PEBBLE CREEK — When Ace Golf Club owner Bill Place bought the Pebble Creek Golf Club in 2005, he didn't realize the disrepair to the club and the course.
Hurricane damage from 2004 created landscaping problems throughout the course. The 40-year-old club's restaurant and banquet areas were showing their age with rotting wood and dingy interiors.
Place invested more than $1.5-million, and longtime patrons of the course and club have noticed the difference.
New Bermuda grass upgraded the greens, along with new tees on each hole. The sand traps are being completely rebuilt, with the front nine finished and the back nine expected to be completed by the end of the year.
New cart paths have been added, with GPS systems on the carts. Drainage and irrigation is also being upgraded.
As a result, Place says the course has had its best first quarter in club history.
Increased spending has "helped drive our rounds up,'' Place said. "We've gone from 29,000 and will exceed 40,000 rounds this year."
The club is thriving as Place contends with lingering fallout from his efforts to build a miniature golf course in the community.
Place contends the opponents were fewer in number and that those filing complaints about him now about signs and banners are even fewer.
Overall, he is pleased with the success he has made of the country club, and so are area golfers such as Ed Gonzales of West Meadows.
"The greens are in much better shape and even the course has changed a lot," said Gonzales, 41. "It has a lot of doglegs and it's been extended and makes it more enjoyable to play."
Place rebuilt the pro shop and banquet area, which now accommodates about 125 people. A 1,200-square-foot veranda also was built off the old restaurant, which was renovated and renamed Mulligans to reflect an Irish golf theme with hardwood floors and a wrap-around bar.
The new menu includes popular Irish favorites such as fish and chips and shepherd's pie.
Business has quadrupled, with nongolf traffic from its location just off Bruce B. Downs Boulevard. Membership is up to about 100; not the 300 it was seven or eight years ago, but an improvement from recent years.
"We play throughout Hillsborough, Pinellas and Manatee counties, and we've come back here three or four times in the last six weeks," said George Klebingot, 66, who travels here from Odessa to golf. "The course is in better shape than a lot of the private clubs, and Mulligans is tremendously different from what they had before."
Place, who owns miniature golf courses in Brandon and Riverview, raised the ire of some Pebble Creek residents and the homeowners association when he first assumed ownership by trying to secure zoning for a miniature golf course on the 1-acre parcel at the club's opening adjacent to Bruce B. Downs.
Zoning was denied by the County Commission four months ago after residents fought the idea and Place is still attempting to sell the land for office use.
"It would have been a good thing for the community to tie it in with the golf course," Place said. "It would have also put the club on good financial footing. My attorney said we could have won an appeal, but it's a huge cost, another $30,000 for what's not a huge business to begin with. But we didn't get it, so we decided to focus on the course."
Place says he ran into similar opposition when he introduced minigolf to Brandon, "people complaining that the miniature golf course would bring vandals and crime to the area and it never happened."
Since the Pebble Creek minigolf plan was scrubbed, Place has had complaints about banner signs along Bruce B. Downs promoting a Sunday brunch at Mulligans and one for a St. Patrick's Day promotion.
Place said he doesn't think the homeowners association is out to get him. He sent a letter to the Pebble Creek community of more than 1,000 homes and said the majority of the feedback has been positive.
"People have commented about the course, saying it's never looked better, and the improvements to the rest of the facility: the banquet area, restaurant, pro shop and the locker rooms," Place said. "These complaints are such an annoyance to our governmental agencies. They're apologetic about always having to come out. I didn't do anything about it for a while, but the bottom line is it's harassment."
Pebble Creek Homeowners Association president Tanya Heires said the development has tried to work with Place, but issues like signage are county-wide ordinances and not particular to only Pebble Creek.
"Snipe signs multiply, that's why we don't allow them," Heires said. "If you allow one business to display them, they pop up everywhere.
"We're happy he's [Place] doing what he's done with the golf course. But we just need to work these other issues out for the good of the community."
"I don't see it as the homeowner vs. the golf course owner," Place said of his battles with the homeowners association.
"I just believe these were isolated acts of one person in the neighborhood and not in concurrence with the board. Even the group fighting the miniature golf course was a small group."