As if dodging the traffic on University Parkway were not challenging enough, motorists also have to occasionally swerve around bouncing golf balls errantly launched from the par-three fifth at University Park Country Club.
True, only the most wildly misstruck of shots find their way onto the heavily traveled highway, but it has been done.
The fifth is University Park’s “signature” hole, meaning its diabolical design sets it apart from other holes and, more ominously, it possesses an almost supernatural ability to ratchet up a golfer’s blood pressure before he or she even makes it to the tee.
Designer Ron Garl likes to define water hazards with railroad ties or wooden bulkheads, and that trait is on full display at the fifth. If you’re playing the 193-yard fifth for the first time, don’t be surprised if all you see is water. Slowly, the tableau comes into focus and you notice a huge, deep, gleaming white bunker guarding the left side of a wide, shallow green. To the right of the green is more water, to the left—way left—is the highway. My palms are sweating just typing a description of this hole.
In this part of Florida, where 7-Elevens built before 1995 are considered worthy of historic preservation, University Park almost qualifies as a dowager. Opened in 1991 as the centerpiece of an upscale Pat Neal community, University Park remains one of the gems in Sarasota/Manatee’s golfing tiara. The course is always in beautiful shape, right down to the piles of pine straw artfully raked around the tall, old-growth oaks and pines. If you’re missing putts at University Park, don’t blame the greens. An honest reassessment of your putting stroke would be more useful—that and tapering off on the caffeine.
Garl, who also designed such other area courses as Oak Ford, River Club and the Longboat Key Club, did some of his finest work at University Park. Although the course is located in a heavily developed part of Sarasota County, the feeling the golfer gets is one of isolation. (Remember: Just because nobody’s peering over your shoulder doesn’t give you the right to cheat. Golf is, or at least should be, a gentleman’s game.) Members report seeing deer and bobcats on occasion, but all we ran into was a squirrel chattering happily about our unplayable lie in a palmetto.
Though lakes and trees abound, University Park is actually very user-friendly. Unless you insist on pounding driver on short, narrow par fours, you should be able to score close to your handicap, maybe even a little better. From the mere mortal Platinum tees, the course measures only slightly longer than 6,000 yards. Play from the backmost Diamond tees and you’re looking at a stern 7,000-yard test.
The strength of University Park is its par threes. The fifth, though arguably the most picturesque, is not the hardest. That dubious honor would go to No. 16, which at 186 yards from the backmost tees also requires a long water carry. But this time you’re shooting to a deep, narrow green that invites many diabolical pin placements. The huge bunker to the right catches a lot of shots, because if you miss to the left, you’re in the palmettos. Both of these excellent par threes offer elevated tees, which afford you a good view of your impending doom.
A golf buddy once offered this assessment of the par fours at a local Jack Nicklaus course: “It’s a nice mix. There are long holes that are impossible and short holes that are impossible.”
Garl also offers a nice mix of par fours, but “impossible” is not in his vocabulary. The ninth, which plays 379 yards from the Platinums, requires you to avoid the bunkers on the left and right sides of the fairway. But it’s the quality of the second shot, to a semi-island green, that determines whether you will finish the hole or sit sullenly in the cart, remembering how much fun your last gout attack was.
Another great par four (“great,” in this sense, meaning “demonic”) is the fourth, which plays 342 yards from the Platinums. Length is not the issue here, however. Head pro Ashley Hayden says the best way to play the hole is a long iron or hybrid to the 150-yard marker in the center of the fairway and to proceed from there. Anything more aggressive could plop you right behind the “Hangman’s Tree” in the right rough, presumably named for the punishment the golfer believes he deserves for picking such a bad club for his tee shot.
About the only criticism I had of University Park in the past was that it was private and hard to get on unless you were the guest of a member. But ownership was shuffled last year, and now non-members can play the course, too. (Members still get first pick of tee times. I mean, come on. They are members.) In mid-October, greens fees were $55 before noon, $50 after noon and $35 with the Big Summer Card.
If you’re new to the area, University Park is a must on your golfing calendar. If you’ve lived here awhile but haven’t played the course lately, I suggest a return visit. It’ll be like meeting up with an old friend.
A former reporter for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, David Grimes has won a number of awards for his columns and is the author of several books. An avid golfer, he’s now writing this new monthly column for us and a humorous blog, “Father Grimes,” at sarasotamagazine.com.
Grimes calls the shots.
What: University Park Country Club Where: 7671 Park Blvd. Access: Once veddy private (“veddy” is British for “very”), University Park recently allowed the hoi polloi access to its lush, pampered grounds. In other news, Barack Obama was elected America’s first black president. Designed by: Ron Garl Amenities: Well-stocked clubhouse, fancy restaurant and, best of all, extra-wide driving range. Enjoy it; it might be the only fairway you hit all day. Lessons: Can be taken before or after your round, depending on your state of mind. Group lessons run as low as $20 per person. Tee times and other information: (941) 359-9999. Pictured above, hole No. 19.