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November 2019

Winter Haven Seeks Success on Road Less Traveled

By Steve Eubanks

Great golf isn’t always enough, especially once the pavement ends, literally. 

When most of the country thinks of Florida they either imagine beachfront condos, tower upon gleaming tower from Jacksonville to Miami, or Disney World and other assorted attractions. The idea that a golf course capable of hosting a Florida State Open, one of the larger Symetra Tour events and a couple of mini-tours could be so remote that the road narrows to one lane of sand and shale before you get there seems farfetched.  

But that’s what it’s like to visit the Country Club of Winter Haven on a lonely stretch of the Sunshine State between Orlando and Tampa, south of nowhere and miles from the nearest Burger King. The course is a gem with a long history. It dates back to the 1920s when the area, as the name suggests, was a winter haven for wealthy northerners who needed a quiet place to escape, close enough to the gulf coast to keep civilization in reach but far enough away to still have panthers, bears and alligators longer than Cadillacs.

As golf exploded in more populated areas of the state, Country Club of Winter Haven needed a facelift. In 2011, Bill Bergin redesigned the course to rave reviews.

“We were incredibly lucky to have such a classic piece of land and to be given free rein to create something special,” Bergin said. “I’m incredibly proud of what we did because you now have a golf course that challenges the best players in the world – those players from the Symetra Tour love it but none of them tear it up – but is also playable and fun for the members.” 

Retirees who live on both coasts have joined Winter Haven as a second club because of the caliber of Bergin’s work. But it’s still in the middle of nowhere. In those cases – and there are plenty of them throughout the U.S. – professional management is the only answer.

Winter Haven has brought in Kemper Sports to market the club as something other than a great golf course with little around.  

“We’re excited to welcome the Country Club of Winter Haven to the Kemper Sports family,” the company’s CEO Steve Skinner said. “We look forward to working with the members and staff to elevate the experience and introduce a new generation of members to everything the club has to offer.”

Places like Streamsong can get away with being remote. There are a hotel, multiple courses and topography that makes you think of a hundred places other than Florida. But with the exception of Streamsong, Bandon Dunes and Sand Valley, the “Field of Dreams” adage rarely works in golf. If you build it, they won’t always come. Country Club of Winter Haven is a perfect example.  

According to club president Mike Mahalek, “Through this new partnership, we will be tapping into Kemper Sports’s private club expertise to ensure Winter Haven is well-positioned to meet the needs of our members.”

Steve Eubanks is an Atlanta-based freelance writer and New York Times bestselling author.

 

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