CLEARWATER — Upon entering Feather Sound Country Club, I'm half expecting to get kicked out. Having grown up in the Stonegate section of the Feather Sound development, I spent most of my teenage years trying to figure out ways to get onto the golf course. I've hidden in the woods to avoid rangers. I've tried to play on Mondays, when the course is closed. I've taken a few clubs and a handful of balls and tried to sneak in a couple of holes. All to no avail. Feather Sound was, and still is, a private club. And when it comes to that place, I have always felt like the coyote trying to catch the roadrunner. Until last Friday.
Feather Sound was developed by Fred Bullard in 1968 and the course opened in 1976. It is an 18-hole, par-72 course that sits on the northeastern edge of Pinellas County. Because it is right next to Tampa Bay, the course has plenty of inlets, lakes and mangroves that make it one of the most challenging in the area.
But most local golfers will never play it.
Through the ups and downs of the past 34 years, Feather Sound has stayed strictly private. Recently, some area private clubs have suffered losses in membership, so much so that they have switched to semi-private or daily play status. Most private clubs offer summer memberships when play is at its lowest. There are also "Member for a Day'' promotions, where private clubs will allow non-members a chance to check out the course before they join.
There is none of that at Feather Sound.
"We don't offer the member for a day,'' Feather Sound membership director Matt Shappee said. "That isn't to say we won't let a person get a look at the course. They certainly should see the course before they join. But we want to make sure they are serious about it.''
According to Shappee, Feather Sound has 460 overall members, of which about 200 are full golf members. A social membership has a $2,000 initiation fee, while full memberships have a $10,000 initiation fee. Full golf members pay monthly dues of $425, plus $225 quarterly for food and beverage minimums. It works out to about $600 per month for golf, cart fees and food and beverage.
Feather Sound's members include some of the area's top movers and shakers. As long as the members are happy, Feather Sound isn't going to open up to the average hacker.
"If you make the decision to go semi-private, then how do you go back to being private once things get better?'' Feather Sound general manager and director of golf Andy Crowe said. "It's a slippery slope, and there's nothing wrong with either choice a course makes. For us, it's best to stay a private course in order to provide the best we can for our members.
"We try to make it an office away from the office. E-mails and phone calls are great, but sometimes you have to see people face to face. They can come here and get that.''
Back in the day
Feather Sounders these days have it so easy. Back when my parents decided to make the radical decision to move to the "boondocks'' in 1979, the area was thought of mostly as swampland.
There was the Show Boat Dinner Theatre, Airco Golf Course and a shack on the bay that sold live blue crabs. There was no Carillon Center, no Publix, no restaurants or Starbucks. We had to hunt for our own food and live off the land, for crying out loud. (Okay, not really.)
The houses lining the golf course are the original Feather Sound. They can be seen from just about every hole, and most of the members come from these homes. Then there are the model homes on the exterior of the development. That's where I grew up. No view of the course, except when we drove by to exit onto Ulmerton Road.
There was a dirt road that wound between the second and third holes (which would later become Feather Sound Drive), and that was our way on and off the course. The third hole is a par 3 with a lake to the right and an inlet of Tampa Bay to the left. The lake was loaded with bass, and we would fish as golfers passed by.
Once the coast was clear, I would break out a club and tee it up. If I was extra adventurous, I'd play the par-4 fourth hole as well. Any hole after that was in sight of the clubhouse and too risky.
That's my Feather Sound. Tiptoeing around the fringes of the course, always wary of the well-dressed guy in a golf cart.
For my first official round at Feather Sound, I'm met by Shappee and Crowe, two well-dressed guys in golf carts. I'm waiting for them to escort me off the premises for sneaking into the pool late one night 26 years ago, but it looks like I got away with that one. After hitting a few (almost brand-new) balls on the driving range, it's time to go to the wide-open first tee and get started.
That's the thing about private courses: They are usually wide open.
The course is in good shape, as expected, although rains have left it soggy. Feather Sound is not extra long, but its challenges come around the green. All of the greens are elevated and undulating with bunkers and potholes guarding them.
"It has a Scottish feel,'' Shappee said. "Most of the time you have to be really good at running the ball onto the green to score well. The people who have good short games are the ones who score well out here.''
That leaves me out. But I'm more concerned with putting the pieces of this puzzle together. We get to the third hole and it's good to see our bass lake is still there. I make sure it doesn't come into play on the fourth hole by pulling my drive into the mangroves on the left.
The rest of the front nine is new to me. The sixth hole is surrounded by water. A tarpon swirls as we tee off, and mullet jump as we make our way around the fairway. I wish we had discovered this fishing hole back in the '80s.
The back nine is more familiar. More holes border the western side of the development, which can be seen while driving by. Our old bus stop is near the 14th tee. The 17th and 18th holes are especially challenging, with water protecting the greens.
As we putted out on the 18th hole, I had to fight the urge to run off the green before I got caught. I did not tell my playing partners what used to happen on the 18th green after hours, and I'm not telling you, either.
Off the list
It took 31 years to play Feather Sound, and it may take another 31 to play it again. But it's now off my personal golf bucket list. The area has changed greatly, but aside from some changes in the mid '80s, the course has remained the same.
It is private and proud, and that's just the way some courses are. There are plenty of public and semi-private courses in our area to make golfers happy. And I can shoot 98 on any of them.
Although, I do live near the St. Petersburg Country Club, which I have never played. Hmmmmm.