STUART, Florida – Florida’s Southeast coast is filled with history. Some of that history, such as the impacts of railroad magnate Henry Flagler and insurance tycoon John D. MacArthur on Palm Beach County, are well chronicled.
But travel just a few miles north of Palm Beach County – into Martin County – and Florida history includes the House of Refuge Museum on Hutchinson Island, and the stories of the Ashley Family, an early 1900’s outlaw gang that twice robbed the Stuart Bank. Today, the Ashley family cemetery, which hasn’t been used in more than 70 years, sits on a remote plot of land inside Mariner Sands Country Club known as Ashley Park.
The 700-acre private golf club community here is loaded with history of its own beyond cemeteries and bank heists. Mariner Sands became the first true country club community in Martin County when it opened in 1979, one year after developer Erling Speer, a native of Augusta, Ga., raised money to fund the club. A decade later, Speer developed Willoughby Golf Club a few miles to the north.
Speer, who died in 2019, was one of Martin County’s great philanthropists. For example, he founded the Martin Economic Counsel in 1991 and also dedicated his time and treasure to the Boys & Girls Clubs and First Tee of Martin County.
That philanthropy began nearly immediately after the opening of Mariner Sands when a tournament that featured several PGA Tour senior players evolved into a members’ event that raised money to help build Martin Memorial Hospital South. The event – now known as the Mariner Sands Charity Classic – continues to raise money for various area charities.
Mariner Sands features a pair of golf courses – the Gold Course designed by Tom Fazio and the Blue Course designed by Frank Duane. Each course well-maintained and plays anywhere from 6,800 yards from the tips to less than 5,000 from the player-friendly front tees.
“Each course plays fair but each can play tough,’’ said Mariner Sands Director of Golf Tim McKenna. “The greens on each fairly small. The layout of Gold course is a little hiller than the Blue, which is a more Florida-style course.’’
The club, which offers non-resident memberships, currently has approximately 400 golf members – a good number that fits the need for two courses.
“It’s great that we have the two courses, particularly in the summer when we always have one open and can be working on the other one,’’ said Mariner Sands Membership Director LeAnna Saundry. “Years ago, we had 540 (golf) members and had tee times and shotgun starts. Now we don’t have tee times, except for Tuesday and Thursday, so golfers can just go to the starter to begin playing.’’
That decline in golf memberships goes along with the decline in golf’s popularity the past few years – something that’s hit most private clubs in South Florida. So, like most clubs in South Florida, Mariner Sands has focused on elevating and adding other amenities to attract and maintain members.
“What people are really looking for now is lifestyle,’’ Saundry said.
Mariner Sands, which has 771 homes not including condominiums and a golf cottage, offers that lifestyle with a terrific 8,400-square-foot fitness facility and pool; Titleist Performance Institute; croquet, bocce, a dog park, and formal and relaxed F&B outlets. The casual Sand Bar restaurant might be the club’s most popular gathering spots.
“Casual dining has taken off,’’ said John Saundry, the club’s general manager and executive chef. “I think that’s where Stuart is these days – more relaxed. We’re getting away from dining and dancing and jackets. We get more people coming in looking for the Sand Bar and active lifestyle.’’