SEMINOLE — While single, lawyer Matthew Sullivan lived in a villa overlooking the Bardmoor golf course in Pinellas County. He liked the pastoral view so much there was little doubt what would happen when he married and started a family: He and his wife, Jennifer, bought a house on the 12th fairway.
Eight years later, the Sullivans still love what amounts to an enormous back yard. Their kids romp on grass that stretches as far as the eye can see. At night, the family walks among the pines and oaks where eagles nest. It's country living in the middle of Florida's most densely populated county.
All that could change.
The owner of the 150-acre Bardmoor course has agreed to sell it to Wheelock Communities and Gentry Land, the companies that developed the huge Starkey Ranch in Pasco County. From what little the companies have said about their plans for Bardmoor, indications are that they consider new housing — not fairways and greens — a far better use for a prime swath of land.
"Pinellas is unique in that there is not a lot of new construction,'' said Reed Berlinsky, Gentry's president.
Where Genry and Wheelock see a "possible master planned community,'' however, Bardmoor residents see plunging property values, loss of open space and the demise of a beloved course that has hosted high school teams, PGA champions and countless charity functions.
On Monday, the developers held a meeting at a nearby church to listen to comments from homeowners and discuss potential features of the new community. About 100 people were expected to attend. By the time the doors opened, more than 250 were in line, some in "Save Bardmoor'' T-shirts, almost all of them angry and vowing to fight the closing of the course.
"I don't want my children's memories to be of nails and construction while they're destroying this place,'' Jennifer Sullivan said.
The battle over Bardmoor is by no means unique. All over the country, golf courses are closing and developers are moving in, often to the ire of existing homeowners.
It's a surprising chapter in the history of a sport that is such a part of American life. Almost every U.S. president since William Howard Taft has played golf. Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods became household names. Friendships are forged on the links; million-dollar deals are cut between putts.
Even people who don't play golf like to look at golf courses. For decades, new-home communities attracted buyers by touting their golf courses and bucolic golf course views. Between 1998 and 2006, more than 4,000 new courses opened.
The building frenzy was not sustainable, especially as younger people showed less enthusiasm for a sport often associated with well-heeled white men. Courses began closing in the Great Recession and the trend accelerated so fast that more than 400 courses went defunct in 2016 and 2017, according to the National Golf Foundation in Jupiter.
With about 1,250 of the nation's remaining 15,000 or so golf courses, Florida still has the most of any state. However, it has lost many in recent years including ones in Boca Raton, Amelia Island and Delray Beach. Last summer, the 18-hole Tides Golf Club in Seminole closed despite a successful four-year battle to block an Arizona-based homebuilder from redeveloping it. The closing was blamed on damage from Hurricane Irma in 2017, but area residents fear the new owner, a Tampa company, will also try to replace the course with hundreds of homes.
Five miles from the Tides is the Bardmoor course, the heart of a community known for its mature trees and large, traditional homes.
Oliver Bardes, an Ohio industrialist and avid golfer, founded Bardmoor in 1971. That year, golf legend Ben Hogan played the first rounds at what was then called the Bardmoor Country Club (now the Bardmoor Golf and Tennis Club. ) The club has hosted 13 PGA and LPGA tour events; it was the home course of Brittany Lincicome, one of the country's top women golfers, during her teens.
Unlike many courses that have closed, Bardmoor appears to be thriving. Even on a Monday afternoon, the parking lot was full and dozens of golf carts zipped around the fairways. The Osceola High School team plays there, as do several adult leagues.
The course and club are owned by Bayou Golf LCC, which paid $12.5 million for them in 2006. Bayou Golf is affiliated with Charles Staples, CEO of a Virginia firm that owns and manages golf courses. Two years ago, Staples sold a course in Reston, Va., to Wheelock Communities, the developer of Starkey Ranch. Talks began about selling Bardmoor, too.
"We all know that the sport of golf in the U.S. is waning and over the years we have developed too many golf courses for the interest (in them),'' said Dan Green, a principal in Wheelock. "As our population changes, golf is not quite as popular as it was so it's created an opportunity to repurpose golf courses in many locations around the country.''
In Reston, a suburb of Washington, D.C., Wheelock's plans to turn the private golf course into a 100-acre public park with up to 1,000 homes have drawn fierce opposition. While Wheelock says the course is struggling and is not the best use of the land, a survey found that 97 percent of residents want to preserve it as green space.
Staples did not return calls for comment, but Green said Wheelock has a contract to buy the Bardmoor course, which like Reston's is now designated for recreational use. Redevelopment would entail a change in land use and zoning, a long process that would involve multiple county, state and federal agencies.
Currently, Wheelock and Gentry Land are considering new-home options that could be "anything from single family to active adult to multi-family,'' said Berlinsky of Gentry. "The market is going to tell us that as we go through this exploratory phase.''
Buffers of trees and landscaping would ensure that homeowners who now have sweeping golf course views wouldn't be looking into someone's else windows, the developers say. To mitigate the impact on property values, the new homes would be of comparable quality as existing ones.
"With the care and the careful development that you can see up at Starkey (Ranch), we think this could be an actual enhancement to value,'' Green said.
Next to waterfront views, however, golf course views are often considered the most desirable and thus are factored into property valuations.
"You've got to go back to why golf course communities were created,'' Pinellas County Property Appraiser Mike Twitty said. "The land that originally went into them created lot premiums for developers that enabled them to offer better views and get better lot prices. So, yes,(view) is a factor.''
As Steve Blatnak,whose home overlooks the Bardmoor course, put it: "You come down to Florida, you either live on the gulf if you have money or you live on a golf course if you have money.''
Less than a week before, the developers sent out "Dear Neighbor'' postcards inviting Bardmoor residents to a meeting at 5:30 p.m. Feb. 25. On the front was a photo of a happy young family running alongside a lake.
"It looked like an invitation to a potluck dinner,'' Jennifer Sullivan said. Worried that many people had thrown it away, she started texting friends and passing out fliers door to door.
The mobilization worked. By 5 p.m. a crowd began to form. Realtor Bobbie Kahler, who has several listings in Bardmoor, looked panic-stricken at the sight of a reporter.
"We don't want any publicity on this,'' she said. "There are houses under contract, closings are coming up. People won't want to buy in here if they know the golf course might go away. This is horrific.''
As if on cue, a man who recognized Kahler walked up. "Can you tell me how much my house value dropped when that postcard went out?'' he asked. They were joined by another homeowner, who joked: "Is this where we line up for insurrection?''
Kenneth Taylor, who lives with his 89-year-old mother in a villa overlooking the course, called the thought of redevelopment "a nightmare.''
"There can't be anybody happy about it,'' he said. "The traffic, the construction. I'm concerned about taxes going up because we'd probably have to pay for increased infrastructure.''
Once inside the church hall, Bardmoor residents crowded around several poster boards, set on easels, that showed possible amenities of a planned comnunity. On one poster were renderings of a gazebo and a small outdoor amphitheater. Another showed new roads that would provide additional access to Bardmoor. Representatives of B2 Communications, a PR firm hired by the developers, gamely tried to answer questions and solicit suggestions.
Most residents, though, clearly had expected a formal presentation with more detailed plans. The mood turned increasingly hostile.
"There is no plan to present,'' Kyle Parks of B2 kept repeating amid shouts of ''Go away'' and "Let him speak.'' "The idea is to hear from you guys.''
Since the meeting, the developers have posted a list of frequently asked questions and a blog with draft images and updates. They have scheduled another session with residents for March 14.
"We are planning our strategy,'' Jennifer Sullivan said.
Contact Susan Taylor Martin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate.