JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Golf at its best is a peaceful, sublime merging of nature and sport.
Indeed, entering the phrase “healing power of golf” on Google returns more than 19 million hits.
A small piece of land between A1A and the Atlantic Ocean on Amelia Island is one example of how golf can heal — especially old wounds.
The opening of Little Sandy this week, a 10-hole par-three course at the Omni Amelia Island Resort, not only brings another alternative golf facility to the First Coast but it has put to rest an acrimonious dispute between the resort and the Amelia Island Equity Club, more than four years after the abrupt closing of one of the two 18-hole courses on the property.
Both sides have moved forward and the gorgeous little jewel surrounding Red Maple Lake is the peacemaker.
“The membership is very happy with the layout by [designer] Beau Welling, the construction to MacCurrach Golf and the Omni’s efforts to put it all together,” said Mike Warfield, president of the Amelia Island Club. “For us, as members, we have access to a short course, really well-designed, that a lot of private clubs don’t get access to. I think it’s just spectacular.”
The course, named for its size (less than 30 acres) and being near the vast Amelia Island dunes, had its grand opening Tuesday, becoming the second alternative to an 18-hole golf course to open on the First Coast in two years.
The Yards, which evolved from the former Oak Bridge Country Club in Ponte Vedra Beach, opened in the fall of 2020 and has a nine-hole track and six par-3 holes.
The oldest par-3 course in the area is the Palm Valley Golf Club.
The opening of The Yards and now Little Sandy is part of a nationwide trend of golf clubs, resorts and municipalities seeking alternatives to the 18-hole, four-to-six hour golf experience that many players say is simply too much a drain on their leisure time.
About a third of the new golf courses that opened last year in the U.S. were par-3 facilities between six and 14 holes, according to the National Golf Foundation.
A golf experience in 60 minutes
Omni Amelia director of golf Jonathan Bridges said two players can tour Little Sandy’s 928 yards in an hour, and groups of six have done it in less than 90 minutes since the soft opening.
“They’re really enjoying it,” Bridges said. “It’s something very different.”
The holes range from the 42-yard ninth hole to the 115-yard first and 10th holes. The course is laid over the remnants of Nos. 7, 8, 17 and 18 of the old Ocean Links course, which was closed in November of 2017 by the resort without giving the equity club sufficient notice, a Nassau County judge later ruled.
The 10th green at “Little Sandy” is in nearly the same position as the 18th green of the Ocean Links course at the Omni Amelia Plantation. (Photo: Garry Smits/Florida Times-Union)
The 10th green, which is one of three holes with water in play, is more or less in the same position as the par-3 18th green of Ocean Links.
The course cost Omni $3.5 million. There was no assessment of the Amelia Island Club members, who have playing privileges at Oak Marsh and the Amelia Island Club at Long Point — the latter of which closed this week for renovation and will re-open in the fall.
Little Sandy has relatively large greens with dramatic contours, which allow for numerous pin positions. Players have the option on seven of the holes to run the ball up onto the green.
Rental sets are available, with a putter, three wedges and a 9-iron, but players may bring their own bag. Walking is required unless a player has a disability.
There is an 18-hole putting course that Warfield called “a real treat.”
Golfers want more options
Welling, based in Greenville, South Carolina, said like almost everything else involving leisure time, golfers want options that don’t involve a door-to-door experience that eats away a good part of the day.
“You look at society in general, we have so many options of how to use our time and our lives,” he said. “I grew up at a time when there were only three channels on TV. Now we don’t even watch TV on a TV. We don’t read a newspaper on paper. What we’re seeing is a desire of the golfer to have options in how they orient to golf.”
Welling said the increase of par-3 courses will help players get better at the key shots in golf — from 100 yards to the green.
“These kinds of facilities are stripping out a lot of shots people have a hard time playing and focus on the shots they have a chance of being successful with,” he said.
Little Sandy also has a number of amenities that range from charming to functional to amusing.
Each tee marker has four cup holders, so players can carry their beverages from hole to hole. There is also a beach umbrella and two lounge chairs at each tee.
The putting green has a half-dozen Adirondack chairs.
Small speakers strategically located near the tees and greens play music. A small pro shop carries the rental sets, balls, tees, divot tools and ball markers, as well as a selection of apparel. The course is an easy walk from Bob’s Steak and Chop House and other dining and beverage options within the Resort Shopping Village, so it will be easy to arrange 10 holes of golf at Little Sandy around breakfast, lunch or dinner.
And if players run out of ammo, there is a large gum ball machine behind the ninth tee that dispenses pink golf balls.
Little Sandy is a natural fit within the family-oriented vibe of the resort. Welling said he walked onto the course last week and saw a resort guest teaching his young daughter how to putt, with her two toddler brothers doing somersaults on the putting green.
“I thought, ‘that’s what we’re trying to do here,'” Welling said. “It’s all about family.”
Little Sandy mends hard feelings
Little Sandy seems to be an adequate compromise to the closing of Ocean Links, the first design on the First Coast by World Golf Hall of Fame architect Pete Dye, in collaboration with Bobby Weed. Dye also designed Oak Marsh.
The resort closed Ocean Links on Nov. 12, 2017, a day after it was still taking tee times, and began bulldozing the three holes along the ocean — hours after an email was sent to equity club members informing them of the closing.
At the time, the resort claimed the members had not lived up to an agreement that called for it to provide 10,000 rounds annually at Ocean Links and Oak Marsh, with a minimum of 3,000 at Ocean Links, in addition to the resort rounds generated by vacationers.
The Equity Club’s suit claimed Omni Amelia Island LLC broke a long-standing agreement to operate two golf courses with a private membership as well as resort play, dating back to 2010 when Omni bought the property as part of a bankruptcy case involving the original owners.
The bulldozers began work under police protection. Work halted two days later under an injunction granted by Judge Steven Fahlgren — who blasted the resort in his ruling.
“The Agreement does not permit Omni to unilaterally close the Ocean Links golf course, but rather requires the Club’s written consent to do so,” Fahlgren wrote. “Omni destroyed the Ocean Links golf course without notice, and in a manner to accomplish the destruction before the Club had an opportunity to obtain judicial relief. Florida law will not permit Omni to benefit from this misconduct.”
Equity club attorney Steven Busey told the Florida Times-Union at the time, “The Omni’s sudden closure of the Ocean Links course was the product of Omni’s arrogance, greed and disdain for contractual obligations.”
Fahlgren ordered the resort to re-open Ocean Links but too much of the seaside holes had been bulldozed by then (it’s now open green space for resort guests and residents) and Little Sandy became the compromise.
The harsh language surrounding the Ocean Links closing is now conciliatory on both sides.
“I’m not going to contrast and compare the situation,” Warfield said. “I can only say this: we’re very happy with this course. I can’t speak for all the residents but I think they’re looking out on it and saying, ‘Wow, this is attractive.’ It’s going to help home values. It’s been a real positive experience.”
Theo Schofield, the Omni managing director, has only been at the Amelia Island Resort for just about a year and believes there is real harmony over the opening of Little Sandy. The resort hosted an opening for the equity club members last week and he’s pleased with their reaction.
“They’re very excited about it,” he said. “I think they’re really excited about having another option to play.”