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The Concession Golf Club

Whether playing a tightly contested match or enjoying the solitude provided by the challenging, natural course, members of this Florida club enjoy the warm, inclusive spirit exemplified by the Ryder Cup

By: Tom Cunneff

Appeared in 2011 LINKS Premier Clubs

THE 2010 RYDER CUP PROVED ONCE AGAIN that the biennial match-play team competition between the United States and Europe is the most exciting event in golf, full of drama, camaraderie and great shots. While the world has to wait every two years to enjoy the Ryder Cup, its spirit thrives every day at The Concession Golf Club, a special enclave near Sarasota on the west coast of Florida.

This spirit begins with the club’s name, honoring one of the most noble acts of sportsmanship in golf history. In the 1969 Ryder Cup at England’s Royal Birkdale Golf Club, Jack Nicklaus conceded a two-foot putt on the 18th green to Tony Jacklin that halved their singles match and resulted in the first tie in Ryder Cup history.

More than three decades later, Nicklaus and Jacklin joined together to design a 7,470-yard layout at a club that truly embodies the Ryder Cup’s ideals. “We’ve really decided to embrace that,” says new owner Bruce Cassidy, who has been a member since the club opened in 2006. “It’s all about camaraderie and being able to have a club that’s not stuffy, not so formal. The Ryder Cup is very competitive but it’s one of those events where the guys let their hair down a little, families get involved and the fans are a little more active. That’s the kind of club we want to have.”

A key part of the spirit is reaching out to other clubs, and The Concession hosted four Ryder Cup-style matches in 2010. Two were against overseas clubs, including Lindrick Golf Club in Yorkshire, England.

Lindrick was the site of the 1957 Ryder Cup, the only loss for the U.S. side between 1933 and 1985. But in a payback of sorts, Lindrick members fell to the group from The Concession following a series of friendly but fierce matches.

“We all came out winners because of the friends we made,” says Jimmy Wright, The Concession’s tournament director and acclaimed club professional, who played in the matches. “It was all about the fun and kibitzing we had with each other, the cocktail parties and getting to know people from other clubs. Now we consider ourselves like a sister club.”

Afterward, both sides gathered around the outdoor fire pit overlooking the 18th green, and the team from Lindrick presented its counterpart with a personalized signed painting of its most famous member, Lee Westwood.

While the participants recalled shots and moments from the matches, they no doubt marveled at the challenges of the layout, routed over 520 acres of lakes, pines and oaks.
The Concession members are proud of its status as one of the most difficult courses in Florida—the Course and Slope ratings are 77.6 and 155.

There are few let-up shots, as the course is replete with risk-reward choices. Even seemingly straightforward holes like the 374-yard 8th are rife with peril. A well-placed drive down the left side leaves a clear approach into the narrow, angled green with water right and a bunker left. The second shot may seem easy, but players quickly find that it’s not.

“Even today after I’ve played it all these times,” says Wright, who has nearly 120 professional victories, “my knees start knocking because even though you have a wedge in your hand it doesn’t mean the hole is over at that point. It’s just starting.”

Another memorable hole is the 545-yard double-dogleg 13th, where a lake set at an angle dares strong players to embrace an aggressive line off the tee. Only after reaching their drives do they realize that the second shot offers an equally daunting proposition of holding the elevated green with a fairway wood.

Shots missing the green usually end up in a surrounding collection area, a common feature on the course. (Members can practice these tricky shots on the 23-acre practice facility equipped with Titleist Pro V1 range balls.) The proximity of the greens to the tee boxes, which makes the course very walkable, allows the club to run a strong caddie program that  provides for memorable, unique golf experiences.

The tightly mown areas are firm and fast, affording many opportunities to use the ground game and play different types of fun recovery shots. Superintendent Terry Kennelly achieves these conditions with the help of a subterranean climate-control computer system—in use at only about 20 courses in the country—that manages irrigation, drainage and pH balance beneath the greens.

Cassidy, with the blessing of Nicklaus and Jacklin, has taken steps to add several user-friendly features to the course since its opening. In addition to widening some fairways and shrinking some bunkers, the club removed ball-eating palmetto bushes and native grasses flanking many holes while adding additional tees for increased flexibility.
“It was meant to be a strong course,” says Nicklaus. “But we also want members and guests to have fun.”

Whether golfers are playing from the front tees or the tips, a couple of the shared qualities of The Concession Golf Club experience are the natural beauty and the serenity it provides. “You just feel like you’re out there alone with your group,” says Cassidy. “The course provides that traditional walk-in-the-park experience and the pure enjoyment of 18 signature holes.”   

Those looking for interaction can find it at the 33,000-square-foot Palladian-style clubhouse, decorated with black-and-white photos of past Ryder Cups. There is no better way to bond than over signature dishes like Bistro Blue Tomato Soup and Floribbean Grouper prepared by Sean Murphy. In addition to being culinary director of Bistro at The Concession, Murphy owns nearby Anna Maria Island’s Beach Bistro, which boasts the highest ratings for food and service in Florida according to the Zagat Survey.

Similarly, the course is quickly earning accolades as one of the best in the country. Although members and guests are drawn by the prospect of playing a course good enough to challenge the best players in the world, their everyday enjoyment of The Concession will be marked by the spirits of competition and fraternity exhibited during the Ryder Cup, golf’s premier team event.                                         

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