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Golf course weathers economic woes

It's no secret that many Japanese investors are unloading their U.S. properties.

Japanese investors, who in the 1980s scooped up trophy properties such as Pebble Beach golf course in California and Rockefeller Center in New York, are selling off many of those investments because of falling commercial real estate prices and a recession in Japan.

So where does that leave Hernando County's World Woods Golf Club owned by Alpecc & Co. in Japan?

In the last five years, Alpecc has amassed about 2,200 acres and built two much-praised 18-hole public golf courses on the property, which is north of Brooksville off U.S. 98 near the Citrus County line. Golfing magazines say the two courses _ designed by renowned golf architect Tom Fazio _ are among the best new resort golf courses in the country.

Are they for sale?

Not at all, says James T. Sanders, vice president of development for Alpecc.

Alpecc's president, Yukihisa Inoue, who operates three resort-type golf clubs and a management consulting company in Nagoya, Japan, had at one time considered selling his interest in the Sugarmill Woods and Southern Woods golf clubs in Citrus.

But Inoue has never contemplated selling World Woods, which has been a "very successful operation," Sanders said.

World Woods opened its two golf courses _ Rolling Oaks and Pine Barrens _ in April 1993 after 15 months of construction that cost about $20-million. The courses represent the first phase of a development plan that calls for more than 450 single-family and multifamily houses, a 120-room hotel and several other golf courses. The residential portion of the development is several years off and will depend on market conditions, the company says.

World Woods has benefited from some favorable national publicity.

In January, Golf Digest ranked Pine Barrens as the No. 1 new resort golf course in the country; Rolling Oaks ranked eighth. The courses got similar high marks the year earlier from Golf and Golf World magazines.

The publicity has attracted golfers from across the United States and around the world, including visitors from Inoue's clubs in Japan.

About 50,000 golfers played at World Woods last year, golf director Stan Cooke said. He expects revenues to double this year over last.

Despite the successes of the golf courses, the economic conditions in Japan and the United States have had an impact on some of Alpecc's long-term plans for World Woods.

For example, Inoue's plans to develop a 300-acre private golf club drawing Japanese tourists and to build a 120-room hotel have been delayed.

The company is talking with various investor groups about the hotel project and has developed architectural drawings for a 20,000- to 30,000-square-foot clubhouse to replace a temporary one.

In addition, Alpecc won't build a junior pro golf training center, where aspiring professional golfers from around the world would live, work and play golf.

Apart from the difficulty of getting visas for foreign students, the project "wasn't considered economically viable," Sanders said.

Delays aside, local business leaders say the success of the golf courses and the exposure they have gained bode well for Hernando.

"It's a very important leg in putting Hernando County on the map because it obviously exposes Hernando County internationally as well as nationally," said Vince Vanni, president of the Greater Hernando County Chamber of Commerce.

Jim Kimbrough, chief executive officer of SunBank and Trust Co. and an avid golfer who has played the courses several times, agreed.

"They have been having exceptionally strong traffic. The reputation of that golfing facility is rapidly making its way around this country and in many places of the world," Kimbrough said. "I think it's good for the region, but particularly Hernando."