards – par 4
The fifth green bleeds right into the sixth tee and for the first time, golfers aren’t forced to cross the road. The 6th is a spectacular short par-4 which has a slight dogleg around a large grove of trees. Long hitters will almost always go for the massive lion’s mouth green complex. Behind the 6th green runs a train line and if you are lucky it will pass by, making for a great photo opportunity.
HOLE #7 – 179 yards – par 3
After the sixth, golfers begin the jaunt back to the clubhouse with the divisive par-3 seventh, which is probably the toughest hole at Winter Park. Any miss right will find a large bunker, missing left catches a runoff area and long finds another collection area. The green is small and undulated, with distinct front and back tiers.
HOLE #8 – 145 yards – par 3
Crossing the road, players get a look at the redan par-3 eighth, whose big green sweeps from right to left around three deep bunkers that guard the left side of the green. Those who miss the green can play off the shoulder and let the ball feed down.
HOLE #9 – 228 yards par 4
The round finishes with one final street crossing and the short par-4 ninth, which tempts players to go for the green. Beautiful bunkering frames the hole and catches any shot that is a little right and struck poorly. Johns and Rhebb closed with a small green that backs right up to the clubhouse and near the patio, serving as a great place to enjoy a post-round beverage.
Thinking back to Winter Park G.C., the fun of playing the course is what stands out. I was eager to cross every street in anticipation to see what Johns and Rhebb had up their sleeves next. The great green complexes allow for a wide array of shots on and around the greens and serve as a great place for the community to improve their games inside 100 yards. It’s a course that, despite its diminutive yardage, challenges the great player while providing a place for the beginner to duff it around. You could play Winter Park with a putter as there are no forced carries and wall-to-wall fairways.
There’s no doubt that the successful renovation of WP9 should serve as inspiration for communities around the country to re-think their community golf course. The facility answers three important questions: Is it fun for all types of players? Does it allow for different styles of play? Does it make you want to play more?
Winter Park’s answer is a resounding yes to all three. What about your community’s course?
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