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August 2020

Hammock Beach Revival

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Bright Horizon for Supportive Golf Community
By Scott Kauffman

When Hammock Beach Golf Resort & Spa ushered in the peak winter travel season this February, the Palm Coast, Florida, private resort community was brimming with business, and longtime manager Brad Hauer’s outlook never looked brighter.

The resort was reinvigorated under new ownership after private equity group KDG Capital recently purchased the valuable oceanfront private club assets situated just south of St. Augustine, and Aimbridge Hospitality was now managing the 300-plus privately owned vacation rental units and various resort/restaurant amenities. Meanwhile, KDG Capital had just tapped Hauer’s new employer Troon Prive to oversee The Club at Hammock Beach, highlighted by the highly rated Ocean Course designed by Jack Nicklaus in 2000 and the nearby Tom Watson-designed Conservatory, which Hauer helped build and open in 2006 about eight miles away at another private golf residential development.

“We were coming off another successful Big Ten Conference (men’s golf) tournament with all 14 teams here to kick off the Big Ten season,” Hauer says, reflecting on that favorable February time-frame as the newly appointed general manager for the Club at Hammock Beach. “Our business was just doing great.”

Weeks later, the Coronavirus that seemed so foreign began spreading worldwide and dramatically changed all of Hauer’s fortunes overnight. Mid-March the pandemic shut down Hammock Beach and greatly disrupted businesses and day-to-day life like no one could have ever imagined.
For Hauer and his club membership, the toughest thing during the onset of the Covid-19 crisis was laying off some 260 employees after all of the resort banquets/events and membership outings suddenly dried up. Slowly but surely Hammock Beach began to claw its way back to some sense of normalcy on May 4, when Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis declared the Sunshine State officially reopened for business under “phase one guidelines.”

During that first weekend of Florida’s grand reopening, Hauer was still trying to make sense of what his club and resort’s new normal might look like, but he’s as optimistic as ever that Hammock Beach will not only regain its strong fiscal foundation from February, but grow to even greater heights, with all new high-profile partners in place overseeing this hidden gem featuring six holes Nicklaus routed along one mile of rare privately owned Florida coastline.

In fact, Hammock Beach even brings out some Pebble Beach comparisons, thanks to a spectacular string of four finishing holes that plays into and alongside the ocean before winding up at the luxurious 20-room Lodge at Hammock Beach, featuring the golf shop and Atlantic Grille’s upscale dining and sweeping ocean views. The Ocean Course and the privately owned 20-room lodge were the only amenities/activities allowed to stay open during the crisis, and as of mid-May, the rest of the sprawling resort accommodations, tennis courts, spa, fitness center, restaurants and 91,000-square-foot Fantasy Pool complex outside the main oceanfront resort tower were still closed.

Having Hammock Beach’s two private courses open was a blessing for sure, and not just for business purposes, according to Hauer.

“One thing we’ve seen through this pandemic is just a reconnecting of people,” Hauer says from a golf cart overlooking his newly renovated Ocean Course that now features rare wall-to-wall Paspalum Platinum variety turfgrass that is salt-tolerant and a hit among resort golfers and members. “Golf here at Hammock during this pandemic really helped this community. I don’t know what our members and residents would do if they just had to sit home because they weren’t allowed to do anything else.”

In the words of golf committee chairman John Wallis, two world-class courses that stayed open notwithstanding, perhaps the main reason he is so grateful to have discovered this private club community is the “people behind the club” he refers to on a first-name basis. Beloved employees like Kris who serves refreshing fare at the Ocean Course halfway house; Kara who can be found trucking around in the beverage cart serving members and guests at the Conservatory; or Frank greeting you upon your arrival at the main resort course.

“We’re truly blessed to be looked over by truly remarkable people,” says Wallis, 67, who moved to Hammock Beach with his wife, Lori, after spending 35 years as an executive for Hyatt Hotels. “Most of us who live here and belong to the club feel we’re genuinely cared for.”
That explains why the club immediately raised $92,000 to support its laid off club employees as part of the Hammock Beach Members Employee Relief Fund. Just another way life has been injected back into Hammock Beach during this historic health and economic crisis.

KDG Capital partner Greg Ogle, whose Tampa-based group also owns several other golf and private resort-style real estate assets outside of Florida, including historic Seaview Hotel and Golf Club in Galloway, New Jersey, can’t wait to start injecting more capital into their latest acquisition. And one of the top opportunities being planned is expanding the Lodge into a high-end boutique hotel with some “200 keys” and making Hammock Beach a world-class destination.

“We really think Troon sets the club up to really be something special,” Ogle says. “The biggest thing for us is to take Hammock Beach from maybe a 3 ½ diamond kind of place to that 4 ½.”

The Ocean Course, on the other hand, is already best of class now that it’s completely rebuilt and re-imagined after Hurricane Matthew wiped out the course in October 2016, which forced it to be closed for 13 months. Besides the new paspalum getting rave reviews, two other significant changes Hauer’s golf team made during the renovation project were maintaining the entire course at fairway cut and leveling the towering saw palmettos that were obscuring all of the oceanfront vistas along the course.

“We think that course, for the East Coast of the United States, it’s pretty close to a Pebble Beach,” Ogle notes. “For a public course that you can get on, it’s pretty amazing. And it doesn’t have the recognition it should. When you’re sitting on that lodge balcony having a drink after your round looking out over 18 and the Atlantic Ocean, and you see the pods of dolphins or the gray whales I saw in the spring, what’s the difference between that and Monterey?

“Well the difference is like 5 times the expense in your round of golf and 4 times in your room nights. Not to mention you got to fly across the country to California and go do that. And have you ever been to Monterey? It’s not easy to get to. … If we can provide something similar, that kind of feel to Pebble Beach at a quarter of the expense, wow, that’s compelling.”

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