Playing through history: Sunshine State boasts a rich golf heritage

By Ted Curtis, Contributor

BOCA RATON, Fla. -- When you think of golf history, you might not think of Florida.

OK, so you probably never think of Florida.

But for more than a century, the Sunshine State's courses have been the home to major golf innovations, have displayed the works of some of the biggest names in classic golf architecture, and even have contributed to some of the most important moments the American military has ever seen.

Today, these courses are available to you, their resort homes and golf layouts still echoing with history.

A century of golf

It all started for the Sunshine State in 1897 when course designer Alexander Findlay accepted the request of Henry Flagler to build a new layout for the railroad tycoon's magnificent Palm Beach hotel. Many experts agree that this Ocean Course at The Breakers was the first regulation 18-hole golf course in Florida. Quickly, The Breakers built a reputation of excellence and soon Palm Beach - and all of Florida - was recognized not as a swamp-filled nothingness, but rather as a viable tourist destination.

As word spread of Florida's golf possibilities, courses began to spring up. Tarpon Springs Golf Club opened on Florida's west coast in 1908. The El Campeon course at Suburban Orlando's Mission Inn Golf and Tennis Resort - then called the Hotel Floridan - opened its course in 1926, designed by Charles Clarke of Scotland's Troon Golf Club fame. Naples Beach Hotel and Golf Club's original nine holes opened in the 1920's in what is now swanky downtown Naples.

Soon, some of the all-time greats of golf architecture joined the Sunshine State design fray.

The amazing work of design legend Donald Ross is evident at more than a half-dozen courses. In 1916, the architect of such gems as Pinehurst No. 2 built what is now the Eighteen Course at St. Augustine's Ponce de Leon Golf & Conference Resort. He followed that up with designs at Delray Beach Golf Club (1923), Clearwater's Belleview Biltmore Resort (1926) and Ft. Myers Country Club (1928) - all but the St. Augustine course are open for public play.

Robert Trent Jones Sr. - the "Open Doctor" as he was called for his ability to create perfect layouts for U.S. Open championships - showed off his brilliance at courses such as Turnberry Isle Resort & Club, where his trademark runway tee boxes and double greens are major features of both the North and South Courses.

This new surge of golf architecture also meant a new surge in design creativity. Perhaps most notable - and often most unrecognized -- in this regard is the Ponte Vedra Inn & Club, a magnificent Five-Diamond resort in Ponte Vedra Beach near Jacksonville. When famed British golf architect Herbert Bertram Strong came upon the Northeast Florida scene in the late 1920s, he found a piece of property much like the oceanfront, wind-swept parcels he recalled from home.

Strong had just completed some of the finest design work that American golf had known to that point: Four majors were held at his two Long Island designs in four years: Inwood Country Club (1921 PGA Championship and 1923 U.S. Open) and Engineers Golf Club (1919 PGA and 1920 U.S. Amateur). He also had proven instrumental to the development of golf in the United States, serving as a founding member and the first treasurer of the Professional Golfers Association. And he knew Florida from his work creating Clearwater Country Club, which still is open today.

At the Ponte Vedra Inn & Club , Strong had the chance to do something different. He put countless men and more than 100 mules to work creating what a September 1938 Golf Magazine article eventually would call "one of the four hardest courses in America." His workers dug a massive hole in the middle of the golf course and utilized the removed dirt to build up mounds and undulations.

As for the hole, Strong built a pile of dirt in the center, filled the trench with water and - voila! - built what is believed to be the world's first island green. The idea, now copied in thousands of courses around the world, paved the way for a generation of golf design.

"It's almost hard to believe what they did back then with nothing more than mules and buckets," says Ponte Vedra Inn & Club director of golf Jim Howard. "Strong built all of this out of nothing."

In the army

When World War II drove the country into the middle of the battle for freedom, everything - including golf - took a backseat to the fight.

The U.S. Army rented Miami Beach Golf Club's now 81-year-old course - for the price of $1 per year - to use as a training ground. Soldiers routinely practiced twice per day running along the fairways and dashing through smoke grenades set off amid the palm trees.

At the Boca Raton Resort & Club - built in 1926 by Philadelphia architects William Flynn and Howard Toomey - resort life gave way to what Army officials would refer to as "the most elegant barracks in history." The resort's ornate pillars were padded, many of its elaborate Addison Mizner-influenced furnishings were stored away, and the guest rooms were converted into GI bunks and officers quarters.

By day, hundreds of U.S. Army Air Corps trainees conducted drills both on the golf course and down the street at the new Boca Raton Air Field. By night, soldiers took their positions atop the resort and along the beaches in order to keep watch for German submarines.

In March 1943, the Army took over The Biltmore Hotel and its Donald Ross-designed golf course in Coral Gables, converting it into Army Air Forces Regional Station Hospital No.1. The windows of the Miami-area resort were sealed with concrete, its magnificent travertine floors were covered by Army-issued linoleum and the golf course was transformed into grounds for training, rehabilitation and storage.

And at the Ponte Vedra Inn & Club, the war literally touched home.

First, in February 1939, came word that the war would force the cancellation of the Ryder Cup Matches, which were scheduled to be held Nov. 18-19, 1939 on Strong's difficult layout. Charles Roe, secretary of the British Professional Golfers Association, sent a message via cable to the PGA of America national office in Chicago: "When we have settled our differences and peace reigns, we will see that our team comes across to remove the Ryder Cup from your safekeeping."

But three years later, something much more serious and frightening happened.

On June 17, 1942, four Nazi spies left a German submarine and paddled ashore on the beach at Ponte Vedra Beach in a mission they dubbed "Operation Pastorious." The men carried enough explosives, U.S. currency and supplies to engage in their intended coast-to-coast plot to sabotage American defense installations.

After landing undetected, the men abandoned their German uniforms, changed into civilian clothing and buried their supplies in the sand. They frolicked on the beach like tourists and strolled along the golf course on their way out of town. Before any damage was done, all four men were caught, tried and sentenced to death. They were executed by electrocution at the District of Columbia Jail on Aug. 8, 1942.

Today, a plaque lays in the ground- just a driver and short-iron from the first tee at the Inn & Club - marking this critical note in American history.

Ted Curtis, Contributor


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