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Riomar golf course getting biggest makeover since 1963

STORY BY RAY MCNULTY (Week of April 23, 2015)

That heavy machinery you might’ve noticed while driving past the Riomar Country Club is being used to dig ponds, relocate trees and resurface Vero Beach’s oldest golf course, which is undergoing its most significant upgrades since the back nine was added in 1963.

“This is the big one,” said Jim McConnell, chairman of Riomar’s strategic planning committee. “We replaced the greens in 1999, and there have been some minor fix-ups from time to time, but we haven’t done anything of this magnitude.

“The entire golf course is being renovated.”

According to Riomar course superintendent P.J. Salter, the project includes:

• Removing and replacing all of the existing grass on the property, retaining the TifEagle greens, which will be rebuilt to USGA specifications, but switching to Celebration Bermuda for the rest of the course.

• Reconstructing all tee boxes, bunkers and greens. Additional forward tees will be built on every hole, reducing the course’s minimum length from 5,200 to 4,500 yards. Some tees and greens will be relocated to slightly lengthen holes where possible and provide better pin placements.

• The back-nine fairways, which were relatively flat, will be raised an average of one foot and allow for the creation of swales, making use of the natural rolls of the property. The elevations will be designed to help with drainage.

• A pond will be built along the east side of the 18th hole, replacing a large area of rough.

• Tee boxes and greens on the front nine will be elevated to provide better views of the ocean.

“The design won’t really change,” Salter said of the 5,830-yard layout. “It’s still going to be the same course, but we want to better-capture some of our greater features. We have more tees and greens on the ocean than any other course in the state, and we want to embrace that.”

The project is being managed by Tom Fazio II, who teamed with World Golf Hall of Famer and three-time major champion Nick Price to design the Quail Valley Golf Club course, which opened northwest of Vero Beach in 2001.

The Riomar renovation began March 9 with the killing of the existing grass on the back nine, which has been closed since April 6, when work crews broke ground. Only days later, crews began killing the grass on the front nine, which will be closed April 27 to allow workers to break ground on that side of the course.

Salter said the project is expected to require 60 days of actual construction – 30 on each side – with the course ready for play by Nov. 1.

“We’re planning to start planting grass on the back nine the first week of June, then do the same on the front nine the first week of July,” Salter said. “Of course, weather could impact the schedule.

“If we can get through April and May without too much rain, we should be fine,” he added. “Once we get to July, it can rain every day. But this is the best time of year to do it because you’ve got all the right ingredients – heat, sun, moisture and daylight.”

McConnell estimated the cost of the project to be $2 million to $3 million, with the expenses to be covered by the club’s capital fund and a “modest, short-term” assessment from its 200-plus members. Riomar is a member-owned, debt-free club that offers membership by invitation only.

Many Riomar members are seasonal residents who will be away when most of the renovation work is being done, McConnell said, but reciprocal agreements with other local clubs – such as John’s Island, Grand Harbor, Bent Pine and Hawk’s Nest – will allow those who live here on a year-round basis to continue playing golf.

“The other clubs around town have been very generous,” McConnell said, “and will allow our members to play their courses a little earlier than when our summer reciprocals usually begin.”

Riomar’s stand-alone course was born in 1919, the same year the city of Vero was incorporated and six years before the Florida Senate approved the creation of Indian River County. The nine-hole layout was designed by Herbert Strong and built along the oceanfront before electricity was available on the barrier island and before the construction of a bridge to the mainland.

“The only way to get here,” McConnell said, “was by boat.”

A back nine was added in 1963, followed by a driving range in 1988 and resurfaced greens in 1999.

“Back in 2013, we did a very comprehensive survey of the operations of the club,” McConnell said. “Everything came back with a five-star rating – everything except the golf course, which came back with only 2 1/2 stars. That prompted the board to explore ways to improve our course.

“As it turned out, the timing couldn’t have been better.”

With Riomar’s general manager and course superintendent retiring, the board was able to bring in Mark Badertscher to run the club and Salter to care for the course. Both of them, McConnell said, “had experience redoing golf courses.”

Also, the nationwide recession, which crippled the golf industry and threatened the financial viability of clubs across the country, was finally easing and the economy was improving.

“Last fall, we had three informational meetings to explain the benefits of renovating the golf course, then we took a vote in December,” McConnell said. “There were only two votes against it.”

The club’s head golf pro, Mike Schuette, said the members’ reaction to the project has been “overwhelmingly positive,” despite losing use of the back nine earlier this month and being unable to play the course this summer.

“People seem to be taking the inconvenience in stride,” Schuette said. “Everybody realized this was needed. If anything, I’ve noticed a lot of excitement about what we’re doing.”

McConnell said the club has appointed a committee to plan a Grand Re-Opening.

“We have an opening event every year, but we want to do something different to celebrate what we’ve done with the course,” McConnell said. “It’ll be bigger this year.”