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University Park Country Club near Sarasota weathers real estate storm and gains ground as top golf value

Tom SpoustaBy Tom Spousta,
University Park Country Club
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In 2007, University Park C.C. returned to semi-private status, becoming one of the first upscale clubs in the Sarasota area to recognize the trend. (Courtesy of sarasotafloridarealestate.co.uk)

UNIVERSITY PARK, Fla. - Like many places in Florida, the mission at University Park Country Club in the early 1990s was to create an upscale golf course that would quickly take its place among the glitterati of local layouts. The folks there quickly accomplished that and more. As the saying goes, "It ain't braggin' if you back it up."

It's a strong threesome of nine-hole layouts along the Sarasota-Manatee county line, built a decade before the real estate boom and weathering the frenzy to remain one of the better clubs on Florida's Left Coast.

Not that there weren't a few lost balls along the way. Indeed, University Park Country Club became a poster golf course for the troubled waters private clubs here and around the country have been forced to navigate in recent years.

It had allowed public tee times since it first opened, but decided to turn private in 2002, not long after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks shook the economy. "We had perfectly wrong timing," says Ashley Hayden, the club's head professional, who has been at University Park Country Club for 17 years, starting in the cart barn. "Our membership never grew and we began losing money."

In 2007, University Park Country Club returned to semi-private status, becoming one of the first upscale clubs in this area of Florida to recognize the trend. It's an example of how quickly you can turn around your business model - and still represent value to members and public golfers.

"It worked out great," Hayden says. "We kept 95 percent of our members. And we had a very good 2008. We think we can keep it going."

University Park C.C. now appears positioned perfectly for the future. Its location has gotten better with time, what with a Neiman Marcus and several other brand name upscale stores and restaurants being built within two miles of its gates along the University Parkway corridor to Interstate 75.

With approximately 1,200 home sites, the development was on the cutting edge of Sarasota-Bradenton growth in the early 90s. It built out quickly leading up to, and through, the real estate boom. Sales have stalled, but University Park has only about 50 to 60 lots left on its books.

Golf lessons and instruction at University Park Country Club

University Park has a driving range and also offers PGA instruction via individual and group golf lessons.

University Park Country Club: The verdict

Among its honors, University Park counts a four-star rating by Golf Digest's "Places to Play." Over the years, it hasn't changed much; nor has its edge dulled.

The first nine carries the highest degree of difficulty - read: very tight, especially from Nos. 4-6. A true gem, the par-3 fifth hole fronts University Parkway and usually turns the heads of people driving by. The "Road Hole" is framed perfectly from a slightly elevated tee, a 174-yard shot through a chute of trees, over a pond and past a sand trap that snakes along a bulkhead to a huge sloping green about 45 yards wide and 21 yards deep.

It's rivaled only by No. 16 as one of the area's best par 3s. They're similar in length, but the 16th goes from a tee box set on a peninsula to a deep, sloping, hour-glass green. It's actually an uphill shot from back in the trees, over water and along a bunker. Like at No. 5, the wind can really mess with your mind.

Those two tee shots alone are worth the price of admission. Then again, every swing at University Park can be fraught with adventure.

It has the perfect variety of lengths for all levels, what with five tee boxes that cover between 4,800 to 7,100 yards. If you can't find a happy fit in that range, you should sell your golf clubs.

Fairways widen a bit on the second and third nines. Tree lines were pushed back a few yards and greens seemed a little larger and easier to hit. Course designer Ron Garl also eased up on his penchant for mounds, although there is plenty of water and sand to go around.

University Park C.C. billed itself as "Close to nature, close to everything, close to perfect," when it first opened in 1991. Almost 20 years later, that's still not braggin.'

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University Park Country Club - Road Hole

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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