For a state with 1,350 miles (2,710km) of coastline and over a thousand courses, Florida has remarkably little seaside golf. Seminole, the state’s perennially top-ranked course, is genuinely oceanfront and the Jupiter Island club is located along the estuary of the Jupiter River (but the actual sea shore is occupied by housing). William Flynn’s Indian Creek club is to be found on a small island in Biscayne Bay, just north of Miami; one side of the island is golf, but the rest is reserved for the extremely luxurious homes with which the club shares its property. Up and down the peninsula the story is the same: golf holes are placed inland of the houses that generated most of the income for the developers of the sites. It is the inevitable result of the way that America has done golf for most of the game’s history in the country: courses and homes have been developed together, and the houses, which paid the piper, have called the tune.
Which makes the Belleair club, located just south of Clearwater on the Pinellas peninsula in the west of the state, to the west of Tampa Bay, rather unusual. Founded in 1897, Belleair claims to be the oldest golf course in Florida; the Breakers resort in Palm Beach makes the same claim, but Belleair supporters add ‘continuously operating’ to reinforce their case. Whatever, the club is certainly one of the founding fathers of Florida golf; its West course was originally built in 1897 under the control of railway and steamboat magnate Henry Bradley Plant. Six, presumably rather rough, holes were laid out at Plant’s command. He died in 1899, and his son Morton had the course expanded to nine, and, after extensive experiments with grasses, soils and fertilisers, was responsible for the club having what are believed to be the first grass greens in America’s South. The course expanded to eighteen holes in 1909, and in 1915, Donald Ross came and redesigned it, while also creating the East course, on land inland of the older West. He returned to revise the courses in 1924.
In the century that followed, Belleair’s courses went quite a long way from Ross’s vision. Trees grew and blocked most of the views of Clearwater Bay, a mile and a half wide at this point, and which separates the club from the barrier island of Sand Key. Two large ponds were excavated only yards from the sea, and the fill used to build up some of the waterfront holes, again restricting views of the water. A few years ago, the club decided it wanted to upgrade the course, and selected Jason Straka and Dana Fry, to advise on what to do.
Straka, on viewing the West course, and seeing a number of original Ross drawings in the club’s possession, was clear: either he would restore the course to the vision of its original designer, or he would not be involved with the project. According to all parties involved, the club’s membership was not, at first, desperately excited at the prospect of renovation, but a heavy duty lobbying effort by the architects and a number of members, including renovation committee chairman Hal Bodley, long term sports correspondent and one of the founders of USA Today, and Connor Lewis, founder of the Society of Golf Historians and presenter of the popular TalkinGolf History podcast, won them round.
After a visit to the Tufts Archive in Pinehurst, and combining what they found there with what was already in the club’s possession and in the Belleview/Biltmore hotel archives, the project team assembled a near-complete set of Ross’s original drawings. These were mostly on graph paper, as was often the case in the Golden Age, and therefore did not provide a precise guide to contours (the drawings were marked with heights, but not exact ones). Straka was, though, able to overlay them onto a modern image of the site and thus use Ross’s work to create construction drawings of contemporary standard.
Work was planned to start in March 2020, but at the last minute, the club realised that obtaining the necessary permits from the US Corp of Engineers would take significantly longer than expected. Given what happened to the world almost immediately afterwards, this was perhaps a blessing in disguise: in any case, the project was delayed for two years, finally getting under way in March 2022. Florida-based contractor Clarke Construction handled the build.
The speed at which projects in warm season grass areas can be executed never ceases to amaze me: the course reopened last November, only eight months after it closed for the work. In that time, though, Straka and his team completely transformed it.
More than a thousand trees were removed, returning the West to what it had been originally, a seaside course. The two large ponds were removed and the natural, meandering streams which they had replaced were put back. These streams are a massive influence on the course, coming into play on eleven of the eighteen holes, and they already look good. Bearing in mind the difficulty of constructing natural-looking watercourses, I am sure they will improve by the week, and in a year or two will look as though they had never been removed in the first place. One of the streams widens slightly behind the tenth green to form what could perhaps be called a small pond, but the water is still moving. This must make Belleair one of very few courses in Florida without pond features.
Some greens have been lowered by as much as twenty feet to their original grade, removing much of the construction that blocked the water views. Although it does not have a water view, the fourteenth green is perhaps the most dramatic of these, as during reconstruction the team found the original railway bed installed by Morton Plant to bring visitors to the original hotel on site; the green now sits right on top of this bed. The par-three fourth hole has been restored to Ross’s 1924 design, the green an island surrounded almost entirely by sand. The par-four sixth, which runs along Clearwater Bay, has been moved back to its original waterside position; lowered to provide a better connection with the water, and a new seawall constructed. Just to the south of this is the one new hole, the par-three seventh, reminiscent of the seventh at Pebble Beach, with its green on a promontory surrounded by the sea on three sides. This promontory was not available to Ross, and has been leased by the club from the town of Belleair.
Most obviously, Straka has restored Ross’s original ‘cop mounds’ – sand dune-like features that are spread all over the course. I will admit that, at first, these look a little odd in an environment that is clearly not natural sand dunes, but when one becomes accustomed to them, they work superbly, breaking up the landscape and acting as interesting hazards to challenge players, though it is probable that wind-blown sand will be an issue the club’s greenkeeping team has to learn to deal with. It must also be noted that their shaping is superb, properly uneven as are natural dunes, quite brilliant work by lead shaper Steve Page.
Ross’s greens, restored faithfully by Straka, are severe. There are big slopes, tall ridges and some quite enormous buried elephants, enough to make putting a real challenge; in the future, Belleair members are likely to be demons with the flat stick. Wisely, the club is aware that the greens are too severe to be allowed to get really fast, and intends to regulate their pace accordingly. The bunkers are not the normal, grass-faced ‘Ross bunker’ seen on so many restoration projects, but are sand faced and shapely, as were the originals in the vintage photography used as part of the research for the project.
In short, the transformation of Belleair’s West course is nothing short of stunning. Architects Straka, Fry, their senior design associate Patrick Burton, and for that matter the rest of the construction team, can hardly have done much better than this in their whole careers. From basically nowhere, I expect the course to place highly in rankings of the state’s best. Everyone involved should be incredibly proud of what has been done, and if the course does not win a Best Renovation award or two I shall be amazed. Kudos to all.
This article first appeared in the April 2023 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.