The Cabot golf resort empire is making its first foray into the United States with the acquisition of a renowned golf club in west-central Florida.
The Canadian company’s purchase of World Woods Golf Club in Brooksville from its Japanese founder gives Cabot a fourth site in its growing portfolio of upscale properties, which include its flagship operation in Nova Scotia and outposts in Saint Lucia and British Columbia.
Cabot said it plans to close World Woods this spring and give its golf courses and related facilities an extensive renovation before reopening in a couple of years under a new name, Cabot Citrus Farms.
Yukihisa Inoue launched World Woods in 1993 to much acclaim. The club’s name was meant to signal world-class golf that is open to all.
One of its two championship courses was named Golf Digest’s best new resort course in the United States a year later. The club also was a forerunner in a new breed of high-end, public-access golf destinations that feature remote locations, spectacular natural surroundings and courses with a minimalist design aesthetic. Oregon’s Bandon Dunes, Nebraska’s Sand Valley, Florida’s Streamsong and the Canadian company’s own Cabot Cape Breton in Nova Scotia were among the followers.
Despite its isolated setting, World Woods is about an hour north of Tampa and 90 minutes west of Orlando.
Cabot chief executive officer Ben Cowan-Dewar said he’s had an eye on World Woods as a business opportunity since at least 2008 and accelerated takeover talks in the past two years. The deal was reached in December and announced officially today. Terms weren’t disclosed.
“What drew me back to it time and time again was that it’s really just a special site, a really special landscape,” Cowan-Dewar said, extolling the beauty of the rolling hills, sandy soil and forests of moss-covered oaks and pines that make up the property along what’s called the Nature Coast in that area of Florida.
“When you get there, you feel like you’re out in nature, out in the wilderness,” he said. “That part always appealed to me.”
The entire Cabot portfolio sings from the same songbook, with Cabot Cape Breton hard on the Gulf of St. Lawrence in a former coal-mining town, Cabot Saint Lucia on the northern tip of the Caribbean island, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, and Cabot Revelstoke in the B.C. Interior on a benchland with panoramic views of mountain peaks, old-growth trees and the Columbia River.
World Woods is the first existing club that Cabot has acquired. The Cape Breton resort was built from scratch, the invention of Cowan-Dewar with the financial backing of long-time collaborator Mike Kaiser of Bandon fame. Saint Lucia and Revelstoke are still under construction, with anticipated opening dates of late 2022 and 2024, respectively.
World Woods, sprawling across 1,200 acres, has two 18-hole courses designed by Tom Fazio, a par-3 course, a putting course and a practice area that includes three holes and a 360-degree driving range, a revolution in its day. Cowan-Dewar said all the golf facilities will close in a couple of months and undergo extensive renovations to bring back their “shine.” Architects to conduct the makeovers have not been chosen yet.
“We’re just trying to get the best golf out of the land,” he said. “That’s the sole mission of the golf renovation.”
Cabot plans a new clubhouse in its early years of ownership, too. Housing sales are to begin this year. With only about half of the acreage currently used, the property also offers Cabot the potential for further development. It said amenities such as retail outlets, restaurants, fitness and spa facilities, communal gathering spaces and a farmers’ market are planned.
Inoue, who is 90, could not be reached for comment. Nor could a spokesperson for his Florida-based companies. World Woods launched with grand ambitions, which included becoming a training centre for young Japanese professional golfers, a resort to lure overseas members (mostly from Japan) and the public, a hotel for guests, and up to 450 housing units, according to a St. Petersburg Times story in 1992. The cost of the training centre was pegged at $22 million (U.S.).
While his full vision never materialized, its golf operations came into their own quickly, with the club’s Pine Barrens layout not only being named the top new U.S. resort course of 1994 but also landing in Golf Digest’s 100 greatest courses in America list by the turn of the century. As of last year, it had slid to 90th place on the magazine’s list of the top 100 U.S. public courses.
Bradley Klein, a veteran golf architecture journalist, historian and consultant based in Connecticut, said World Woods was “a stunning piece of design work that shows real respect for the daily fee golfer” when it opened, noting its two bold layouts, one evoking famed Pine Valley and the other Augusta National, and its “dream” practice area.
Klein visited a few times in the 1990s, and while he admired the golf, he wasn’t as enthusiastic about the area’s limited accommodations and off-the-beaten-path location. “Because of that I think World Woods never quite attracted the national and international audience it deserved,” he said, adding the club eventually got eclipsed by emerging superstar destinations such as the Phoenix area and resorts like Bandon and Streamsong.
He’s encouraged, though, that Cabot, with its track record of quality work in the rest of its portfolio, has the right touch to revitalize World Woods.
“With the advent of the Cabot group as an owner-operator, there’s every reason to think that World Woods will get an infusion of investment money to upgrade the golf side of things,” Klein said. “As a 30-year-old facility it will certainly need and benefit from infrastructure investment.”
Andrew Harvie was a much more recent visitor. The assistant golf professional at Toronto’s St. George’s Golf and Country Club, who also ranks courses for Canadian and U.S. magazines, stopped at World Woods in late December for a round on Pine Barrens. He said he feels the whole facility has deteriorated a bit in the past decade and doesn’t currently have what he called a “Cabot vibe,” but still has good bones.
Like Klein, he sees better days ahead under Cabot’s stewardship.
“It’s entirely unique for Cabot’s portfolio as it’s a renovation, not a new property entirely, but the golf is good and I think they’ll transform it into a no-brainer Cabot property,” said Harvie, who also writes about architecture and other golf matters for beyondthecontour.com. “Right now, it’s distinctively blue-collar.”
Top Photo: The Rolling Oaks Course at World Woods Golf Club in Brooksville, Florida