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New course at forefront as golf looks southward

Not quite four months after Southern Oaks Golf Club opened, Tyler Krager acknowledges he’s still getting accustomed to the rhythms of The Villages’ southernmost golf offering. “That’s something we’ve been talking about around here a little bit,” said Krager, Southern Oaks’ head PGA professional. “On a day like today (Friday), we were packed. But then you get some lighter days. It’s a little confusing in a sense — hey, where did everybody go?” That should dispel any notion that tee times at Southern Oaks are in short supply. If anything, now may be the time to take advantage and get that first impression while the Sawgrass Grove complex steams toward completion. Meantime, it remains full steam ahead on the south’s five executive courses. “I’m looking forward to see more courses to open up,” Bob Youngbauer, of the Village of Bradford, said while waiting to tee off at the Red Fox/Gray Fox starter shack.

It’s coming, in various forms. Coming years will see additions in the south that will bring the overall count in The Villages to more than 800 holes of golf. The only factor is time.

“It definitely takes time,” said Mike Morba, whose lanai in the Village of Citrus Grove overlooks Southern Oaks’ first fairway. “Homes are going up so fast. You don’t build a golf course in four months.”

Southern Oaks raised its curtain in November, the first championship addition to The Villages since Belle Glade Country Club in 2014. For golfers who were among the first to migrate south of State Road 44, it gave them a club near home.

“We have a lot of players that have become regulars,” Krager said. “Those individuals are living down in the area and had to drive across 44 for the past year or two. Now they have a home course.”

When the Ladies Village Cup began planning for this spring’s event, for example, slots filled quickly to stock the new Southern Oaks roster.

Even so, there are windows where tee times can be had. Krager noted when temperatures broke above 80 degrees for the first time last Monday, “we were packed from sunup to sundown. Then Tuesday had the same weather and it was a little slower.”

Krager anticipates a second surge is coming once Sawgrass Grove opens its doors. Central to the complex is McGrady’s Restaurant & Pub and an outdoor entertainment stage, with Southern Oaks’ golf shop also to be located there.

“We know The Villages is more than just golf,” Krager said. “It’s the lifestyle. What we’re accustomed to is as we come off the 18th green, we can go to the ‘19th hole’ and have a drink or a bite to eat.”

It’s a sentiment shared by Dave Sarinsky, another new resident in the Village of Citrus Grove.

“I’m anxious for any of those (amenities) to open,” he said. “There’s no place to have a drink with friends when you’re done. That’s part of the beauty of golf.”

Southern Oaks, though, doesn’t seem to have made much of a dent on demand for executive play down south.

“A lot of people play the executives, for various reasons,” said Steve Shepard, of the Village of St. Catherine.

Though plenty of executive golfers have begun to tee it up at Southern Oaks, Krager noted, others have simply become accustomed to playing the shorter layouts.

“I think it’s a geographic thing — ‘I live here, I work here, so I’m just going to play around here,’” Krager said. “You’ve got Red Fox, Gray Fox, Lowlands. Now we’re opening their eyes to other options.”

At the rate new homes are going up in the south, though, any void from golfers taking play to Southern Oaks is filled quickly.

“Houses are going up fast,” said Krager. “Any loss from the executives is being replenished by new Villagers.”

In the coming years, the south is set to add three more championship courses, six executive layouts, three pitch-and-putts, another putting course and a southern branch of The Villages Golf Academy.

For 2022, though, the focus will be on the short game. The Richmond Pitch & Putt, located at the foot of the Water Lily Bridge, is targeted for a summer opening. That will be followed by the Mickylee Pitch & Putt and Jubilee Putting Course, slated for early November as The Villages pushes farther southeast.

Once those ribbons are cut, said course architect Kenny Ezell, “we’re going to cross the bridge (to the other side of Florida’s Turnpike) and start working our way as quickly as we can to build all these golf courses.”

The Laurel Oak executive course will be first in that line, just south of the coming Southern Oaks Bridge. That layout will be complemented by another pitch-and-putt named Live Oak.

Just south of Live Oak Pitch & Putt is the planned Woodlands Golf Club, an 18-hole layout that will meander among several stands of old-growth oak trees.

“We’ve been able to preserve those,” said Ezell. “In fact, we moved a few holes around to be able to put a little park in for the residents to be able to enjoy. It’s a little bit different than anything we’ve done.”

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