When Hammock Beach Golf Resort & Spa ushered in the peak winter travel season this past February, the Palm Coast, Fla., private resort community was brimming with business, and General Manager Brad Hauer’s outlook had never been brighter.
With new ownership — private equity group KDG Capital — in place, the oceanfront resort situated just south of St. Augustine was reinvigorated and primed for success. Aimbridge Hospitality, one of the largest hotel operators in the country, had been brought in to manage the 300-plus privately owned vacation rental units and various resort/restaurant amenities. And Troon Privè® was hired to oversee The Club at Hammock Beach, highlighted by the highly rated Ocean Course designed by Jack Nicklaus in 2000, and the critically acclaimed, Tom Watson designed Conservatory, which Hauer had helped build and open in 2006 about eight miles away.
“We were coming off another successful Big Ten Conference (men’s golf) tournament with all 14 teams here to kick off the Big Ten Conference season,” Hauer said, reflecting back on that February timeframe. “Our business was just doing great. We were rockin’ it.”
And then, just a few weeks later, the Coronavirus began spreading worldwide and dramatically changed everything overnight. Indeed, by mid-March, the pandemic shut down Hammock Beach and disrupted business — and day-to-day life for that matter — like no one could have ever imagined.
Nowadays, as Florida begins to reopen, Hauer and his team are plotting a course of action for what the resort’s new normal might look like. 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. And why not, what with all of the new high profile partners in place overseeing this hidden jewel of a resort where Nicklaus routed six holes along one mile of Florida’s northeast coastline.
“One thing we’ve seen through this pandemic is just a reconnecting of people,” Hauer said from a golf cart, overlooking his newly renovated Ocean Course that now features rare wall-to-wall Paspalum Platinum turfgrass that is salt-tolerant and gorgeous to view and wonderful to play. “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.”
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 four years ago 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 blessed to be looked over by truly remarkable people,” said 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 was able to quickly raise $92,000 to support employees who had been furloughed as part of the Hammock Beach Members Employee Relief Fund.
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, N.J., can’t wait to start injecting more capital into his company’s latest acquisition. One priority is expanding the Lodge into a high-end boutique hotel with some 200 rooms and making Hammock Beach a world-class destination that can match up to the best golf resorts around the globe.
“We really think Troon® sets the club up to be something special,” said Ogle, who knows a good course/club when he sees one considering he grew up in Augusta, Ga., and one of his first jobs was at Augusta National. “The biggest thing for us is to take Hammock Beach to the next level. But it’s still a family-oriented resort. Or a perfect guy’s trip where you can go out there and play golf for a long weekend. We still want it to be approachable. We want people to be able to enjoy themselves, to be comfortable putting on a golf shirt and going out to dinner at one of our restaurants.”
The Ocean Course is already best of class now that it’s been completely rebuilt and reimagined after Hurricane Matthew came through in October 2016. 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 some of the spectacular oceanfront vistas along the course.
“We think the course, for the East Coast of the United States, is pretty close to a Pebble Beach,” said Ogle, who notes the resort is easily accessible from I-95. “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 grey whales I saw in the spring, what’s the difference between that and Monterey?”
Wallis concurs: “I’ve spent a lifetime in hospitality, so probably as much as anybody, I can see the full potential of creating a true world-class destination. The future is only upwards. I was fortunate to travel all over the world in my career and I can tell you that the potential to create a world-class destination at Hammock Beach is huge.”