Fry/Straka restores Ross design on Belleair’s West course

  • Belleair
    Fry/Straka Golf

    Jason Straka and Dana Fry are overseeing a restoration of Donald Ross’s West course at Belleair Country Club in Florida

  • Belleair
    Belleair Country Club

    The pair used original Ross drawings to develop their restoration plan

  • Belleair
    Belleair Country Club

    Ross designed the West course in 1915 and redesigned it in 1924 (pictured, the fourth green in 1924)

  • Belleair
    Belleair Country Club

    Belleair’s original course was built next to The Belleview hotel (pictured here in 1924). The hotel survived until 2017, with a portion of it being restored before opening as the Belleview Inn

  • Belleair
    Fry/Straka Golf

    On the eleventh hole, Fry/Straka is restoring various ‘Ross sanded mounds’

  • Belleair
    Fry/Straka Golf

    Fry/Straka’s updated routing map of the West course

Richard Humphreys
By Richard Humphreys

Fry/Straka Global Golf Course Design is progressing with a restoration of the Donald Ross-designed West course at Florida’s Belleair Country Club, which celebrates its 125th anniversary this year.

The West course, which is set beside half a mile of frontage on Clearwater Bay, features 30 feet of elevation change, so is not typical of many of Florida’s flat golf course sites.

“After a full survey of the members, it was clear they desired and supported no mere run-of-the-mill renovation of the West course, but a restoration that embraced its historic significance and pedigree,” said Ed Shaughnessy, chief operating officer at Belleair. “The bunkers and greens definitely required reconstruction. That resolution led to several investigative, illuminating trips to the Tufts Archives in Pinehurst, where we learned just how important this design is, historically, and just how much documentation we have from Donald Ross himself – regarding both his original design effort in 1915, and his redesign in 1924. That information enabled us to make informed decisions culminating in a full and faithful restoration. That is what we’re producing.”

Clarke Construction Group broke ground on the project, which is expected to cost $8.8 million, in March 2022.

Every green is being rebuilt to USGA specification and restored according to Ross’s 1924 construction drawings. Straka and Belleair superintendent Andy Neiswender chose TifEagle ultradwarf for the putting surfaces, with Bimini bermuda everywhere else on the 120-acre West course property.

“A lot of older clubs struggle to show that Donald Ross was on site at all when he laid out their golf courses,” said Straka. “To have a course where Ross was on site so many times, for the initial design, and then for the remodel of his own work 10 years later – that’s incredibly rare. Then, to have such detailed construction drawings – and notes in the man’s own hand. That’s rarer still.

“What it allows, on one level, is the elimination of guesswork. We basically took all the plans from 1915 and 1924 and turned them into modern construction drawings. So, if Ross had a cop bunker seven feet high at 16, we’re building it seven feet high. Ross detailed a lot of ‘cop’ bunkers on this 1924 routing. These are mounds totally in play – what Ross called ‘the fair green’ – with sand faces covered in wiregrass. So that’s what we’re building, because Ross’s own cross-section drawings and notes tell us exactly how to construct them! When we’re finished, this course is going to be an amazing sort of time warp for the members.”

Belleair was originally a six-hole loop built in 1897 beside railroad baron Henry Plant’s hotel, The Belleview, which opened in the same year. The hotel survived into the 21st century but was largely torn down in 2017.

“A portion [of the hotel] was preserved and moved 100 yards to the south, where today it operates – fully restored and sporting the original décor – as the Belleview Inn,” said Hal Bodley, former Belleair president and chair of the West course renovation committee. “This restoration process started about five years ago, but our visits to the Tufts Archive in Pinehurst changed the game. It helped the members fully understand what we have here.”

Bodley, who has written a 200-page book on the club’s history that will be released in October, points out that the American Society of Golf Course Architects considered Belleair its unofficial home. The Society was first formed in 1947 and would visit Belleair four times within 16 years.

“Our restoration of the putting surfaces here has been akin to an archaeological dig,” said Straka, who is the current ASGCA president. “Here and elsewhere, we would excavate a green complex and find not one set of old drainage but two or three – all piled on top of each other! The inverted-saucer green, such a staple of the so-called ‘Ross style’, is a bit of a fallacy. Here and elsewhere, those putting surfaces became that way, over time, through multiple rebuilds and decades of top-dressing. Ross’s original plans for Belleair make that very clear. They show all but two of these greens were originally designed and built with entries at zero grade.

“It’s a pretty rich irony: Ross returned here in 1924 with the intention to make the West course much more difficult, and I’m sure he succeeded there. However, in restoring that design in 2022, almost to the letter, we are making the course far more user-friendly. Yes, we are re-exposing ravines and streams that had been filled in over the years. However, by following the Ross plans, these greens won’t be playing six feet in the air, and we’ll be expanding all the fairways back to their intended width – fully 50 per cent wider.”

Belleair is planning to reopen the West course by mid-November 2022.