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Back to the Future

World Woods was once one of golf's most promising resorts. That dream died, but with a new owner and a remarkable caretaker, the facility is on the brink of finally realizing its potential
World Woods

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1. The rural parts of Florida, especially about an hour north of Tampa, tend to be good places for getting lost. More manatees and pastureland than beaches and theme parks, the so-called “Nature Coast” is a glimpse into old Florida. Spanish moss and no-see-ums are ubiquitous, barely paved roads spin aimlessly off the highway into thick pines, and every tiny, weather-beaten town looks like an ideal spot for the Witness Protection Program’s most notorious clients. 

There, off U.S. 98 between the Northwest Solid Waste Management Facility and the Bearhead Hammock trailhead, sits what is currently known as World Woods Golf Club—an aging facility many outside the area have never heard of. But those in the know come often to enjoy its 48 highly rated holes and spacious practice facility with nary a cookie-cutter housing community in sight. Those days, however, are numbered. World Woods’ under-the-radar status is about to change.

In January, the announcement came that World Woods was sold and will become the latest property in the Cabot portfolio, led by CEO Ben Cowan-Dewar, and part of the Mike Keiser-backed Dream Golf collection. It will soon be rebranded as Cabot Citrus Farms, and there are ambitious plans to reinvest in the property and turn on a mega-watt spotlight on this previously quiet part of the golf world. 

On the brisk Tuesday I visit, it’s clear that more than a facelift is needed. The entrance gates have been removed and the guard house is vacant. Flower beds are overgrown and the light poles need new paint. The long, winding driveway—shaded by live oaks and lined by pines like some fancy spots down in West Palm—is in desperate need of a fresh layer of asphalt. 

Despite the precarious conditions, the parking lot and tee sheet remain overflowing. The current clientele doesn’t care about fancy ephemera. This is where die-hards go to escape on a budget—a safe haven for middle-class players who know they’re playing on the bones of something special. Nearly 85,000 per year to be exact.

World Woods’ general manager Rick Kelso has been here since it opened in 1993. He’s seen the impressive ambition of the original owners, and was essentially left holding the bag when their money dried up, forcing him to trade tee times for maintenance work. He’s dealt with personal and professional tragedy along the way, and he will remain on staff for the rebrand, the payoff for steering World Woods to this unlikely moment in the sun. 

World Woods
Rick Kelso has worked at World Woods since 1983.

2. After nearly 30 years with the company, Kelso assumed his dream job as general manager a few years back. As he walks through the small and dated clubhouse, all the regulars know his name. At 6’4” he towers over most guests, stopping to chat with each one. He’s got a big personality and the smile to match, but if World Woods teaches us anything, it’s never to judge a book by its cover.

In 2018, just as Kelso prepared to take over as GM, Aimee, his wife of 20 years, fought for her life. Originally diagnosed with breast cancer, it had spread to her brain. 

Despite some glimmers of hope and a few good months near the end, Aimee Kelso lost her battle in the summer of 2019. For Kelso and his two daughters, ages 20 and 13, it was the ultimate gut punch.

“I just held on for dear life,” Kelso tells me, tears in his eyes. “There were so many spots on her brain that we couldn’t count them. The cancer just won.

“When I had to tell the girls that mommy might not make it to the holidays…I lost it. You just want to give them everything they need. They are phenomenal. They hurt. But mom isn’t sick anymore.” 

Aimee’s passing made for many tough choices. For one, he no longer has time to play golf, something he used to be quite good at. But the one thing he couldn’t quit was World Woods. 

“I didn’t want anyone else to come in here,” says Kelso. “They wouldn’t understand the company.”

World Woods

3. Like so many of his countrymen and women, Yukihisa Inoue of Kyoto, Japan, is obsessed with golf. But there isn’t enough room in his homeland to fully accommodate them all. According to a recent KPMG report, Japan has more golfers than any nation outside the United States, but there’s roughly one course for every 4,000 golfers. In the U.S., it’s one per every 1,800. With stacked driving ranges and two-hour commutes to find a game, golf comes at a price in his homeland. 

In the 1980s, with golf booming in Japan and money to spend, Inoue devised a plan to build a destination golf resort in the U.S.—one of the finest and most expansive stay-and-play facilities in the world. His vision included multiple golf courses, thoughtfully designed practice facilities, and accommodations that could house travelers from Japan and the rest of the world. He wanted training and education made available for Japan’s best junior players and touring professionals. Only the best would do. It was the sort of dream now seen at resorts like Bandon Dunes, Sand Valley, and nearby Streamsong.

“He wanted all Japanese tourists to come here for golf,” Kelso tells me. “This would be the Japanese destination in America: Fly to Florida and come straight here.” 

For this, Inoue needed a huge tract of land. The search led him to the densely-wooded and remote areas near Brooksville. His American subsidiary, Interfive Corporation of Florida, purchased 2,600 acres of former tree farms, with all types of different contours and soil excellent for golf. Next up: An architect. 

At the time, Tom Fazio was consulting architect for both Augusta National and Pine Valley. He was one of the hottest designers in the game, coming off critical successes at Shadow Creek, Wade Hampton and Lake Nona. Only the best would do.  

As the plans for 36 championship holes came to life, Inoue began to build his American staff. Fresh off a playing career at Walsh College and hungry for a gig in the golf industry, Kelso was up for an adventure.

“If you want the job, you’ve got to go to Japan for three months,” Kelso remembers being told. “I’m 22 years old and have never been west of Arkansas. Heck yeah. Sign me up.”

For the next few months Kelso received a crash-course in Japanese culture: He ate, drank and did anything that his new associates asked of him, which as an “American PGA Professional” occasionally meant hosting clinics and signing autographs for the golf-crazed locals. For a self-proclaimed “kid from Ohio who grew up in a broken home,” nearly every aspect of the country was a culture shock, but nothing was more alarming than the golf itself. 

“They drive three to four hours to the course,” he says. “You go play four holes and stop. Have a beer. Go back out, finish the nine, then go have lunch. Do it again on the back nine. It’s an all-day affair. It takes eight hours.”

World Woods

4. As ground broke at World Woods, the Japanese economy dove into severe recession. In the 1980s, Japanese investors bought up American assets as fast as they could, including myriad golf courses. The wave crested in 1990 with Japan’s Cosmo World Corp., which bought the Pebble Beach property for reportedly close to $1 billion. 

Like a bad game of musical chairs, the money-making music of the 1980s just stopped playing in Japan, and the bills for those American shopping sprees came due. Japanese economists have since labeled the 1990s as the “Lost Decade” due to the country’s financial crash.

Inoue was not immune; his grand plans for World Woods came to an abrupt halt. Fazio’s Pine Barrens and Rolling Oaks courses opened in 1993 to rave reviews, but the on-site accommodations were a non-starter. Swaths of land between golf holes remain unoccupied today. “We actually opened without a clubhouse,” Kelso remembers. “It was crazy.”

That didn’t stop the golfers though. Kelso described the early surge in traffic as “Phenomenal. Packed every day. People loved it.”

Inoue still kept a close eye on his dream golf getaway. He made regular trips to World Woods in those early days to play golf and survey its progress—or lack thereof. Kelso remembers, “In the beginning, he was here every couple of months, with his entourage. Then, his health went down some, didn’t visit as much.”

And he didn’t provide much in terms of financial support. But there were a few highlights along the way. In 2002, Inoue greenlit hosting a “Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf” match on the Pine Barrens course. Kelso and the staff had to help come up with the cash, and the local community volunteered to put on a good show. A massive television audience watched Phil Mickelson avenge his loss at the 2001 PGA Championship in a duel against David Toms. Fred Ridley, the current chairman of Augusta National Golf Club, was at that point the president of the USGA and a resident of nearby Tampa, and served as the officiant. 

Even with the global exposure, World Woods dipped further into disrepair. The operating budget became akin to a popular old backwoods saying: “You eat what you kill.” Without regular investment in upgrading the golf product, the conditioning along with other on-site details began to slide. The aging owner became more distant, and for Kelso and his team, directions were murky. “We often operated in the dark,” he says. “But we did the best we could.”

5. Despite financial uncertainty, World Woods became something of a scrappy underdog success. Since the dream of destination golf never materialized, Kelso made it the best golf middle-class players could buy.

While not as pristine as in their early days, the courses remain world-class for daily fee golf at roughly $100. Both the Pine Barrens and Rolling Oaks routings have been regularly ranked among lists of top American public golf options. Pine Barrens is often called “The Poor Man’s Pine Valley” and Rolling Oaks is one of Fazio’s best layouts in Florida.

The two routings run side-by-side, but couldn’t be more different. The still-rural Florida seashore bisects the property, creating one site defined by sandy scrub and dense pine-tree thickets, and another offering hilly pastures decorated with long-armed live oaks. Fazio once went as far as likening it to having Pine Valley and Augusta National on the same property, and while that comparison falls short, he also said that Pine Barrens is some of his best work, and it’s hard to argue with that.

Ian Gilley, co-founder of the Sugarloaf Social Club golf collective, has a large audience of hidden-gem seekers and regularly boasts about World Woods on Instagram. He discovered it while working in a local congressional office after college. “The only thing more fun than an absolute top-tier course with all the pomp and circumstance,” he says, “is an absolute top-tier course without all the pomp and circumstance. That’s World Woods in a nutshell.”

Not for much longer. Kelso never had a marketing budget to tell the story of his twin gems. Soon, marketing for high-end players to come out here to play will be a top priority.

World Woods

6. The stress of his family life in addition to running World Woods through such lean times for so long is clear on Kelso’s face. The language and customs differ mightily between Brooksville and Kyoto, and the years of speaking through translators and navigating budget requests through a local proxy to the ownership group in Japan have taken their toll. But with the new ownership in place, Kelso hopes the stories of what he did to keep World Woods running will merely become part of the resort’s lore.

Like many cash-strapped courses, design decisions were mostly a result of what the bottom line allowed. Over the years, some of the many sandy waste areas have been grassed over to reduce maintenance costs. The greens have shrunk and some back tees are now blocked by overgrown trees. Bunkers have lost their edges and the sprinklers don’t always run correctly.

“I didn’t have that luxury [of reinvestment funds],” he says. “I traded golf for signs. Range privileges for a new back deck. Golf for an on-course bathroom. Trades for tires too. Wheeling and dealing, baby.”

In June, Kelso’s new employers at Dream Golf Resorts are expected to begin a complete overhaul of the golf experience. Kyle Franz is slated to work through the Pine Barrens course, telling Golf Digest that while the routing will remain similar, “It’s going to feel like a completely new golf course. Greens are going to get pushed around, tees will be moved, and the puzzle pieces are really going to get reconfigured. It’s going to be adventure golf.”

Keith Rhebb and Riley Johns will tackle Rolling Oaks, and are committed to letting the land lead the way. “We’re walking into this open-minded because we know working in the sand gives us the freedom to be creative and to build something special,” Rhebb told Digest.

Mike Nuzzo gets what is currently the practice area and eight additional holes. That will be transformed into a full-length nine-hole course, a par-3 short course, and a new practice area. “We’re going to go all-out on fun, creative, play-all-day golf holes,” Nuzzo said.

Before all that begins, Kelso still has a course to run. “That phone in the pro shop will not stop ringing,” he says. “I’ve got 350 golfers here tomorrow.”

World Woods

7. Kelso can hardly contain his excitement for the coming changes. He tells me, “While it won’t be Mr. Inoue’s vision, I think this group will make the best of the land. It will be even better than what Mr. Inoue conceived. It’s different, but phenomenal.”

In addition to the golf, the plans for Cabot Citrus Farms include a new clubhouse, town center and cottages. Presently, the best lodging option is 20 minutes down the road. 

One thing that won’t change is Kelso. The man who battled so hard to keep World Woods afloat all those years isn’t going anywhere. While still in shock over the rapid developments since the property’s sale, he’s more committed to the place than ever. “I never thought they would sell it, but here we are. Right now, it’s the same place, but we will close for the renovations soon. It’s a go.”

Kelso still has a great deal of respect for Inoue, but welcomes the change. “Cabot will have a whole new vibe. A whole new look. It’s a big deal for this part of Florida,” he says. More than anyone, Kelso knows this is the realization of the sparkling plan he was once sold as a 20-something year old kid in Japan. “We are going to achieve the World Woods dream. I just wish my wife could have lived to see it come true.”

That look of concern he had when we first met eases into a gleam of hope. “I’m still getting used to the new name,” he says with a smile. “The culture will be different. Thirty years of World Woods is a hard habit to break.”