TAMPA — Not long after the COVID-19 pandemic hit, longtime professional golfer and PGA broadcast analyst Gary Koch saw a new need on the course.
In addition to his NBC broadcasting duties, Koch serves as board chairmain of First Tee of Tampa Bay. The goal of the organization, which runs through the Tampa YMCA, is to empower youth through golf by providing access to the sport via camps and local programs and offering scholarship opportunities for older students with higher-education aspirations.
Koch, a Tampa resident, saw the need for more course access given the sport’s boom following the pandemic. He noticed it was harder for children and those new to golf to find the space to develop their own game. Adults not comfortable playing main courses also struggled to find room.
Koch is hoping he can help fix that problem through the construction of a new short course at Rogers Park Golf Course in Tampa. Groundbreaking for the nine-hole, par-3 course, nestled on the current 18-hole track, took place in June. The opening is set for the fall.
“This course,” Koch said, “has the potential to benefit a lot of people at different levels.”
The short course will sit on a 6-1/2-acre plot between Nos. 12, 13 and 16 of the main course. Builders, using a First Tee budget of about $600,000, will keep most of the existing vegetation and use it to create sight lines for golfers with some character.
“Golfers love being integrated into the landscape,” said architect Steve Smyers, who also has designed courses at Tampa’s Countryway Golf Club, Tampa’s Old Memorial Golf Club and Winter Park’s Interlachen Country Club.
Smyers plans to use the palm and pine trees on the first hole to frame the putting surface. On the second hole, the treeline mimics the putting green. For No. 5, the green will overlook the small on-course lake and feature a “punch bowl”-like green surface, which will have higher sides that dip into the middle toward the flagpole.
Smyers and Koch played together at the University of Florida in the 1970s — winning a national title in 1973 — and have stayed in touch. Smyers was happy to donate his time and services to help the vision come to life. Three or four days after walking the land, Koch said, Smyers had an idea of what the course should look like.
“We wanted something with character,” Koch said. “And we could see (Steve’s) wheels turning. … (Golf course) architects are artists using the land.”
Once the course opens, First Tee — which opened in the Tampa Bay area as Urban Junior Golf in 1991 and has since grown into the largest chapter in the First Tee organization — will have first rights to the course for camps and other programs, as needed. If the course isn’t being 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, since the program has an outreach of 90,000 children between the local public elementary and middle schools.
“That kind of intermediate course has gotten 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 having a great impact on the community outside of the First Tee programming, too.”
Koch envisions people walking the course, with options for those physically unable to do so able to rent a cart, if needed. Those playing the course should be able to finish the course in an hour. The longest hole will measure about 120 yards, the shortest about 70.
Koch said he believes the course also will be a great training ground for those who need to work on their wedge play/short irons. The campus will include a chipping green and net area where players can warm up and train with coaches.
“Golf can be an intimidating game for even seasoned veterans,” Baxter said. “So even if you’re a beginner, just learning the game, or a senior where the lengths are just too long, the short course is a happy medium for those players.”