Winter Park Golf Course: Municipal Golf of the Future

The vast majority of golf in the United States is played at municipal courses.

Muni’s are often  stereotyped as courses with small, circular green complexes and shallow, undefined bunkers that look like their grass was simply ripped out and replaced with sand. These courses also typically have narrow fairways that don’t allow for any strategy. This is what the city of Winter Park, Florida, had with their nine-hole Winter Park Golf Course.

Photos of Winter Park G.C. before its renovation.

Built in 1914, Winter Park Golf Course has been an integral part of the Winter Park community for nearly a century. The nine-hole course sits on a small, 40-acre plot of land and winds through the beautiful Winter Park neighborhood, routinely crossing its historic cobblestone streets and providing its community a place to play a quick and relaxed round.

Over the years, the golf course fell victim to invasive grasses, tree overgrowth and greens that shrank to the patterns of its dilapidated irrigation system. The city decided it was time to make a change and rebuild the city’s pride in its golf course, appointing a task force in 2014 to secure funding and select an architect to give Winter Park Golf Course a fresh look.

After an extensive and competitive bid, the city landed on the young and relatively unknown architect duo of Riley Johns and Keith Rhebb. While the pair lacked a portfolio of extensive solo design work, they had a ton of talent, a clear and unique vision for the golf course and an infectious passion that won over the committee.

Winter Park G.C.'s architects Riley Johns and Keith Rhebb

The pair contracted renowned bunker specialist Blake Conant and prepared to show the world what the future of municipal golf could  look like. Armed with a lean $1.2 million budget and a single Caterpillar D3 bulldozer, the trio broke ground in early March with a September end date in mind.

The trio moved quickly and efficiently, so much so that they were able to overdeliver on the project. Finishing weeks ahead of schedule and  significantly under budget, Johns and Rhebb decided to give back. Rather than pocketing the savings, they chose to pour the spare cash it into a 10,000 square foot putting course for the community that sits off of the ninth tee.

The 10,000 sq. ft putting course at Winter Park Golf Course.

The course opened in September to critical acclaim. Gone were the narrow fairways, characterless bunkering and small green complexes. Instead, golfers found wall-to-wall fairway, massive and undulating green complexes and strategic bunkering that infused strategy and shot-making into the 2,400 yard setup.

On my recent jaunt through Florida, Winter Park Golf Course was one of my most anticipated stops. I was in Orlando for the PGA Show and managed to convince a few others to join me for a late afternoon round.

The first thing you notice about Winter Park G.C. is that it is literally in the middle of a neighborhood. The busy streets bisect many of the holes. Despite undergoing the renovation, the course hasn’t lost its affordability, my greens fees, yardage book and a gatorade ran me a cool $20.

Standing on the first tee and looking over the scorecard, the thought of a round in the 20’s on the par 35 setup crossed my mind. Rhebb and Johns beg the long-hitter to play aggressively and go for WPGC’s short par 4s and reachable par 5s, but what I learned on the first hole is that an aggressive play that isn’t executed will turn into a tough par save very quickly.

A couple of practice swings later, we were ready to go.

1st - 241 yards - par 4

The first hole gives players a glimpse of what to expect: Wide fairways, clean and beautiful bunkering and undulating and thoughtful green complexes that dictate strategy and provide plentiful options around the green.  

A drivable par 4 for many, the first hole rewards a perfect shot with an eagle opportunity but its well-thought-out green and surrounds make you think twice. WIth out-of-bounds running down the right side, the natural place to bail out is the left, where Johns and Rhebb created a brutal angle to recover from for anyone pin-high or long of the green. The width of the fairway creates ideal angles to approach based on the pin location. If the pin is left the right side is preferred. If the pin is on the right, being left is ideal.

The first tee shot at Winter Park.

The approach to the 1st green at Winter Park Golf Course

The 1st green from the left side of the fairway.

The first green from the left side.

2nd - 146 yards - par 3

Players cross a street and arrive at the beautiful second, a par 3 that has shades of the famed eden hole at St. Andrews. The small and deep pot bunker guards the front of the green and another meticulously-shaped bunker on the right. The green possesses a great deal of back-to-front slope and moves gently from left to right.Hit the ball the correct yardage or you will find yourself with a challenging chip.

The second tee shot at Winter Park.

Walking up to the second green.

Right of the second green.

Behind the second green shows a hidden bunker.

3rd - 430 yards - par 5

Again players cross a street and head to the first of back-to-back par 5s. A wide fairway has a small gash bunker down the left side and narrows where a long hitter will find their drives. The star of the third is the massive green complex which features a high left shoulder and wraps its way around a bunker which protects the left half of the green from a running shot. Misses long will find bunkers or a chipping area on the right side.

The third tee shot.

The gash bunker on the left hand side of the fairway.

Approaching the third green from the left side.

Right of the third green.

The back right of the third green.

4th - 495 yards - par 5

For the third time, players cross the street to get to the fourth, a dogleg-left that hugs a graveyard, in which overzealous golfers may find their tee shots. Johns and Rhebb widened out the fairway here like most of the holes but also added a bunker on the inside of the dogleg, right on the line that longer players want to take to shorten the hole. Keeping with a theme of the course, the fourth plays its way into a spectacular green complex surrounded by beautiful bunkers that were clearly sculpted by an artist.

The fourth tee shot at Winter Park.

The new fairway bunker that changes the dynamic of the fourth hole.

The approach shot to the heavily bunkered fourth green.

The green from the front right at the fourth. 

Left of the fourth green at Winter Park.

5th - 354 yards - par 4

Again following the fourth, players cross the road for the fifth, a hole that can be seen on the drive into the course. The lengthy – by Winter Park standards – par 4 runs parallel to the road on the left and has another wide corridor that allows golfers to swing away. Another great green and great fairway bunkering awaits golfers as Johns and Rhebb took a page out of C.B. Macdonald’s template hole book, using a great double plateau green complex to place a premium on approach angles and precision.

The fifth tee shot at Winter Park.

The cool fifth fairway bunkering.

The double plateau fifth green at Winter Park.

Looking back on the par 4 fifth hole at Winter Park.

6th - 262 yards - par 4

The fifth green bleeds right into the sixth tee and for the first time, golfers aren’t forced to cross the road. The sixth is a spectacular short par 4 which has a slight dogleg around a large grove of trees. Long hitters will almost always go for the massive lion's mouth green complex. Behind the 6th green runs a train line and if you are lucky it will pass behind the fantastic  green complex, making for a great photo opportunity.

The sixth tee shot at Winter Park.

The lion's mouth green complex.

The lion's mouth green at the sixth hole.

7th - 179 yards - par 3

After the sixth, golfers begin the jaunt back to the clubhouse with the divisive par-3 seventh, which is probably the toughest hole at Winter Park. Any miss right will find a large bunker a miss left catches a runoff area and a miss long finds another collection area. The green is small and undulated with distinct front and back tiers.

The 7th tee shot at Winter Park.

The front right of the par 3 7th's green complex.

The par 3 7th's green.

The left side of the seventh green.

8th - 145 yards - par 3

Crossing the road, players get a look at the redan par-3 eighth, whose big green sweeps from right to left around 3 deep bunkers that guard the left side of the green. Those that miss the green can play off the shoulder and let the ball feed towards the green.

Short right of the redan 8th green. 

The redan eighth green from the 2nd hole.

The deep bunkering at the 8th green.

Behind the 8th green looking back at the redan features.

9th - 228 yards par 4

The round closes with one final street crossing and the short par-4 ninth, which tempts players to go for the green. Beautiful bunkering frames the hole and catches any shot that is a little right and struck poorly. Johns and Rhebb closed with a great small green that backs right up to the clubhouse and near the patio, serving as a great place to enjoy a post-round beverage.

The 9th tee shot at Winter Park GC

The brilliant bunkering on the right side of the 9th.

The front of the 9th green complex. 

The sun setting on a fine 9 holes at Winter Park GC.

Thinking back to Winter Park G.C., all I can think about was how much fun it was to play. I was eager to cross every street in anticipation to see what Johns and Rhebb had up their sleeves next. The great green complexes allow for a wide array of shots on and around the greens and serve as a great place for the community to improve their games inside  100 yards. It’s a course that, despite its diminutive yardage, challenges the great player while providing a place for the beginner to duff it around. You could play Winter Park with a putter as their are no forced carries and wall-to-wall fairways.

There’s no doubt that Winter Park GC and its renovation should serve as inspiration for communities around the country to re-think their community golf course. The facility answers three important questions: Is it fun for all types of players? Does it allow for different styles of play? Does it make you want to play more?

Winter Park’s answer is yes. What about your community’s course?


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