An early 20th-century postcard depicting the original 4th green at the West/#1 Course
Belleair Country Club, the oldest golf club in Florida - a layout so nice, Donald Ross designed it twice - has undertaken a massive restoration of its historic West Course. The architects at Fry/Straka Global Golf Course Design broke ground on the project in March, with plans to reopen all 18 holes by mid-November 2022.
Coincidentally, it’s all happening just as the club celebrates its 125th anniversary.
“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,” says Belleair CC Chief Operating Officer Ed Shaughnessy. “The bunkers and greens definitely required reconstruction. That resolution led to several investigative, illuminating trips to the Tufts Archives in Pinehurst [N.C.], 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.”
Jason Straka, a partner with Dublin, Ohio-based Fry/Straka, is collaborating with Ft. Myers, Florida-based Clarke Construction Group on the $8.8 million project. All 18 greens are being rebuilt to USGA specifications then restored according to Ross’ 1924 construction drawings. Straka and Belleair superintendent Andy Neiswender have chosen TifEagle ultradwarf for the putting surfaces, with Bimini bermudagrass everywhere else on the 120-acre West Course property.
What drew Ross to this site in 1915 - then back again less than a decade later - remains very much in evidence today: topography and terrain. Most Florida courses are famously flat. The West Course, what Ross called the #1 Course, features some 30 feet of elevation change, set beside half a mile of frontage on Clearwater Bay. That tableau, Ross’ detailed plans, and Fry/Straka’s nuanced approach have together enabled a restoration of staggering accuracy and scope.
“A lot of older clubs struggle to show that Donald Ross was on site at all when he laid out their golf courses,” Straka says. “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 guess work. We basically took all the plans from 1915 and 1924 and turned them into modern construction drawings. So, if Ross had a cop bunker 7 feet high at no. 16, we’re building it 7 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’ 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.”
Few American golf courses could so practically foster such time travel. Belleair began as a 6-hole loop with crushed-shell greens, laid out beside railroad baron Henry Plant’s colossal, new winter hotel, The Belleview. After its 1897 christening, this sprawling structure would come to be known as The Great White Queen of Gulf.
“That original 6-hole loop was the beginning, Florida’s first golf club,” reports Hal Bodley, former Belleair CC president and chair the West Course Renovation Committee. “The resort track at The Breakers was also founded in 1897. There were some private ‘estate’ holes and a 3-hole loop in St. Augustine that debuted a year or two earlier - but they’re all gone. Of course, without the grand hotel here, there would not have been a golf club. Yet without the two courses, the hotel and resort would not have become nearly so renowned.”
It was Plant’s son Morton who hired Ross in 1914 to create 36 holes at Belleview Golf Club. By then, two U.S. Open champions had already been installed as head professional: Lawrence “Laurie” Auchterlonie, who served the club from 1900-1910, claimed his title at Garden City in 1902; Alex Smith (1910-1929) won the Open twice, at Onwentsia in 1906, and again at Philadelphia Cricket Club in 1910. Billy Burke arrived in 1931, his 12-year club tenure beginning just months ahead of his Open triumph, at Inverness. By this time, Ross had returned and redesigned all 36 holes. When the Plant family sold the hotel and golf resort in 1919, the club took on a new name: Belleair CC. Come the 1930s, however, it had rebranded in favor of the 600-room hotel next door, The Belleview Biltmore.
The next 50 years brought a continual parade of the rich and famous: from Henry Ford and Thomas Edison to Rube Marquard and Babe Ruth, from Gene Sarazen and Walter Hagen to Louise Suggs and Mike Souchek, from the Duke of Windsor to Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe. The only interruption came in 1943, when the property was leased to the U.S. Army Air Corps and deployed as a drill ground. U.S. Steel purchased the club in 1971. The members reclaimed it in 1987, along with the Belleair moniker. The hotel survived into the 21st century but was largely torn down in 2017.
“A portion was preserved and moved 100 yards to the south, where today it operates - fully restored and sporting the original décor - as the Belleview Inn,” says Bodley, longtime baseball editor-columnist at USA TODAY, now retired. He’s also the author a spiffy new 200-page Belleair club history, to be published in October. “This restoration process started about 5 years ago, but our visits to the Tufts Archive in Pinehurst changed the game. It helped the members fully understand what we have here.”
In his book, commemorating the club’s 125th anniversary, Bodley points out that the American Society of Golf Course Architects considered Belleair CC its unofficial home away from home. The Society was first formed in 1947. Four times over the next 16 years, the ASGCA held its annual meeting at the club. Ross himself was supposed to be the first president. In ill health by that time, however, he demurred and was instead named honorary president. Straka, the man commissioned to put Ross’ stamp back on Belleair, will conclude his own term as ASGCA president in October, a few weeks before the West Course reopens.
“Our restoration of the putting surfaces here has been akin to an archaeological dig,” says Straka, speaking on his cell phone while standing astride the original drainage scheme undergirding the 1st green. “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’ 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 6 feet in the air, and we’ll be expanding all the fairways back to their intended width — fully 50 percent wider.”