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.
Lost Tree may someday grow into one of the most successful golf course-real estate subdivisions in the country. The club itself is a part of Lost Tree Village, a 450-acre community of $40,000 to $150,000 houses that has Lake Worth and Little Lake Worth to the west and the Atlantic Ocean to the east—a nice playground. Even so, the project very nearly collapsed because its founders were not sufficiently golf-oriented. The land was purchased in 1945 by Llywd Ecclestone, a successful contractor from Detroit who had bicycled up from Palm Beach one day to take a look at the site. It was then a sandy marsh. But contractors know that sand shovels easily, and Ecclestone bought the land. The initial Lost Tree prospectus made the subdivision about as easy to get into as a non-Boston Brink's vault. Lots were priced at $25,000 to $50,000, goodly sums even today, and no house could cost less than $150,000. Customers were to be screened as if they were rookies trying out for the CIA. The trouble was, there were no customers to screen.
"They made the place so exclusive," says John Hoyt, now chairman of the Board of Governors at Lost Tree, "that the Duke of Windsor might have had trouble getting in." A further difficulty was that Ecclestone did not really know anything about golf or golfers. This turned out to be good for the golf course because they gave the architect, Mark Mahannah, a free hand, but they could not get any golfers to buy homes, and they needed golfers.
Hoyt, an Arkansas cotton planter, has widespread connections in golf and used them when he was hired by Lost Tree to revitalize the operation. Lost Tree Village lowered its prices for building sites to include the merely prosperous middle class and went after a golf-wise clientele. Now 148 of the 402 lots have been sold and 46 houses have been built or are under construction.
The village owes a good deal of this success to the golf course. On most counts Lost Tree is a match for any course in the country. Only the fact that its greenside bunkers have been kept an excessive distance from the putting surfaces prevents it from being a supreme challenge to the expert. Needless to say, such a problem is hardly a drawback to golfers of moderate skill. This, and having Nicklaus and Middlecoff as neighbors, ought to sell the rest of the lots.
Because the land is so flat and sandy, southeast Florida is at once a joy and a misery to the golf-course designer. The sand can be bulldozed around at will, and if you want a water hazard about all you have to do is dig a hole. But this starting from scratch instead of from fixed terrain puts a premium on an architect's imagination, and it is well that the best of them have had a hand in Florida's courses, including famed Robert Trent Jones (Coral Ridge, Country Club of Miami), Donald Ross (Seminole) and Dick Wilson (PGA, Pine Tree, Doral). Wilson, who died last year, was the most successful of all at making something out of nothing. A gruff, sometimes surly, unpolished artist-in-the-rough, his basic warmth and humor still managed to show through. His golf courses reflect this personality. They have a wild, exciting—almost threatening—charm. They are all difficult courses, even from the short tees, but their endless variety of dogleg holes, mounds, water and tightly guarded greens make them lively and spirited tests of skill.
The marvels of golf in southeast Florida are not limited to the caliber of the courses. There are other unique features. Not many people have seen the 18th hole at Gulf Stream, for example, because not many people have gotten through Gulf Stream's gates. The 18th is a modest, wide-open 370-yard par-4. For the golfer it is one of the quietest finishing holes in the game. But for the real-estate broker it has to be joy juice, since it is located right between Route A1A and the Atlantic Ocean just north of Delray Beach. Hence the estimated value: $2.5 million.
Then there is the Palm Beach Par 3 course (lifetime membership: $1.00) that Wilson designed. The greens fee is $4.50, which entitles you to play a demanding little links that occupies a 2,000-by-600-foot block of land sandwiched between the Intracoastal Waterway and the ocean. The club pays taxes on an assessed value of $3 million. "That figure is based on the land as recreational property," says Henry Russell, a building contractor from Miami who knows his way around Palm Beach real estate. "As land for development, $9 million would be a conservative estimate of its value."
Russell, a member of the Executive Committee of the United States Golf Association, is also chairman of the greens committee at Indian Creek. This 200-acre island includes the country club, 12 private houses and a 10-man, two-car police department, all incorporated as Indian Creek Village.
Indian Creek could only have happened in the Florida of the '20s. It was built in 1929 on top of four million cubic yards of fill that had been dumped into a mangrove swamp. It was a masterpiece of superb designing and awful timing, for as the island rose the economy sank. When Indian Creek staged its official opening dinner only 50 guests showed up. Ozzie Nelson and his band played at supper each night to an average audience of 30 waiters and three guests, but the club survived. Today it has 316 members, and home values do seem to be holding firm. You can, for example, snap up the house of Mrs. Norman B. Woolworth, which is on sale for $680,000. How much would the island be worth for apartments or hotels? "About $10 million," says Russell.
At that the club falls short of the status given it recently by the guide of a cruise boat that churned past on Biscayne Bay. "Behold, Indian Creek Country Club," said the guide, his amplified voice flowing across the water as a number of residents listened. "The playground of millionaires, where even the caddies earn $200 a week."
One need not be a millionaire to try the most difficult course in the Miami area, the Blue at Doral. It is the site of the $100,000 Doral Open, where the 72-hole tournament record is a 14-under-par 274. Officially called the Blue Monster, it is part of a golfing complex that includes the Red Course (Red Tiger), the opening-this-week White Course (White Wonder), a nine-hole par-3, and a grandiose 500-room hotel. All of this is owned by Alfred Kaskel, a New York contractor who made his first money by buying up chunks of the Borough of Queens when it was pasture-land. Doral (formed from the first names of Kaskel and his wife Doris) Hotel and Country Club, which also includes the imposing Doral Beach Hotel, began as a one-story motel on Collins Avenue in Miami Beach. Kaskel had been invited to join several other investors in this project and had soon taken over completely. "If one story high, I thought, why not two?" says Kaskel, "But if you have two stories you must have an elevator. So, I thought, if you have to put in an elevator anyway, why not four stories?"
The answer to "why not four stories?" turned out to be the 14-story Carillon, among the highest hotels on the Beach. The Carillon expanded in the direction of Doral because Kaskel wanted his Carillon guests to have a golf course all to themselves. In 1959 he purchased or optioned 2,400 acres of sand just west of Miami airport. At that time there was no Palmetto Expressway running by the area, or even any paved road to speak of. The first time Kaskel drove out with his architect to take a look at the site he could not find it. He gave up after three hours of fruitless search and went back to Miami Beach. Now the wilderness has bloomed, and Kaskel, with four golf courses, is considering others. "Eve got room for 14," he says. He might have to build them all just to keep up with Florida's fabulous golf—er—Boom!
LAKE WORTH INLET
WEST PALM BEACH
BOYNTON BEACH INLET