Many people think of Ty Warner as a developer. But he’s different than many developers. He just buys already developed properties, and then makes them a heck of a lot nicer. The San Ysidro Ranch, the Biltmore, and the Coral Casino are prime examples of Warner-owned properties in Santa Barbara. The Four Seasons New York and, down in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, the Las Ventanas al Paraiso Resort shine as further examples of Warner’s work. So it comes as little surprise that the Warner-owned Montecito Country Club is next in line for an upgrade from the man who made his first billions selling Beanie Babies to people across the world.
With little protest from the public, Warner received approval for his latest project from the Santa Barbara Planning Commission last week. After major upgrades to the three aforementioned Montecito properties, some of their approval processes tougher than others, and one failed attempt with the Miramar, Warner got through the City of Santa Barbara planning process relatively easy.
A close look at what Warner has in store for the iconic country club shows how he is making the lovely place even lovelier. “He’s excited to get into the City of Santa Barbara,” said Bill Medel, the project manager for Warner. Medel added that environmentally speaking, the club’s golf course will be much more friendly. With dozens of amenity upgrades and positive impacts on the environment, Warner and company were hoping they could avoid controversy, and it looks like they did. “I can’t see why anyone wouldn’t want to do this,” Medel said.
Not so obvious is how Warner could possibly make the place any more attractive than it already is. But the castle-like structure overlooking the city, on a hill surrounded by the green openness of the golf course, will be done over so that the nooks and crannies of the old building-last renovated in the late 1990s-make more sense. And the golf course’s renovation, which should take 12 to 14 months, will be done by a man whose name is synonymous with golf: Jack Nicklaus.
Nicklaus, considered by many the greatest golfer ever and owner of 18 PGA Tour major wins, has personally been overseeing the design at the Montecito Country Club, as it is to be a Jack Nicklaus Signature Course, the highest distinction to come from Nicklaus’s esteemed course design firm.
While the current course certainly provides members a scenic round of 18 holes for its members, and the 118 acres of green with the stately structure placed in the middle create a pleasant view for nonmember passersby, the goal for Warner and his people is to make a golf course that will not only be more challenging, but that will utilize those striking views even more, besides reducing the course’s environmental impact.
The course was built in the 1920s, and used to extend near the Bird Refuge. With the construction of Highway 101 and Old Coast Highway, it was tightened to what it is today, sitting on 118 acres of land, with the country club taking up five of those. Most golf courses take up about 200 acres, so there isn’t a lot of room for wasted space. But Nicklaus’s redesign will add 300 yards to the course, expanding it to 6,500 yards, a good distance for a modern, top-tier golf course.
A tour, and round of golf on the property last year with Andrew Firestone, Warner’s director of membership at the private club, showcased some of the course’s current shortcomings, and demonstrated how the layout of the new course will enhance the experience. Golfers will notice the change from the start. The first hole currently tees off right below the country club toward the City of Santa Barbara, providing a nice, but impeded, view of the city. The plan is to move the hole above the country club to a space that is currently partially unused and partially consumed by the tennis courts, thus providing a stunning view of the city and the harbor.
The rest of the course will remain pretty much the same, with little shifting of hole locations. And, in typical Warner fashion, landscaping will be a centerpiece, with more trees than are there now.
Nicklaus will be also be rebuilding tee boxes, greens, and sand traps. The course, because it is built on a hill, provides for difficult and uncomfortable lies. Grading-192,000 cubic yards worth of cut and fill-will balance out the topography of the fairway, and all with without importing or exporting dirt.
That natural slope toward the ocean also means a lot of water tends to gather at the bottom of the course on Hole 7, near Old Coast Highway. With no current water feature on the course, Nicklaus and company plan to turn that pooling water into a manmade pond, and to add another in the course’s southeast corner. The course has a 250-acre watershed above it that drains across the turf. It will drain naturally into these two ponds, which will also serve as water traps, keeping shots away from the roadway. Furthermore, hole 7, along with hole 12, which is also adjacent to Coast Village Road, will be flipped to play west to east, to eliminate slices from hitting the roadway. “Those bad shots will stay on-site,” said Medel. The setup will also take water away from Coast Village Road, which has historic flooding problems.
Combined with two sediment basins, which will be installed above the course to pick up mud and debris, the drainage system is being lauded by neighbors and environmental groups both. And it appears it should be. According to calculations, the course will go from zero percent of its storm-water runoff being routed and treated, to 100 percent. A new irrigation system will reduce water usage by 20 percent. “What you have here is basically a golf course that’s working as a storm-water facility,” Hillary Hauser, executive director of Heal the Ocean, told the City Planning Commission.
Moving on to hole 8, currently a short par 3 that forces a tee-shot up a steep hill where the pin can’t even be seen: It will be flipped so the tee shot will be off the top of the hill to a green sitting below. The tee box and green flip will also expand the hole by about 30 yards.
As for the country club, last renovated in the late 1990s, when a rotunda added more banquet space, plans are going into every detail to evoke a residential theme throughout the country club. Warner is picking out every piece of furniture himself, and the hope is that even though everything will be new, it will feel like it’s been there for decades.
The entry road, Summit Road, off Hot Springs, will go around the ocean side of a current parking lot, giving visitors a view of both the harbor and the golf course as they drive in. The tennis courts will be moved, but their number remains the same, and the pool will turn from a brick and mortar feel, with wrought iron bars lining the deck, to a cabana feel, with a larger deck and an enclosed, clear glass look.
Men’s and women’s locker rooms will have a resort feel, complete with a sauna and steam room and a plunge pool. The carpeting will be changed, and there will be different lights and a raised ceiling in the fine dining area looking out at the pool. The workout room, currently dark and stuffy with no windows, will be outfitted with brand new equipment. The lawn in front of the clubhouse will also become larger, for outdoor events. “It’s an amazing space,” Firestone said. “It just needs to be utilized better.”
The Four Seasons will take over operating the clubhouse, just as it already operates the Biltmore and the hotel in New York, both of which are Four Seasons flagship hotels. “Because of our unique site, they’re taking it on,” Firestone said.
Neither the use, size, or number of members are changing, though the country club will be closed during the $40 million upgrades. During the closure, members have been given the option to use programs at Sandpiper Golf Club and Rancho San Marcos, and other fitness and tennis clubs in town.