The Ranch: Florida’s next big destination?

Ken Bakst, developer of Friar’s Head on Long Island, New York, has submitted a master plan for a new development in Martin County, Florida that includes a 36-hole golf course designed by Whitman, Axland & Cutten (WAC Golf).

The plan includes two eighteen-hole golf courses and a 175-acre practice facility that includes a full-length 10-hole practice layout, a 12-hole short course, a massive rolling putting green, an extensive short game area and a 360-degree long game practice area.

Bakst is the visionary behind The Ranch. He wants to leave the land largely untouched, while creating a golfing experience like no other.

“For the last decade Kenny had been looking for the perfect land for the next golfing experience and in the summer of 2021 he found it!” says Keith Cutten. “A nearly 4,000 acre rustic ranch 20 minutes from the beaches of Hobe Sound and a short drive from Palm Beach Island. The Bakst family instantly fell in love with the rugged and picturesque place.”

Historically named Calusa Creek Ranch, the site is “incredibly diverse with grassy pastures, wetlands, oak hammocks, pine flats and cypress domes,” says Cutten. “It is still an active ranch, currently home to approximately 800 Brangus cattle, and Kenny intends to continue to operate a substantial cow-calf operation on the property. It is also a haven for outdoor enthusiasts with 1.5 miles of frontage on the St. Lucie Canal.

“Most mornings, The Ranch is shrouded in a breathtaking mist, and when the mist lifts, it reveals an abundance of wildlife that calls the land home. Deer, turkey, osprey, fox and many others will have plenty of room to thrive when The Ranch changes, and that’s because more than 90 percent of the land will be preserved as open range, while more than 65 percent will remain bona fide farmland for cattle and agriculture.”

The excavation of two large fishing lakes outside the golf footprint will generate sand for course construction.

“There will be no cuts to the existing landforms, except where we choose to incorporate creeks and ditches into the design of the golf courses,” says Cutten. “It is our goal to create natural landscapes that highlight inherent qualities for the benefit of golf, and it is a rare opportunity to have so much land to work with, which will allow the most natural and sensitive areas of the site to remain unaltered and serve as beautiful landscape features.”

The routing of the courses and practice facilities was a collaboration between all three WAC Golf partners and Bakst.

“It was definitely a fun and creative process,” says Cutten. “But as you can imagine, it was also incredibly challenging to figure out where we wanted to plan everything when we started with 6.1 square kilometers of land, with no restrictions on where or how much land we could use.”

The master plan was submitted to Martin County nearly two years after Bakst identified the land.

“The site is so big that it would have allowed for a lot of opportunities,” says Cutten. “However, Kenny’s vision is to preserve all of the natural areas on the 3,900-acre ranch, 95 percent of which will remain as green open space. Placing golf in the southern third of the site, far removed from both people and traffic, will provide golfers with an incredibly remote and serene experience in untamed nature.”

Once the team had settled on that area, design work began. “We’d have plans spread out on a dining room table for weeks at a time,” says Cutten. “Then we’d share opportunities with Kenny to get his thoughts, which, unsurprisingly for us, were always invaluable. It took almost a year to figure out our current routes, and we’re still working on minor tweaks every time we’re on location together.

“The flow of holes was very important to us, as was the distinctive character of the two courses. The core principles of routing – direction changes, wind and sun angles and so on – were of course critical, but exploring the site’s diverse habitats while preserving their best parts was equally important. We simply let the site inform our decision-making and didn’t hesitate to make adjustments in the field where the inclusion of site assets could further enhance the journey.”

The two eighteen-hole layouts – East and West – both max out at around 7,500 yards.

“The characteristics of the site will help differentiate the courses from each other, and we will use traditional design elements that reflect their different landscapes,” says Cutten. “One course will be wider and bolder with sweeping views of the entire golf course, while the holes on the other course will weave in and out of upland pine and prairie land to provide a more intimate ride through nature.”

The practice areas also received the team’s most attention, and Cutten said nothing comparable has ever been built. “That’s a bold statement, but Kenny is known for his love of practice and belief that good practice facilities are a source of great enjoyment and absolutely essential to giving golfers of all levels the means to learn how to take their game from range to range.

“The Ranch is a big business, both in project scale and vision. We have been presented with an amazing opportunity to deliver something very special to golf in Florida and America. We do not take this opportunity lightly and have assembled a team to help us deliver.”

Earthworks for bulk grading, drainage and irrigation could begin as early as autumn 2023, with construction of the pitches and practice facilities expected to begin in winter 2024.

This article first appeared inThe July 2023 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a print subscription or free digital edition, please visit ourthe subscription page.

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