The club was opened in 1988. It had the pedigree – none other than Gary Player designed the golf course and built his own home just off the 3rd fairway. Player put his personality into the private 18-hole golf course, with its elevated tee boxes and beautiful picturesque fairways. It had the price tag – both homes and country club memberships easily tipped the upper ends of the scale. It had the panache – the very name “Alaqua” conjured up images of society and business elite sequestered behind their own, guarded entrance gates. Various factors beyond the ownership’s control, principally a real estate market and financial environment not unlike our present circumstance, halted the dream in its tracks and the Alaqua luster began to dim.
The financial realities of maintaining an equity membership golf course in the face of reduced and even declining membership took its toll. The stunning clubhouse, a huge 28,000 sq. ft. creation in stone and wood, had been designed for a community of 500 to 600 homes. The ownership was forced to sell much of Alaqua’s land and the community vision of 600 homes shrank to about a third of that. Certainly not enough to support the grand clubhouse with all its programs and perks. However tough times often bring silver linings. Let’s fast forward to the New Alaqua.
Meet John Ritenour, who is the chairman of Insurance Office of America. John is a resident of the Alaqua community. They were country club members in the community when, in 2009, they took it upon themselves to bring back the Alaqua luster. They bought out most of the existing members to gain control and became Alaqua’s principal owners. Then they got down to work. “We started with all the bad things about country clubs we didn’t like and threw them away,” says John. “We wanted to create a unique golf country club, different from all the rest.” The first thing they did was cap membership to a maximum of 200. (Their enrollment stands presently at just over 100, so there is still some opportunity for new membership.) Then they tackled the jewel in the Alaqua crown, its golf course.
“I had no idea how hard it was to get grass to grow,” says Ritenour. Hard indeed. The first year they put $1.2 million into the course. The second year took all of $1.1 million. Then $900,000. “This year, We’re hoping it comes in at around $800,000.” But oh, what they bought with that money. As he says, “Right now, the course is at its peak.”
Simply put, the golf course at Alaqua has been restored to its former glory. According to Wally Armstrong, a golf pro who’s been involved with Alaqua from its very beginning and who admits he even used to caddie for Gary Player, “This is not a typical Florida golf course. We have spectacular, 55-foot elevated tees here. It’s challenging, but fair for all skill levels. This is a thinker’s course; you have to think to play it well. From the back tees, it’s a world championship course.” Golf pro Jim Thorpe has said more than once, that the only reason he’s on the Senior Tour is because he plays Alaqua regularly. “Don’t forget to talk about the drainage,” reminds Ritenour. Yes, many who know the Alaqua of the past know it was famous – or infamous – for its flooding problems. Not any more. “When those hurricanes came through and those tropical storms, all the golf courses around us were closed. Not us. We had people playing high and dry. No more drainage problems.” (John spent enough money on moving dirt around and putting in pipes, the least we can do is mention it here.)
Hard to believe, but Alaqua is more than its golf course, much more. In fact, it would be safe to say that the Club itself, the differences and how it’s enjoyed by its members, is what John is most proud of,
Throughout the Club you'll find Venetian plaster in the main room, solid wood, 8-ft. Old World doors, granite and quality woods. The fitness center is really state-of-the-art. The Clubhouse is also completely wireless, with a corporate meeting room you really need to see because it’s beautiful. The Restaurant at Alaqua is open for lunch and dinner and is perfectly suited for weddings and private parties. The new Clubhouse is the new Alaqua!” The one thing that has not changed about Alaqua “We wanted a Club without a lot of rules and that wasn’t at all stuffy; that members could feel was as comfortable as it was classy. At the new Alaqua, you can bring your CEO or your 6-year old, both are equally welcome here.” Another major difference is that you can play a round of golf in less than 3 hours!!! Next on John’s list was the Clubhouse – and it’s all new. The new Clubhouse eliminates stuffy – but in a classy way. According to John, “We updated the design and used only the very finest of features is the land itself. An amazing gift of nature, the rich, protected forests of Wekiva State Park back right up to Alaqua and are not shy about sharing their bountiful wildlife with their neighbors. Deer are everywhere, wild turkey, nesting families of bald eagles, even the occasional black bear. ‘Magnificent’ may be just the word to describe all that’s going on at the new Alaqua. The golf course is newly refurbished – did I mention the new 9th hole designed by renowned architect Ron Garl? The resident golf pro is new. The Clubhouse is completely new. The ownership is new. The club concept is new. Alaqua Reserve is new and will provide a limited opportunity for people to own land in Alaqua that has never before been offered to the public and never before developed for residential use. “The only thing that’s old, really, is the old country club idea of what it meant to be truly private,” says Ritenour. “We have a small, intimate membership here and the members feel like this is really their club. They don’t belong to it so much as own it. It’s theirs. We don’t even have tee times on the golf course because when it’s your golf course, you should be able to come play it any time you want to. And they do. That’s what I’m most proud of. At the new Alaqua, we put the ‘private’ back into private club.”