Belleair Country Club, Florida’s First Golf Club
By Mike Dojc
“That’s Donald ‘F’ Ross for you,” playfully grouses my playing partner while shrugging his shoulders. He tacked on the fictional middle initial, voiced with emphasis as a pejorative, after one too many times of his approach shots failed to hold one of the golf architecture great’s vaunted plateau greens. When it comes to slipping off the dance floor at Belleair Country Club, my new buddy is in excellent company.
Arnold Palmer, a frequent sight on this Tampa area course back in the day, had also been known to fall prey to the left side, right side, green side fandango. The good-natured way he took his comeuppance on hole No. 11 on the West Course, (since revamped), a par 4 toward an elevated green on a plateau with nothing around it has since become the stuff of club legend. The King got off to a great start, hitting his tee shot just shy of the green complex. But then his fortunes changed.
Palmer hit a little pitch shot and the ball rolled back down the backside of the green. He repeats the same little pitch shot again from his new vantage and it rolls over again back down to where he started. He’s lying three but keeps his cool, showing no signs of aggravation. Bill Conley, the club’s pro emeritus, who spent over forty years of his career at the club vividly remembers what happened next: “He gives up on his wedges, takes out a putter and he Texas wedges it up the hill next to the flag and taps it in. Then he says: ‘isn’t that the cutest little five you’ve ever seen!”
Belleair’s Bold Beginnings
Back at the turn of the twentieth century, Florida’s sunshine filled palm tree dotted West Coast was pretty much undiscovered country as far as tourism was concerned. I like to think rail magnate Henry Plant did a Phil Mickelson style victory jump when he spied fresh water bubbling out of the Intracoastal a mere niblick shot away from the bluff overlooking Clearwater Harbor where he would break ground on his golf resort back in 1897.
Trains used to pull right up to the south side of Hotel Belleview (later renamed Belleview Biltmore in 1919 after an ownership change) delivering guests just steps from the gilded age marvel, constructed of Florida heart pine and touted as one of the world’s largest wooden structures.
The 820,000-square-foot (once new wings were added) Queen Anne–style Victorian manse would host scores of heads of state, film stars and sporting heroes since from 1897 until it shuttered in 2009. When Obama was prepping to take on McCain in the ’08 debates he caught some shuteye at The White Queen of the Gulf. The hotel garnered the nickname after Plant’s son Morton swapped the original brown color scheme for a gleaming white paint job and topped the hotel with green roof tiles. Outside of umpteen oval office occupants, the winter escape’s glittering guest list also included Babe Ruth, Bob Dylan, Mr. Rogers, and Marilyn Monroe.
Following extensive demolition and restoration work which included rotating the structure 90 degrees and moving it the length of a football field on robotic-dollies, the Belleview is back, rechristened as The Belleview Inn. The centerpiece of the original structure remains, and the storied hotel has been born again as a 35-room boutique.
The grand staircases and plank floors have been preserved, as have the guestroom doors. You’ll also spy a section of the original Louis Comfort Tiffany panels on the ceiling of what is now an event space for small groups. Crossing the verandah into the airy lobby you’ll be struck by an elegant pearl draped candelabra chandelier and hear a grand player piano knocking out an upbeat tune.
Adding to the period ambiance are Christopher Still’s lustrous oil paintings. The Floridian artist’s gorgeously detailed nods to the hotel’s illustrious history adorn the lobby walls and the guestrooms.
Hotel guests can tee it up next door (the clubhouse is less than a pitch shot from the hotel’s front porch at the Belleair Country Club. The original-six hole from 1897 were laid out in the neighborhood of where the West Course’s No. 1, 2, 3 and 18 currently reside. Indigenous grasses once covered the fairways and the greens surfaces were composed of crushed seashells. A couple years later three more holes were added, and the greens were redone with sand. Morton Plant, took the reins, operating the hotel after his father’s passing, was driven to create a golfer’s paradise. He poured resources into agronomy, carting in nutrient rich topsoil from Indiana and flirting with various fertilizers and grasses. By 1915, after Plant had recruited golf architecture superstar Donald Ross, a sister eighteen was added, and in the ensuing years all 36-holes would implement Ross’ design. Another pedigree bump up would come with two-time U.S. Open champ Alex Smith coming aboard as the head pro.
While the hole-sequence has changed over the decades, the layouts remain true to the spirit of Ross’ original drawings. If you want to really rekindle the golden age of golf holes, take your time when you arrive at No. 4 on the West course. It’s a par three with the Gulf in the background playing 176-yards from the tips. A fox hole of a greenside bunker guards a cylinder-shaped green which back in the day necessitated the use of a ladder for golfers who hit beach. They need it to climb up from the sand onto the green. While that ladder’s gone, the challenging elevated green remains.
And when you get to the sixth green, look out into the Intracoastal waterway and you’ll be in the ballpark of where Henry Plant stood over a hundred and twenty years ago when he conceived the golf course and the hotel. From this vantage you can also spot the foundation of the spring house where the hotel used to source its water.
As far as the tale of two courses, the West’s defining feature are its elevated plateau greens whereas the greens on the East course are a little flatter and a lot easier to run the golf ball up onto. On the West course approaches need to come in high and land softly to stay on but the roll-offs aren’t as severe as they are on the East Course where the greens are also more undulating. To play well on both tracks course management and an excellent wedge game are the keys to keeping your scorecard from running up.
Where’s the beach? Belleview Inn guests can access nearby Clearwater Beach via the hotel’s sister property, Sandpearl Resort, and valet parking there for Inn guests is gratis.
South Carolina based golf writer Mike Dojc has slung copy for Nike, AAA, Geico, Maxim, Esquire.com, Atlanta Magazine, Charlotte Magazine, Score Golf, Golf Canada, RE:Porter, ClubLink Life, Fatherly, Toronto Star, Globe & Mail and many other outlets. His YouTube comedy channel Slinging Birdies will leave you in stitches.
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