Making history: Florida's golf resorts a surprise to many

By Derek Duncan, Contributor

A report on Florida's historic resorts might cause, understandably, bouts of skepticism in some sectors. After all, perception is that the state's pertinent history goes back roughly as far as the advent of air conditioning. This might seem a gross or even fallacious representation, but it's no secret that Florida is no match for the deep and documented histories of most states, especially when it comes to architecture and lodging.

But because weather patterns don't change all that much, the same factors that drive Northerners to Southern climates in the winter today were also doing so 100 years ago. Florida's tradition of hosting snowbirds goes back over a century, and many of the same hotels, resorts, and golf courses that welcomed seasonal visitors back then are still standing. Here's a look at our favorites.

Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club -- The Watkins family of Naples founded the Naples Beach Hotel in 1946 and has been operating it ever since. The family oriented resort spreads out along serenely on the Gulf of Mexico beaches, utilizing numerous buildings with various architectural themes for lodging.

The Naples Beach Golf Club is located across the street from the resort campus. Its origins are vague, but in recent years architect Ron Garl has made it his own, returning on numerous occasions to update the traditional layout. A stunning new conference center, restaurant, and spa have greatly enhanced the action on the golf course side of the property.

The Breakers -- The Breakers, set immaculately on the Atlantic Ocean in Palm Beach, owns one of the state's great resort histories. Oil and railroad magnate Henry Flagler -- who could fairly be considered the enabler of Florida tourism -- built the original hotel in 1896. The property has been remodeled, expanded, burned to the ground, rebuilt, and remodeled extensively over the last century, and every time it reemerges as the epitome of class and beauty.

Its two golf courses include the Ocean Course, a fascinating layout built onsite by Alex Findlay in 1897 and purported to be the state's first 18-hole regulation course, and the nearby West Course, a Willard Byrd design from the late 1960's that's more reminiscent of the South Florida style. A recent remodel by Brian Silva of the Ocean Course has restored the turn-of-the-century quirk and charm to this diminutive seaside gem.

The Boca Raton Resort & Club -- Renowned architect Addison Mizner was so convinced that rural and obscure Boca Raton would become a playground for the rich and famous that he purchased over 17,000 acres there and built what amounted to a palace in 1926. Mizner's prescience was right on, but his timing was terrible. The resort bit the dust in the stock market crash a few years later, but reemerged gloriously after World War II. A long series of conscientious owners have maintained the Boca Raton Resort to the haughty levels of luxury that would make Mizner and his High Society type friends proud.

Like so many other things in Boca, the golf has undergone no small amount of nip-tuck. The original course dates to 1926 and the Philadelphia-based firm of William Flynn and Howard Toomey. That layout, known as the Resort Course, was completely stripped and rebuilt to a more youthful vision by local architect Gene Bates in 1997. There is also the Country Club course, a 1985 Joe Lee design that likewise went under the knife in 1999.

The Belleview Biltmore Hotel Golf and Spa Resort -- The Belleview Biltmore in Coral Gables ranks as one of the state's most original and oldest hotels. The famously gabled structure first opened in 1897 and was nicknamed "The White Queen of the Gulf" for its brilliant white exterior. One hundred years later this elegant, cottage style hotel - fully renovated in 2001 but still famously white - continues exudes a classic Old South charm.

Golf was first played at Belleview in 1900 -- nine holes on sand greens -- but it wasn't until 1925, when Donald Ross built the existing 18-hole course, that the resort became known for the sport. A recent restoration based on blueprints supplied by the Donald Ross Society has returned the course to its formerly lovely and intimate self. It still flies rather under the radar, but it fits well with the Belleview Biltmore's syrupy personality.

Renaissance Vinoy Resort and Golf Club -- The St. Petersburg waterfront has literally been decorated by the Vinoy since 1925 (then called the Vinoy Park). The grand hotel is one of the Tampa areas finest, especially since a 1992, $93 million renovation project lifted it from dilapidation to ensure that its past glory would not be just that -- a thing of the past.

Garl renovated The Renaissance Vinoy Golf Club -- formerly the Sunset Golf and Country Club, positioned along Tampa Bay on the historic Snell Island - in 1992. The design is true Old Florida style, lined by pine, palm, and wetlands with nine lakes and narrow fairways. Garl returned in 2003 to install new greens surfaces.

Mission Inn Golf and Tennis Resort -- The rolling citrus hills of Central Florida are studded with small historic towns and inns, but most impressive of them all is Mission Inn, located 35 miles northwest of Orlando in Howey-n-the-Hills. The first lodging structure - meant to house visiting investors in the growing citrus industry - was completed in 1924. At the same time Charles Clarke, of Troon Golf Club in Scotland, began construction on the Inn's first 18 holes, opened in 1926.

The lodge and golf course were largely forgotten until 1969 when owners conceived of the present day mission-style facilities and a revival of the golf course, renamed El CampiĆ³n. In 1992 Gary Koch built a second course, Las Colinas, to finalize the completely refurbished resort. The rural terrain and elevation swings -- up to 85 feet -- often surprise visitors, and together these two courses comprise one of Florida's most unique golf experiences.

Ponte Vedra Inn & Club -- One of the oldest lodges on Florida's First Coast is The Ponte Vedra Inn, founded in 1928 at what was first known as Mineral City. From the beginning the resort's notoriety emanated from its golf.

British architect Herbert Strong created something of a design marvel by using heavy machinery to drain and clear the omnipresent swamps in the construction of the first course in 1928 (later to be known as the Ocean Course). By 1938 it was hailed in the same breath as Pine Valley, Oakmont, and Pebble Beach as one of the four most difficult courses in America. Robert Trent Jones reworked it in the 1940's, but in 1998 Bobby Weed returned the Ocean Course to its Strong sensibilities. A second course called the Lagoon -- the work of Jones and Joe Lee in the 1960's and 1970' -- is a tight, short course that modestly compliments it's more stout older brother.

The Breakers
1 S. County Road
Palm Beach, Fla. 33480
(561) 659-8407

The Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club
851 Gulf Shore Blvd. North
Naples, Fla. 34102
(941) 261-2222

Boca Raton Resort & Club
501 East Camino Real
Boca Raton, Fla. 33432
(561) 447-3000

The Belleview Biltmore Hotel Golf and Spa Resort
25 Belleview Blvd.
Clearwater, Fla. 33756

Renaissance Vinoy Resort and Golf Club
501 Fifth Avenue NE
St. Petersburg, Fla. 33701
(727) 894-1000

Mission Inn Golf and Tennis Resort
10400 County Road 48
Howey-in-the-Hills, Fla. 34737
(800) 874-9053

Ponte Vedra Inn & Club
200 Ponte Vedra Blvd.
Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. 32082
(800) 234-7842

Derek DuncanDerek Duncan, Contributor

Derek Duncan's writing has appeared in,,,, LINKS Magazine and more. He lives in Atlanta with his wife Cynthia and is a graduate of the University of Colorado with interests in wine, literary fiction, and golf course architecture.

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