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Hitting out of the rough

When Rand Gentry looked over the properties he and his partner bought in the Bardmoor golfing community in 1990, he was like a player facing a hole with nothing but hazards.

He could see two golf courses gone to seed, one in a state of decline and yet another half-finished.

The country club was in disarray, its locker room moldy, carpets dirty and club trophies tarnished.

The nearby tennis club, once internationally known, had courts covered in debris, as if they had been too close to a bomb blast.

Further, there was lingering ill will in this prosperous community in mid-Pinellas County where half-a-million-dollar homes lined the fairways.

What happened?

Before Gentry's arrival, a development company had embarked on an overly ambitious plan to revamp the golf courses and cash in on the surrounding real estate. But the company ran out of gas.

There were lawsuits filed by residents who feared that the plans would destroy their golf course views and harm their property values.

"There was some bad feeling," Gentry acknowledged.

Now Gentry is receiving a new kind of complaint.

"I get a call," he said with a laugh. "The people are complaining about their property tax bill because their homes are going up in value."

With a minimum of fanfare and a lot of cash, Gentry and his partners are giving a facelift to a chunk of Pinellas County that looked like it had peaked in the 1980s.

It's a seven-year program in its second year, but the developer can already check off a number of successes:

The private Bayou Club, which used to be nine holes and a trailer, is now 18 well-designed holes and a $3.2-million clubhouse under construction.

The Bardmoor North Course has been converted into a public course that already is profitable.

The renovated tennis club has grown from 60 members to 450, and it is profitable as well.

And almost all of the animosity seems to have disappeared.

"People were mad at the old owners. (Gentry) has done what he said he was going to do," said Mitch Permuy, a resident of the area, a former member of the Bardmoor Country Club and now a Bayou Club member.

There are several forces at work that have given new life to this community.

One is the popularity of golf. Estimates vary, but there are supposed to be about 24-million golfers in the United States and the number is growing by 1-million a year, according to the National Golf Foundation.

The growing number of golfers means a growing need for places to play. The Bardmoor complex offers public golf in an area that is bereft of good public courses, and the private Bayou Club is available for golfers who can afford the luxury.

And lastly, Gentry and his limited partner, Henry Crown & Co. of

Chicago, stepped in at the right time.

Bardmoor was begging for a buyer who had money and who could carry out renovation plans that had been started but stalled.

"You have to bring a lot of cash to the party," said Gentry.

He and his partner paid $14-million for 700 acres, plus a hotel site on Bryan Dairy Road in Largo. They've invested that much again and more, Gentry said.

"Was this a bargain? There was risk, but, yes, the price was right," he said. "I looked at 40 different deals in Florida. This is the one I liked."

Oliver Bardes had purchased 900 acres with some partners back in the late 1940s when the area was cow pasture and swamp. An avid golfer, he bought out his partners and converted the property in 1968 into the Bardmoor Country Club and the first of three golf courses.

Upscale housing with a distinctive '60s and '70s architectural look sprang up around the courses, and Bardmoor became one of the prestige addresses in the region.

A tennis complex was built and Harry Hopman, a legendary teacher, moved his International Tennis Academy there in 1977. Hopman is credited with popularizing the academy concept, where up-and-coming tennis players hone their skills.

Hopman's grew into one of the world's best.

A scene in 1981 speaks to the celebrity status of the place.

It had just been announced that 16-year-old Andrea Jaeger, one of the top 10 women players at the time, was moving to Bardmoor. At a press gathering, the 5-foot-2 Jaeger, jaunty in a pink tennis outfit, gushed with enthusiasm about her new home.

She was joining another top 10 player who lived there, Kathy Horvath.

"Having these girls here is great for the entire county," said Bardmoor executive Gene Quinn at the time.

Also by then, the JC Penney Golf Classic, a unique event that paired top men and women pros, had been held at the Bardmoor North Golf Course for three years.

But events unfolded that dimmed the celebrity spotlight.

Hopman died in 1985 and his tennis academy moved. Jaeger and Horvath both fell from the top of the rankings.

About the same time, the Bardes Corp. through its real estate arm embarked on a development misadventure.

It announced that the two public golf courses would be revamped. In their place would be the Bayou Club, a pricey layout that would be surrounded by condos and some luxury homes.

People who had planned to spend their retirement years on the golf course were incensed that they might lose their views of the fairways.

The announcement also immediately brought into question the future of the country club. The Bardmoor Country Club was a nonequity club. That means the clubhouse and golf course were not owned by the members but by the real estate company.

Then in 1990, the JC Penney tournament left Bardmoor for the rolling pines of the Innisbrook Resort.

And for the Bardes Corp., time was running out. The permits that would allow the development to continue were scheduled to expire within months unless work began.

"Without those permits, this was nothing but cow pasture again," said Gentry.

Gentry ventured in with the Crown family, with whom he had done golf course projects in the Chicago area.

They told the members of the Bardmoor Country Club that the club was kaput. But they offered a discount to members who wanted to join the Bayou Club. About 75 out of 290 have joined so far.

The Bardmoor North Course went public with a new club house and practice range.

Gentry said that more than 40,000 rounds will be played there annually, even though a green fee and cart in the tourist season cost more than $50, pricey by some standards.

Meanwhile, the tennis club has been renovated and membership has ballooned.

The Bayou Club has sold 24 of 356 lots priced from $80,000 to $260,000. Homes and model homes are going up.

There have even been officials from the Seattle Mariners out scouting the housing sites to see what's available if the team moves to Tampa Bay.

Getting the team seems to be a long shot.

But then so was the renovation of the 700 acres that had been Oliver Bardes' dream.