On Jan. 23, Turkey Creek Golf Club opened its fairways to the public for the first time in a decade.
Patrons explored the revamped tee boxes, fairways and greens. But they weren’t the first to return to the long-defunct course.
During the first year of the pandemic, in 2020, young golfers regularly played the three-hole practice course at Turkey Creek. While most courses in Alachua County shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, John Stevens, a 71-year-old lead instructor with the Gator Junior Golf Association, taught golf lessons to students on the practice course.
“They didn’t just let me come out there,” Stevens said. “Basically, we had it to ourselves, it was for the kids and for our practicing.”
Turkey Creek Golf Course now exists as one of only two public golf courses in Alachua County. The course, a few miles south of the city of Alachua, and the people behind it channel their energy into providing an accessible place for golfers, especially students of the game, through its public nature and dedication to junior clinics and high school teams.
After Meadowbrook Golf Club permanently closed its fairways last July, only Turkey Creek and the city-owned Ironwood Golf Course in Gainesville remain. There are roughly 10,400 operating golf courses in the U.S. as of January 2022, according to MyGolfSpy, meaning there’s a public golf course for roughly every 31,683 people in the country. According to a 2021 estimate from World Population Review, 269,427 people call Alachua County home, which demonstrates the county would need more than eight public golf courses to match that national ratio.
“Honestly, we’re not serving a very large portion of the population,” Stevens said. “We just aren’t.”
The GJGA holds lessons at Mark Bostick Golf Course and Gainesville Country Club as well, two private courses in the county, but Stevens knows the lessons given at public golf courses cater to a community of children from different backgrounds.
“Ironwood kids might not ever get on a golf course if it weren’t for that program,” Stevens said. “And I have a number of kids at Turkey Creek who … it’s just wonderful for them to get outside and do something besides play video games. … The really good part about the program is reaching kids that otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity.”
For Stevens, teaching golf to children is about more than just helping them hit a ball straight or make a few putts. Stevens said golf instills important life values: integrity, sportsmanship, responsibility and respect.
The community at Turkey Creek, a large housing tract, has rallied around the juniors, and Stevens said he has 10 volunteers for his lessons there. Even beyond the staff, players at the course celebrate having the children practicing.
Loretta Shane, a member of Turkey Creek Golf LLC, which is the investor group that teamed to reopen Turkey Creek’s doors, holds the commitment to younger golfers close to her heart. As a longtime physical education teacher at Santa Fe High School, Shane, 71, coached women’s golf, volleyball and softball for the Raiders, and she feels getting younger people involved in athletics is a cornerstone of community building.
“Part of our goal is to develop youth golf,” Shane said. “You see what kind of positive effect that has on kids to have that kind of opportunity there.”
Turkey Creek hosted five high school golf teams this past season: the men’s and women’s teams from Santa Fe and Newberry high schools and a team from First Christian Academy. Several other schools didn’t formally call Turkey Creek home but still borrowed its facilities to practice, she added.
The course also stepped up to host a 2021 Florida High School Athletic Association 2A Region Girls Golf Tournament, something Shane insists will become an annual occurrence.
Even apart from the younger golfers who roam the fairways, Turkey Creek wants to be a place where people don’t feel the pressure of a stereotypical golf community, according to Turkey Creek member Russ Cook. He said he wants Turkey Creek to be a place for experienced and inexperienced golfers alike to simply enjoy themselves.
“Golf has changed,” Cook said. “It used to be the old country club-type thing, you know, you had a swimming pool, and people were all highbrow. We’re not like that, we’re just a bunch of volunteers.”
His vision is exemplified by Brian Peterson, 27, who used the course’s practice facilities on a recent Wednesday, clad in a beanie, hoodie and jeans. Peterson, a business administration senior at the University of Florida, said he tries to visit the course twice a week on the driving range despite rarely having time to play a full round. He used to drive 20 minutes to Ironwood in order to squeeze in some practice. Now, the closest range is a mere five-minute drive away, a luxury he appreciates as he balances range balls with studying business finance this spring.
Stevens agreed with Cook: It’s imperative for the sport to have places like Turkey Creek, where people can enjoy themselves.
“Initially, (when) the game was played, kings and peasants played together,” Stevens said. “And that happens at Turkey Creek.”
The children of Turkey Creek’s youth golf programs will continue to learn about golf and life under Stevens’ tutelage.
Now, though, he has more than a three-hole practice course to work with.