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Bobby Jones Golf Complex: Namesake helped open Sarasota's cradle of golf

Tom SpoustaBy Tom Spousta,
Bobby Jones Golf Complex's American Course - No. 18
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The par-4 18th on the American course is one of the original holes designed by Donald Ross. (Courtesy of Bobby Jones G.C.)

Bobby Jones Golf Complex in Sarasota, which boasts nine holes by Donald Ross, is one of the most historic golf courses in Florida. With its municipal green fees, it's also one of the area's budget golf values.

SARASOTA, Fla. - Bobby Jones himself cut the ribbon. Babe Ruth and his buddies used to swat it around here back when the New York Yankees held spring training in Sarasota. A little imagination can envision the first grand-opening smack of his persimmon driver and the polite applause from a gallery of socialites.

That was Feb. 13, 1927, the golden age of sport, when golf enjoyed its first surge of popularity and men actually wore a shirt and tie - sometimes even a matching jacket - when playing a round.

Such a dress code was relaxed a long time ago at Bobby Jones Golf Complex. Jones wouldn't recognize the latest fashions, but the Donald Ross-designed golf course has cemented its place among the top historic municipal golf courses in Florida. It also is one of the great budget golf values on this coast of the Sunshine State.

Nine of legendary architect Donald Ross's holes remain untouched. The other nine were changed somewhat in 1988 by Ron Garl, who added mounds, water and more contours to the greens. In all, there are 45 holes at the Bobby Jones Golf Complex.

One nine comprises the John H. Gillespie executive course across the street.

The other 18 make up the shorter American course, which is a par 71 and at 6,039 yards, measures about 500 yards shorter than the par 72 British.

The two 18-hole courses aren't difficult, but they aren't supposed to be. They basically are flat with wide open fairways and greens that are above-average, considering the entire complex puts through several hundred rounds daily during tourist season. Still, it's amazing how tough these layouts can be, particularly the British Course, which has hosted the annual Sarasota City Championship for more than 40 years.

Like Tiger Woods at Torrey Pines, Mark Leetzow has owned the British Course. A Sarasota native and two-time Florida State Amateur champion, he's won six Sarasota city titles. He believes the course's small, crowned greens - a famous Ross trait - which tend to deflect approach shots away from the hole, has been its strongest defense for the past 84 years.

"It's great for the average player. There are no real forced carries, you can use strategy to get around and you can score with good shots," Leetzow said.

"Really good players might shoot 2 or 3 under par, but you won't see too many 66s or 65s. It's a big jump to go that low out there. It's really a funky, risk-reward course that makes you pay attention to all the details."

Indeed, Ryder Cup captain Paul Azinger, who played junior and high school golf here, owns the longstanding course record, a 62 he shot in 1980.

A recent renovation to the British Course added some length and spruced up the place. The par-3 fourth hole was pushed back 30 yards and now measures 175 yards. And No. 18, a par 4, was lengthened by 20 yards to 427.

The back nine of the British remains as Ross designed it back in 1926. It features back-to-back par 5s at Nos. 13 and 14. Both are easily reachable in two shots, but true to Ross's style, the greens are shaped like inverted saucers and slope from front to back and guarded tightly by two front bunkers. Your short game better be sound, otherwise what looks like an easily beatable tract because a beguiling difficult test.

Ross also did the back nine of the American course, which was only slightly altered by Garl. The American winds tightly through the mounds Garl put in and has a handful of elevated greens. It's a tricky, yet position-oriented, layout.

Overall, Bobby Jones Golf Complex is a proud municipal club steeped in history.

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Bobby Jones Golf Complex's American Course No. 6

Veteran golf writer Tom Spousta keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation. He has covered golf and other sports for USA Today and The New York Times. Tom lives on a Donald Ross-designed golf course in Sarasota, Fla.

Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.

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