TAMPA – Shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, longtime professional golfer and PGA broadcast analyst Gary Koch saw a new need on the course.
In addition to broadcast assignments on NBC, Koch serves as Chairman of the First Tee of Tampa Bay. The goal of the organization, operating through the Tampa YMCA, is to empower youth through the game of golf by providing access to the sport via local camps and programs and offering scholarship opportunities to older students with higher education aspirations.
Koch, a Tampa resident, saw the need for more access to training sessions given the sport’s boom in the wake of the pandemic. Note that it has been difficult for children and those new to golf to find space to develop their own game. Adults also experienced the inconvenience of playing the main courses to find a place for themselves.
Koch hopes he can help solve this problem by building a new short course at Rogers Park Golf Course in Tampa. The foundation stone for the 9-hole, 3-point course, located on the current 18-hole course, was laid in June. The opening is set for fall.
“This course has the potential to benefit a lot of people at all levels,” Koch said.
The short course will take place on a 6-1/2 acre plot between numbers 12, 13 and 16 of the main course. The builders, using First Tee’s budget of about $600,000, will retain most of the existing vegetation and use it to create sightlines for golfers with some of the characters.
“Golfers love to blend into the landscape,” said architect Steve Summers, who also designed the courses at Tampa Countryway Golf Club, Old Tampa Memorial Golf Club, and Interlachen Country Club in Winter Park.
Smyers plans to use palms and pines in the first hole to frame the mounting deck. In the second slot, the tree line simulates putting green. For No. 5, the green will overlook the small lake on the track and feature a “perforated bowl” that looks like a green roof, which will have higher sides that drop down the center toward the flagpole.
Smyers and Koch played together at the University of Florida in the 1970s—and won a national title in 1973—and kept in touch. Smyers was happy to donate his time and services to help realize the vision. Koch said that after three or four days of walking on the ground, Smyers had an idea of what the track should look like.
“We wanted something personal,” Koch said. “And we can see (Steve’s) wheels spin. … (golf course) engineers are artists who use the earth.”
Once the course opens, First Tee—which opened in the Tampa Bay area as Urban Junior Golf in 1991 and has since become the largest chapter in the First Tee organization—will have its first course rights to camps and other programs, as needed. If the course is not used, it will be open to the public.
Ian Baxter, executive director of the Tampa Bay chapter, is excited to see how the course will impact the area, as the program extends to 90,000 children between local public elementary and middle schools.
“This type of intermediate course has been phased out a lot in golf,” said Baxter, who has worked in the First Tee community for the past 20 years. “…so I really see it as having a huge impact on the community outside of First Tee programming as well.”
Koch envisions people walking the course, with options for those physically unable to rent a cart, if necessary. Those playing the course should be able to finish the course within an hour. The longest hole will be about 120 yards, and the shortest around 70 yards.
Koch said he thinks the course will also be a great training ground for those who need to work on their short wedges/irons. The campus will include a green area and nets where players can warm up and train with coaches.
“Golf can be a frightening game even for seasoned veterans,” Baxter said. “So even if you’re a beginner, or you’re just learning the game, or you’re old where the lengths are really long, the short course is a happy medium for these guys.”
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