This post is from the Lakeland Ledger: http://www.theledger.com/news/20180121/out-of-rough
LAKELAND — Talk about a do-it-yourself project. Dave Tavlin’s fixer-upper didn’t involve replacing countertops or sanding down hardwood floors. He’s attempting to fix up a golf course, and the demo was well underway when he bought it. Sandpiper Golf Course in North Lakeland was in such bad shape, it often appeared deserted.
Even though Hurricane Irma roared through three days after the purchase was finalized in September, leaving the course a waterlogged, windblown mess, Tavlin wasn’t fazed. He is determined to bring the little course back and make it an attractive option for recreational golfers once more.
At least four golf courses in Polk County – Grenelefe West and Diamondback near Haines City, Skyview and Bridgewater, both in Lakeland – have closed since the late 1990s, the result of the recession and too many courses competing for golfers. So why would a successful businessman throw millions of dollars into a golf course that already was in poor condition?
“It’s an adventure, I guess,” Tavlin said recently. “I could have bought a house on Anna Maria Island for the same price as the course. I think Sandpiper’s got a lot of potential.”
Tavlin, owner of Crossroads Construction Co. of Lakeland, said he purchased Sandpiper for “over $1 million” and intends to put as much as $2 million into reviving it, plus another $800,000 or so to renovate the clubhouse – which includes a bar and grill – and the pro shop. He has even given the course a new name: The Links at Sandpiper.
Tavlin’s self-assurance is evident as he drives around the course in one of the 55 new gas-powered golf carts in the course’s fleet. He rattles off facts and figures about the slope of the property, the number of homes in the community, the number of new irrigation sprinklers and the yardage of the holes. Already he has put fertilizer and 14 tons of seed down over the entire course and sprayed the greens for weeds. He pointed out the places where the new seed has taken hold and is starting to show a carpet of green where before there was little but weeds and dead grass. Improvements will eventually include:
• 200,000 square feet of new sod.
• Replacing and enhancing the irrigation system.
• A new lighted driving range that would be open in the evening.
• Redesigning several holes, including re-orienting some on the back nine.
• New water features, including a decorative waterfall in the pond on the 14th hole.
• New cart paths to better direct cart traffic and save turf.
• New par-3 tee boxes on each hole so Sandpiper can be played as an executive course.
The redesign of the course will keep it at par 70 but will eliminate the longest tees and avoid difficult shots over water. Tavlin calls himself a golfer who struggles to keep his handicap in the single digits. Asked if he brought in a golf course design firm to help with the new layout, he said no but cited some previous experience.
“We’ve done athletic fields at the University of Florida and the University of Tampa. I do have a friend who’s helping with the turf management,” he said.
The course will be overseen by The Links at Sandpiper’s new general manager, Cory Kuppers. A Kathleen High School graduate, Kuppers had been the head golf professional at Schalamar Creek Golf Course for the past five years and was hired after several months of discussion with Tavlin and Tavlin’s wife, Michele, who will have a hand in running the course and the dining facility in the clubhouse.
“I could see the vision,” Kuppers said. “From a business part of it, I liked being able to get in on the ground floor. I can see from the first day working for them is a good thing for me. It’s going to further my career.”
The Steve Smyers-designed course is part of the 55-and-older Sandpiper planned development adjacent to Plantation Square Shopping Center along North Socrum Loop Road. The course sits on 97 acres, bounded on three sides by Sandpiper lots and on the fourth by North Socrum Loop. Intended primarily for the senior golfers who live in Sandpiper but open to the public, it has long had the feel of a municipal course – relatively short in length (5,600 yards from the men’s tees) and forgiving of errant shots.
About the time the recession hit, the condition of the course began to slip. With Tavlin’s ownership, Sandpiper has changed hands three times within the past 20 years. The previous owners, Jane Grasso and Peter Burns, purchased the course in 2011 from Sun Shin, who also owns the Wedgewood Golf Course in Lakeland. Burns, who owned other golf courses in Florida, died in 2016.
“I tried to buy (the golf course) three years ago,” said Tavlin, 56. “I live on the north side, and I always enjoyed playing the course, but it was in a condition that it could not be played.”
In order to finance the improvements, Tavlin said he intends to build and sell as many as 47 new 2,000-square-foot homes within the footprint of the course while preserving the course’s total yardage, improving views of the course for existing homeowners and making it less likely that errant shots will find roofs or windows of nearby homes. His plan is to utilize open space on the course, redesigning and reorienting some of the existing holes, to make room for the new homes. Tavlin said he has seven permits pending with the city and hopes to build the first five homes over the summer.
“The original (planned development) included 29 houses that were not built. If I have about 50 houses, I can make money that I can put back into the course,” he said.
Phillip Scearce, a senior planner with the city of Lakeland, said his office is reviewing Tavlin’s application for a modification of the planned development to add 47 new lots. He said a majority of the new lots will be along the main entrance to Sandpiper off North Socrum Loop and should not affect existing homes.
“The only major issue will be the impact on that intersection,” he said. “I don’t see anything (else) that really concerns me. They do have enough room to configure the course.”
A native of Fort Lauderdale who came to Lakeland shortly after graduating from the University of Florida, Tavlin has owned Crossroads Construction since 1994. The firm specializes in construction and maintenance of college and university campuses and other commercial projects, and Tavlin admits that home construction requires different procedures. He expects the home construction will be complete by 2020 and anticipates the golf course improvements to be finished by the summer of 2019.
He seems to have overcome any skepticism from the residents of Sandpiper. George Rushford, vice president of the Property Owners Association, said he has not heard any negative comments.
“We like what he’s doing upgrading the buildings and the restaurant,” he said. “I believe over time it will be extremely beneficial to the community. I believe it will help property values.”
Rushford said the common facilities at Sandpiper – two pools, tennis courts and shuffleboard courts – should be able to absorb a greater number of residents.
Frank Hawk and his wife, Mary, who have been homeowners at Sandpiper for 15 years and are regular golfers on the course, agreed. Hawk said property owners understand there will be inconveniences while new homes are being constructed and the golf course and common facilities may be more crowded, but that in the end it will be worth it.
“Overall, it’s a very positive step in the right direction,” Frank Hawk said. “It will be more fun to play the course if it’s in better shape and has an improved layout. The par-3 option on each hole is very clever and will allow a broader range of golfers. It seems like (Tavlin) is putting in the time and money to do it right.”
Tavlin’s audacious plan also depends on attracting new golfers and enticing former customers who had given up on the course to return. According to a 2017 report from the National Golf Foundation, 23.8 million people played rounds on a course in 2016, a 1.2 percent drop from the previous year, and the number has remained essentially flat over the past decade. However, the report noted several promising trends, including increases in the number of beginning golfers and “committed” golfers for whom golf is rated as their favorite activity.
Other courses in Polk County have recently been improved or upgraded, including the city of Lakeland’s Cleveland Heights Golf Course and Huntington Hills, which like Sandpiper is in North Lakeland. In addition, the new Streamsong resort near Fort Meade has two new, high-end courses and is building a third.
Tavlin sees renewed interest among the property owners at Sandpiper as key to increasing the number of rounds played. Even though only 30 percent of homeowners are golfers, he said, “the community wouldn’t be much without the golf course.” He anticipates older homeowners will soon be selling to a wave of younger retirees and believes the percentage of golfers in the community will rise.
Winter-season green fees currently range from $18 to $34, on the lower end compared to other courses, and Tavlin said he intends to keep them “about where they were, a little under everyone else.” Kuppers said the new activity has already generated increased play on the course, with about 140 rounds per day so far in January.
“It’s not the biggest course in town,” Tavlin said. “I don’t know if it will ever be the nicest, but it’s going to be as nice as it can be.”