The Fabulous World of Florida Golf
Startling resort-hotel adjuncts like this one at Doral, ultraprivate country clubs and even a public par-3 worth millions have turned the stretch of courses from Miami to Palm Beach into a golf Gold Coast
In Florida, boom is a bad word. Too many residents with long memories claim it rhymes with bust. So, instead, let it be calmly said that something like urban growth or reasoned expansion or carefully planned recreational development in the 75-mile stretch of seacoast from Palm Beach to Miami has led to an unparalleled golf course—er, ah, oh well, Boom! Some of the best courses in the area are elegant survivors of the '20s, that era when speculators rushed for Florida marshes with the same fervor with which their fathers raced for Klondike streams. But to these have been added—at a spectacular rate—enough excellent country clubs, good real-estate-subdivision and resort-hotel courses and plain old public links to make this short bit of coastline unique in golf.
Ben Hogan's favorite course is here. Jack Nicklaus ranks a different one as among the country's top three and thinks so much of yet another that he is building himself a home beside one of its fairways. The short 18th hole of one course, Gulf Stream Golf Club, is on property valued at $2.5 million, and there is an oceanside par-3 course on land worth an estimated $10 million. One exclusive country club is on a man-made island in Biscayne Bay that was constructed just for the course, and four others are adjuncts of a resort hotel whose owner happily points out that he has room for 10 more. Perhaps the simplest statistic is the most meaningful. In 1959 the three counties that encompass the area, Palm Beach, Broward and Dade, offered visitors and residents only 31 golf courses. Today there are 85, and golf is becoming a year-round attraction in southeastern Florida.
Until recently the only word on Florida golf courses was a confusing trickle that flowed north each spring with returning vacationers. Originally it was mostly concerned with the caliber of such courses as Seminole (in Miami Beach or Palm Beach or some beach), and Indian Creek (or is it Canoe Brook? No, that's in New Jersey), and more recently about places called Lost Pine or Pine Tree or Lost Tree, or something like that. Yet these clubs were reserved for the rich and the famous, and they closed when the snow melted in the North. But anyone who has played 18 on a sweltering day in Chicago or Washington or New York knows that is no summer festival, either. Suddenly the Florida season began to expand, much to the surprise of the very people who run the golf courses.
"The season isn't supposed to start until December 15," says a startled Frank Strafaci, director of golf at the Doral Hotel and Country Club in Miami. "People weren't supposed to be here any earlier, but this place has been jammed since October."
"Our bar and restaurant made money during October for the first time in my memory," says Tom Flaherty, manager at La Gorce, a private club that sits among red-tiled cottages just across a narrow band of water from the high-rise hotels on Collins Avenue in Miami Beach. "In fact, we made $5,000. It's unheard of."
With the too-short winter season now apparently a thing of the past, building a golf course has become almost a blue-chip investment, and the profit-minded have spotted the trend. Because the new courses tend to be designed differently than the old ones, they have added much to the character of Florida golf. Southeast Florida is as flat as a road map and, with such notable exceptions as Seminole and Indian Creek, its golf courses used to be uninspiring. Good examples of this old school are the Everglades and The Breakers hotel courses in the center of Palm Beach. Built in 1926, The Breakers is only 6,000 yards long. Its flat fairways are so narrowly confined by tall coconut palms that playing The Breakers is like taking a walk down Wall Street. But even this staid institution is beginning to cater to the new demands for golfing excellence. The hotel has raised and enlarged all 18 greens, and this year will tear down its old clubhouse and replace it with a $1 million 1966 model.
Courses like The Breakers, however, set the standard no longer. Skillful design has produced four—including one that was built 37 years ago—that rate with the best to be found anywhere in the U.S., and the quality of some others is not far behind. The four best are Seminole, an almost hilly oceanside course just north of Palm Beach that was opened for play in 1919; the PGA National's East Course in Palm Beach Gardens, on which the first annual PGA National Four-Ball Championship recently was held; Pine Tree, 25 miles down Military Trail from the PGA headquarters, a dramatic combination of sand, water and wind; and Doral's Blue Course, the site of the pro tour's annual Doral Open. Right behind this quartet come Lost Tree, located on the ocean immediately south of Seminole; West Palm Beach Country Club, one of the better public courses in the country; the PGA National's West Course, the Country Club of Florida in Delray Beach; Coral Ridge in Fort Lauderdale; Indian Creek, which sits on its man-made island just north of Miami Beach, and La Gorce. Seminole, on the north boundary of the area, is a mere 90 minutes by automobile from Doral on the south.
"The best Florida courses may not look like typical U.S. Open courses," says two-time Open winner Cary Middlecoff, referring to the palm trees, bright sand and quantities of water. "But they play just as hard. They are a continuous challenge from tee to green, hole after hole." His opinion is shared by most well-traveled golfers. Many, including Hogan, say no course can top Seminole for conditioning and general playing quality. Jack Nicklaus, who has never played Seminole (he showed up one day several years ago, while still a young amateur, and was not allowed to play; he has not been back since), places Pine Tree among the two or three top U.S. courses. Dow Finsterwald, the former PGA champion, is a member, and Middlecoff and Nicklaus are sufficiently enamored of Lost Tree to have purchased $17,500 lots and are building houses there.