There’s a boom in new golf course construction in south Florida, and Gil Hanse’s West layout at Apogee is one of the first to have opened.
The 18-hole layout is part of an ambitious, 54-hole private club development in Martin County, about 25 miles northwest of West Palm Beach. There are several private clubs in development in the area, most involving extensive real estate. Apogee, by contrast, is a stand-alone facility, strictly a golf and recreational club.
Apogee (as in ‘ultimate height’) is a 1,200-acre luxury retreat involving some of the most successful names in the business. The co-owners are Michael Pascucci, founder of Sebonack Golf Club on Long Island, and Stephen Ross, who owns the NFL team Miami Dolphins and created the global real estate construction firm, Related Companies. They hired Gil Hanse and Jim Wagner to do the first course, which opened in December 2023, to be followed by Tom Fazio II and Mike Davis (formerly of the USGA) to do the second (South) course, opening in late 2024, and Kyle Phillips to do the third (North) layout, slated for late 2025.
Along the way, the property will be outfitted with two clubhouses, villas, two massive practice ranges and state-of-the-art training facilities, a par-three course and short-game practice area, as well as equestrian, racquets, fishing, swimming and hiking. Land planning is by the New York-based firm Hart Howerton. Golf course construction is taking place in-house, overseen by the Fazio-Davis team. Ambitious, indeed.
Before the golf design teams headed off to do their work, they came to a basic agreement about the kind of playability their courses would embody. The point here was not to determine a particular look but to make sure that while all three courses tested elite-calibre players, they were also interesting, fun and emotionally engaging for players of everyday skill levels.
Among those elements the design teams would embrace would be wide fairways, good strategy, greens large enough to receive and hold the shot called for, no water directly in play in the form of a forced carry, no blocking entrances to greens (a hazard on one side of the entry needed to allow for room on the other side), forward tees around 4,000 yards and forced carries of hazards only for those playing from the very back tees.
Apogee occupies low-lying ground; there is only 15 to 20 feet of native elevation change over the old farming, range and bird hunting land that it occupies. Woodlands and wetlands intersperse, with some very strong stands of oaks, pines and hammock trees on the eastern half of the site that will be incorporated in the designs there.
Apogee West sits on more open ground. The par-72 routing measures out at 7,501 yards from the back tees, though most players will play from one of the other six tees that range from 4,077 to 6,971 yards. The point of those shorter teeing grounds, of course, is to enable golfers of every swing speed to enjoy the challenge, strategy and variety of paths from tee to green that elite players have – without compromising intrigue and interest and without undue stress.
Fazio and Davis are not only designing the South course and the practice areas; they are also coordinating construction of all three layouts in-house. To that end they have arranged for Apogee to purchase all the needed construction equipment: a veritable arsenal of haul trucks, excavators, bulldozers, skid steers, tractors, dumpers and utility vehicles.
Day-to-day turfgrass and maintenance operations are in the hands of a team led by superintendent Tony Nysse, a stalwart of the south Florida scene, thanks to previous stints at Pine Tree, Old Marsh and Mountain Lake.
Construction of the West entailed a cut of 71,000 cubic yards and a fill of 296,000 cubic yards; the material needed to lift various features came from ponds dug on the perimeter of the property that stay out of the line of play. Tees sit at grade, with only modest elevations required for some of the green pads. The irrigation system entails 2,000 heads, 26.5 miles of HDPE pipe and 23 miles of wire. Drainage, paramount on a low-lying site that is subject to occasional heavy rains, is channelled through 19 miles of pipe.
The method of design-build that Hanse and Wagner deployed here relies upon a process of ‘chunking’ in large swaths of well-established grasses from on site and scattering them on the backs of bunkers, in nearby rough and behind greens – all to create an effect of ageing and informality. As Wagner explained: “We decided to utilise native grasses to give the course an antiquated look, with a little patina like it has been here a long time. We use loaders and tractors to harvest the grasses from the other side of the property, haul those to the course and use an excavator to offload and for a generally unpredictable look.”
The combination of formally maintained areas and informal, native scruffy grasses gives the West a distinctive look. The short-cut fairway ground, comprising TifTuf bermuda, is extensive and is seamlessly tied into tees and grounds – 100 acres worth, in all. This is dotted by another seven acres of the chunked-out native grasses. Added to this are extensive sandy areas – 106 bunkers, comprising 135,000 square feet of bunkering, most of it edged with that native mix. The result is a startlingly well-defined palette of materials for a golf course that looks like it has been there for ages.
Most greens are sited at grade level and not heavily defended up front by bunkers that need to be carried. The course thus allows for lots of ground-game play. Elite players will still play the aerial game anyway, so it’s not as if opening up the fronts makes the game any easier for them. And if/when they miss the fairway and find themselves in rough or bunkers, they’ll have the option of working a well-struck shot to the green, though they’ll have to judge properly the bounce and roll out – something they are not accustomed to doing.
The fairway bunkering often cuts across the line of play, thus providing options for players who take a diagonal line but also offering a reward on the far side of the carry with fairway for additional roll. The greenside bunkering is not at all a frontal assault, and where there is one side protected by sand the other is likely left open within clear view.
The TifEagle bermuda greens offer considerable contrast. They average 5,880 square feet, but in doing so they vary considerably, with the putting surface on the short par-four fifth hole the smallest on the course at only 3,004 square feet; while the green at the mid-length par-four second hole is the largest at 10,525. Hanse calls it “one of the favourites I have ever built” for its wild contours that make one think of the fourteenth green at Augusta National – a green and surrounds complex that, by the way, has more elevation change than all of Harbour Town Golf Links on Hilton Head, South Carolina.
There is a lot of stutter-stepping and shifting rhythms to be encountered out there. The course starts with a long par four that takes players to the back of an old Hacienda-style ranch home that will serve as a temporary clubhouse until the main clubhouse on the West side is ready. The short, dogleg right par-four fifth hole calls for a tee shot along an inlet that empties out into the Okeechobee Canal. From there, the front nine turns inward, to the 618-yard, double-dogleg par-five sixth with a second shot across a ‘Hell’s Half-Acre’ bunker. The shortest hole on the front nine, the 155-yard par-three eighth, plays to a green perched well above grade that falls off all around.
The contrasts continue on the back nine, with the long par-five tenth followed by a short par four. Then comes a very long par four at the twelfth to a green whose entrance is obscured by a Mackenzie-style short carry bunker that is actually 60 yards short of the green but looks like it is set right up against the putting surface. Another short par three follows, the 135-yard thirteenth, followed by the most tempting hole on the West course, the 321-yard par-four fourteenth to a massive, potato-chip of a green; it is readily in reach from each of the respective tees and offers the prospects of a green that seems to steer putts into unfathomable corners. The hole proves that ground-game intrigue can appeal to players of every skill level.
The course does not look or feel like most other Florida layouts. Water is not in play. There are shot-making options in terms of playing angles and the ground game. Every hole presents an opportunity to exercise not just physical skill but also mental ability in terms of judgment. It is a golf course that provides diverse stimuli and that engages a golfer’s full sensory capacity.
For Apogee, the West is only the start. Each of the two follow-on courses will offer varied terrain, look and strategic demands. Small wonder the list of founding members is already growing.
This article is adapted from Bradley S. Klein’s newly published book, APOGEE: Reaching New Heights (Duck Pond Press, Melville, New York, 2023)
This article first appeared in the January 2024 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.