Paradise Back Open: Sanibel Island's Courses Welcome Golf Travel Back After Hurricane Ian
By Vinnie Manginelli, PGA
The Dunes Golf and Tennis Club( The Dunes Golf and Tennis Club via Facebook)
It’s been more than 13 months since Hurricane Ian devastated the Gulf Coast of Florida with the power and fury of winds that peaked at 160 mph.
Among the hardest hit areas was Sanibel Island, a beautiful barrier island city in Florida’s Lee County. First settled in 1884, Sanibel Island has a population of more than 6,000 residents but has long been a heavily desired year-round tourist destination, with some excellent options for golf.
Three courses — The Dunes Golf & Tennis Club, Sanibel Island Golf Club and The Sanctuary Golf Club — compose the island’s offering, and all three sustained significant damage during Ian. However, due to the hard work of course superintendents and their dedicated crews, each course is on the mend with Sanibel Island and The Sanctuary open and The Dunes ready to welcome people for golf on its front nine this holiday season.
As golf travel trips begin to take shape for the winter, below you’ll find more information on all three Sanibel courses, and some behind the scenes details of how — after a major hurricane struck them head on — they’re back open.
The Sanctuary Golf Club
This private layout is an Arthur Hills-designed golf course that saw 4-5 feet of storm surge when Hurricane Ian struck. The club’s PGA Director of Golf Jim DiMarino says their golf shop, lower kitchen, cart barn and bag room were all destroyed.
Even though The Sanctuary has Paspalum grass, which is very salt-tolerant, the golf course sustained damage due to standing water that took more than four days to recede. They also went without irrigation for seven weeks, and there were concerns that they could lose the entire golf course.
“We have a miracle worker in Kyle Sweet, our Superintendent,” DiMarino says. “He knew exactly what he had to do and found all the resources to get water. He basically hand-watered the greens on a daily basis for about four or five weeks, until we could get some power to the irrigation system, and he saved the greens.”
Sanctuary was closed through the fall of 2022 and reopened soon after ringing in the New Year in January.
“We reopened in surprisingly decent shape for what we went through, and now, a full year later, we’re in super shape and are resodding a few areas that just never came back,” DiMarino explains.
The Dunes Golf & Tennis Club
Touted as an “island destination,” The Dunes is always a must-play for Sanibel visitors.
But when Ian hit last year, the entire property of this semi-private club was under upwards of 10 feet of water. Although the clubhouse is elevated, it still took on more than half a foot of water, and the tennis pro shop, built on stilts, had similar challenges. In addition, none of the club’s 72 golf cars were operational.
“We removed the cars from the barn during the first few days back, and two weeks later 32 of them caught fire and burnt to the frame,” PGA General Manager Brian Kautz explains. “Four weeks later the remaining 40 caught fire.”
Kautz says the salt water on the lithium batteries was likely the cause. He says the same thing happened with their maintenance equipment. From greens mowers to fairway units to tractors, nothing was salvageable.
The golf course suffered as well. When the waters receded, they found a hot tub resting in the middle of 18th green (above).
Kautz says as last spring arrived, “We decided to stay closed and regrass the entire course with the exception of the greens in Paspalum. In addition, we have six HarTru Tennis courts that we had to rebuild, along with four pickleball courts that we had opened just a month before.”
Just in case you’re heading south to vacation on the Gulf Coast of Florida this winter, make a note that The Dunes hopes to have their clubhouse open by Thanksgiving and the front nine open in early December, with the back nine following soon afterward. The tennis courts, however, are open!
Sanibel Island Golf Club
This is another semi-private facility that you can play while on island! Tipping out at around 6,300 yards, the course is challenging for the skilled player and is always a fun day for golfers of any ability.
Drew Donnelly, the course’s owner and operator, says they had over four feet of saltwater in the golf shop, foyer, and restrooms, and almost two feet in the restaurant and clubhouse after Ian.
“All equipment and computers were ruined, as was nearly all the merchandise that I had just received for the season, except for a few boxes that were up high and didn't end up in the saltwater,” he explains.
The golf course was submerged under 8-10 feet of water for 6-8 hours, and the irrigation pump station and building that housed it were destroyed, as well. They also sustained severe tree, turf and vegetation damage, and the bridge decking on their sixth hole was completely washed away.
It’s evident after talking to these PGA of America Professionals that words hardly do justice to the level of devastation experienced.
On a positive note, though, Sanibel Island Golf Club was able to open nine holes for walking last fall and the rest of the course during Christmas week. This access to the golf course was a vital reprieve for local residents who experienced similar damages in and around their own homes.
As it often does, golf has played a huge role in helping residents get their lives back in order.
“Recovery is going well although not fast enough,” Donnelly says. “Irrigation is up and running, and the golf course is getting better every week.”
He says they had about 180 members prior to Ian who have been fantastic in helping the club get through the crisis. In fact, many paid their membership dues knowing they wouldn't even be able to play golf since most of their homes weren't livable.
Donnelly would love to say he anticipates brisk play this winter, but unfortunately, a very small percentage of beachfront condos and rentals are open. However, you can help support the revitalization of The Dunes Golf & Tennis Club and Sanibel Island Golf Club — if you’re visiting Fort Myers Beach or other neighboring towns on the Gulf Coast, reach out to these facilities to secure your tee time and experience the beauty of Sanibel Island.