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Len Ziehm On Golf

Mount Dora’s historic course thrives on its connection to the military

Mount Dora’s proud history is evident when you arrive at the first tee.


MOUNT DORA, Florida – It’s safe to say that few golfers would come to this Central Florida city primarily to play the Mount Dora Golf Club course. Mount Dora has just too many interesting shops, enticing restaurants and other attractions to lure tourists.

The Mount Dora Golf Club, though, is part of the Florida Historic Golf Trail and there’s a story to tell about all 54 courses on its path. Mount Dora has one of the most interesting, not to mention a unique, fun course to play.

After all, what’s not to like about course whose owners describe as “the longest 5,700 yards in Florida.’’

And what’s not to like about golf carts that can provide music throughout a round? The sounds of the sixties mixed in with the golf….what could be more fun than that?

The price is right, too – even in the heart of snowbird season – and there’s a patriotic component as well.

Those who have served or are serving in the U.S. military get a price break beyond the modest $34 greens fee (cart included). Mini American flags are used for all the holes on the putting green and a well-maintained marker near the first tee declares the course “a living memorial to Mount Dora’s military troops that served in World War II and all veterans and members of the Armed Forces since.’’

A VFW hall is located next to the course and tournaments dedicated to the men and women in the Armed Forces and the veterans are held every year.

And, there’s even a bit more to it than that. The course isn’t just a tribute to military members. It was actually physically built by them. There were no well-known course architects involved in this one.

No.17 in the last, longest and most challenging of Mount Dora’s five par-3s.


Mount Dora was already a thriving community during and after World War II. It had lawn bowling, yachting, shuffleboard, swimming and tennis clubs but golfers were left out. In 1944 a group of World War II veterans who had returned from Europe or the South Pacific moved to correct that. They formed a committee and took their problem to the Mount Dora City Council.

The Council leased an 80-acre plot of land, which had foreclosed for back taxes, for use as a golf course. The lease was for 25 years, and the Council also agreed to provide $1,000 to $2,000 each year to help in the maintenance of a course and donated an unused traffic kiosk for use as the first pro shop.

Stock certificates were issued in the amount of $100 and the newly-formed Mount Dora Golf Association quickly had 90 members who voted to build a no-frills nine-holer. There is no architect of record, though some accounts mention one Cliff Deming as the leader of the servicemen who toiled through the construction process. They used a mule and bulldozer to clear land that had been covered with pine trees, and a 3,056-yard course was up and running in roughly a year’s time.

The first scorecard proclaimed it in the “Midst of Central Florida’s Wonderland of Lakes and Hills.’’ In its first years the course was frequently referred to as the Hilltop Golf Club.

This is the only water on the Mount Dora course — at No. 12, the signature hole.


The first ball was hit on Dec. 15, 1946, and it wasn’t Deming who took the first swing. That honor went to William Wadsworth, who was the lead donor for the construction of the course. He provided $50,000 for the project and was a long-time president of the Mount Dora Golf Club prior to his death in 1959.

A second nine was added in 1959 with Harold Paddock listed as the architect, and that same year the Mount Dora Women’s Golf Association was formed. In the course of the 1960s the club put in new greens, an irrigation and sprinkler system, a cart shed and maintenance building and a clubhouse. All that building culminated with the signing of a 75-year lease in 1968.

The clubhouse was expanded to its present size in 1985 but the club operated without a general manager until Doug Passen was hired in 1990. While 200 trees were planted in a busy 1978 season, almost all were lost when three hurricanes (Charlie, Francis and Jean) hit the course in 2004.

Through it all the Mount Dora Golf Club survived. Its small greens and tight fairways made for a fun round, and those back-to-back par-5s (Nos. 5 and 6) were found to be serious challenges. One plays uphill, the other downhill and the elevation changes are steep ones. There aren’t many public courses with holes like those two in Florida., but then there aren’t many with rich history that Mount Dora has either.

Mount Dora’s clubhouse has become a landmark on South Highland Street.

Thomas Edison, Henry Ford were connected to this Florida course

The walls in the clubhouse at Fort Myers Country Club are filled with historic photos


FORT MYERS, Florida — Every state should have a golf trail like the one Florida has. The Florida Historic Golf Trail represents a most serious attempt to chronicle the state’s rich history in the sport, and the Trail lists 56 courses that have been open to the public for at least 50 years.

They’re all worth visiting if you want a glimpse into what Florida used to be, but there’s one that offers by far the most tantalizing historical perspective. Fort Myers Country Club dates back to 1917 and its early members included three American icons.

Famed inventor Thomas Edison, auto magnate Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone, founder of one of the first companies to manufacture automobile tires, were friends and neighbors who had winter homes a mile from what was then called the Fort Myers Golf & Yacht Club. It’s hard to imagine any golf club in that era having such a high-profile membership.

Edison definitely had a role in the course’s creation of a golf course. Its restaurant/lounge is named after him and his pictures dominate the walls inside. One has him pictured there with Ford.

“But,’’ said director of golf Rich Lamb, who has worked at the club for 43 years, “Thomas Edison was never much of a golfer and neither were Henry Ford or Harvey Firestone.’’

Their concurrent connection to the club, however, invites digging by golf historians. Add to the mix the role of legendary architect Donald Ross and you have an intertwining of the giants of both golf and industry from a century ago.

Friends Henry Ford and Thomas Edison were winter neighbors in Fort Myers.


Edison used Fort Myers as a winter vacation retreat from 1885 until his death in 1931. He was member of the board of directors when the club was known as the Fort Myers Golf & Yacht Club. He likely recommended Ross as the designer when the club decided to add a golf course.

“Tom was a persuader,’’ said Lamb. “He probably said they should get Donald Ross, and the old geezer was probably right.’’

Ross is the original architect of record and newspaper accounts have him meeting with 15-member board members on Dec. 8, 1916, and advising them that they had an ideal site to build a golf course. Ground-breaking came 10 days later and the course opened on Dec. 29, 1917. Ten years later the city of Fort Myers took over the operation of the club and has operated as a golf facility ever since.

Whether Ross ever set foot on the property after it became a golf course is somewhat in doubt. His presence on site couldn’t be confirmed in the most comprehensive book “Discovering Donald Ross’’ by golf architectural expert Bradley S. Klein. Klein, in a detailed listing of Rose designs, reported that Fort Myers Country Club didn’t open in 1928. That opening was also listed in a similar comprehensive work, “Golf, As It Was Meant To Be Played,’’ by Michael J. Fay. How both respected authors came up with the ’28 opening date is uncertain, but Lamb has no doubts about Ross’ on-site involvement with the course.

What likely happened was that Ross did a preliminary drawing of the 100-acre palm tree-filled property and Lamb suggests he made a few other visits during the construction period.

Ross.was in his final days working solo when the Fort Myers course was in the planning stages. James B. McGovern, who had just begun a long-time run as a Ross “associate,’’ was listed in newspaper accounts as having “supervised’’ the project and A.L. White, acting secretary of the Fort Myers Golf & Yacht Club, was also reportedly involved in the six-month construction process.

Lamb likens the creative process 102 years ago to what is common practice today, when major course designers work on several projects at a time and leave daily details to on-site staffers.

“Donald Ross did about 39 courses just in Florida,’’ said Lamb. “He was a big-time architect and I’m sure he had a big old staff.’’

McGovern maintained a low profile throughout his long career with Ross, and both were among the 13 charter members of the America Society of Golf Course Architects when it was created in 1947.

Edison and Ford reportedly enjoyed the course as players in the 1920s and Edison’s second wife, Mina, got her start in golf there. She made her debut with a whiff off the first tee in January of 1930 and shot 99 for her first nine holes. Mina, who was 19 years younger than Edison, got hooked on the game and immediately ordered a new set of clubs. She apparently didn’t use them much playing with her husband, who was then 83 years old and told reporters that golf was “too much work.’’

Edison, whose first wife Mary passed on two years before his marriage to Mina, died the following year and one published report had Mina deeding the property to the city of Fort Myers in her husband’s memory 16 years later. Lamb, though, said that Edison never had ownership in the club.

The course, which had been built for $60,000 with Bahia grass fairways and common Bermuda greens, remains popular with area players and the Edison and Ford estates nearby became museums and are tourist attractions.

In 1914, three years before the course’s centennial, architect Steve Smyers was brought in to oversee a $5.8 million renovation – the only major re-do in the club’s history.

New clubhouse at Reunion’s Nicklaus Course could trigger a housing boom there

All Reunion’s Nicklaus Course needed was a clubhouse. Now the Bear’s Den is up and running.


ORLANDO, FL. – Jack Nicklaus-designed golf courses are generally show pieces – the focal points for golf communities world-wide. That wasn’t the case at one of Florida’s biggest resorts, however.

Reunion Resort started with an 18-holer designed by Tom Watson, then added one designed by Arnold Palmer. The Nicklaus Course there opened eight years ago as the hardest of the trio of courses but – until last November – it didn’t even have a clubhouse. The staff and visitors operated out of either a trailer or a tent.

That’s all changed now. A most pleasant 8,500 square foot clubhouse opened in November. Other places have bigger clubhouses, but this one has a very nice outdoor events area that includes a practice facility, a more-than-adequate fitness center and a restaurant that opened to rave reviews. The views from the place are spectacular. It just took an extraordinarily long time for the facility to materialize.

The Nicklaus touch is immediately evident, at the first tee of Reunion’s prize course.


In fact, some Reunion regulars wondered if there ever would be a clubhouse to complement the high-profile golf course.

“There was a waiting period,’’ admitted Craig Williamson, who is now playing a prominent role in what’s going on there. “It wasn’t the time to do it back then, when you think about it. This is the right time for this to happen.’’

The opening of the clubhouse has triggered a big project within the Reunion community. Williamson was brought in manage sales of The Bear’s Den – a very upscale community that is being developed around the Nicklaus Course.

“At Reunion we look on this as the template for what we’ll do in more locations,’’ said Williamson, who has been on the job for 14 months.

“I had worked with Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer communities all over Central America, South America and the Caribbean,’’ said Williamson. “This is typical of what I’ve been doing for 15 years.’’

But, The Bear’s Den at Reunion isn’t quite like the others. It’s the only gated community within the gates of Reunion.

“That’s the formula we’ll be using at other locations,’’ he said. “We’re looking at places like Telluride in Utah, Pinehurst (in North Carolina) and other sites in the Florida.’’

What they’ve done at Reunion is take a Jack Nicklaus golf course and a Jack Nicklaus clubhouse to create a community licensed by Jack Nicklaus. It has 52 lots. They’re all elevated about 15 feet above the course, creating more of a stadium look so that golfers won’t be looking into the homes.

Home sizes will range from 7,000 to 12,000 square feet, and they’ll be built basically around the Nos. 17 and 18 fairways. The choice homes will be along No. 18 and will start at $1.5 million. One has been priced at $4.5 million.

Home across the street from those will cost from $1 million to $1.5 million. They’ll be constructed along Golden Bear Park, a landscaped area that will be connected to the course practice area and include a big children’s play area, a dog park (with two areas, one for dogs over 30 pounds and one for dogs under 30 pounds), a sand volleyball court and a walking trail.

A third price point, in the $800,000 range, will also be available as a residential option. All are freestanding homes now, but Williamson said townhomes and condos are under consideration at other locations.

Initial reaction to The Bear’s Den project was enthusiastic. Two months after the clubhouse opened there were 17 homes under contract. Williamson expects more in the very near future.

“It was tough to sell $2 million when you’re sitting in trailers,’’ he said. “Some (prospective buyers) couldn’t see what’s going to happen. Now they can. The Bear’s Den was planned for thee-four years, but this started at about the time they opened the clubhouse. In the last three months there’s been a lot of activity.’’

Over 3,000 prospective homebuyers visited in the first three months, about half of them from the U.S. and the other half international. They included celebrity types who were attracted by the privacy that The Bear’s Den offers.

Despite the quality of the course, this Nicklaus layout hasn’t hosted a significant tournament. A big event – the 54-hole Kissimmee Family Golf Classic – will be coming from June 20-23. The team scramble event also will be played on Reunion’s Watson Course and the nearby Celebration Golf Club.

Reunion is a 2,300-acre resort that also features a hotel, seven restaurants and bars, a golf academy, tennis and fitness centers, meeting space, full-service boutique spa, 10 community swimming pools and a water playground.

Bunkering like this leaves no doubt that the Nicklaus Course is Reunion’s toughest.

TRAVEL NOTEOOK: Planned move to Texas doesn’t mean that PGA is leaving Florida

Florida’s PGA Golf Club will remain the winter home of the PGA of America’s 29,000 members.


Earlier this month the PGA of America announced that it will be moving its headquarters from Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, to Frisco, Texas. That’s a huge deal, since the projected new headquarters is a half-billion dollar project that will include 45 golf holes, a 500-room Omni resort and a 127,000-square foot conference center among other things.

While that may well be the biggest news splash of 2018 for golfers wanting to travel, there’s more to the announcement than that.

The PGA has deep roots in Florida, and that won’t change. Palm Beach Gardens has been the PGA’s base for more than 50 years. The PGA has operated out of a two-building complex adjacent to the PGA National Resort — annual site of the PGA Tour’s Honda Classic — since 1981.

Jimmy Terry still oversees the operation of PGA Golf Club but his duties have been greatly expanded.


While the PGA does not own PGA National it does own and operate PGA Golf Club, a three-course resort located about 40 miles to the north in Port St. Lucie. The PGA will continue to operate it regardless of what goes on in Texas, so the Sunshine State won’t be losing much as far as remaining a golf destination is concerned.

The bottom line is that the PGA isn’t completely leaving Florida – not by a long shot. Construction hasn’t even started in Frisco, and the actual move to Texas won’t come until the fall of 2021 at the earliest.

Even after the construction in Texas is finished the PGA plans to keep about 100 of its 220 employees in Florida working in a refurbished facility built where the current headquarters stands. Those who will move to Texas won’t do so until June of 2022.

The Frisco project aside, Florida will retain its prominence in golf with the PGA Tour still based in Ponte Vedra, the LPGA Tour in Daytona Beach and the huge PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando. There already has been a major personnel change within the PGA of America hierarchy related to the move to Texas, however.

Jimmy Terry, general manager of the PGA Golf Club the last five years, is taking on an expanded role as Senior Director of PGA Golf Properties. He’ll now oversee three golf facilities instead of just one.

Terry will play a significant role in guiding the development of the Texas facility and also steer the operation at Valhalla, the PGA’s flagship private facility in Kentucky that has hosted six major championships since its opening in 1986 and is slated to host the PGA Championship in 2024.

Jeremy Wiernasz, who has assumed general manager duties at PGA Golf Club, will report to Terry. Wiernasz will also retain the director of golf duties he has handled at PGA Golf Club since 2013.

TPC Myrtle Beach is one of that area’s best courses and a home course for PGA Tour star Dustin Johnson. He’ll host the Dustin Johnson World Junior Championship there on March 1-3.

CHARLIE RYMER: THE VOICE OF MYRTLE BEACH

Ex-Golf Channel mainstay Charlie Rymer is boosting Myrtle Beach.

Charlie Rymer, a fixture on The Golf Channel for the past 11 years, has joined the Golf Tourism Solutions team in a multi-media partnership that will spotlight the Myrtle Beach golf scene. Golf Tourism Solutions is a company that has the assets of a media outlet, including one of the game’s largest email databases, a print magazine and more than 200,000 social media followers.

Myrtle Beach has long been on the cutting edge of destination marketing, and Rymer – a South Carolina Golf Hall of Fame inductee – will play a lead role in that continuing effort.

“I feel like I’m coming home,’’ said Rymer. “At this point in my golf career I want to do things I’m passionate about, and Myrtle Beach is a great fit. Myrtle Beach wants to open the game up to as many people as possible, and that’s what motivates me.’’

MORE TIDBITS FROM FLORIDA

Kissimmee Bay Country Club, a Lloyd Clifton design that opened in the Orlando area 28 years ago, has re-opened after a complete renovation of the greens complexes. The facility had been closed for three months.

PGA Tour Champions will again open its season at Broken Sound, in Boca Raton, with its first full-field event from Feb. 4-10 but the tourney will have a new title sponsor. It’ll be called the Oasis Championship thanks to new sponsorship from Oasis Outsourcing, the nation’s largest privately-held professional employer organization.

A judge has ordered the Ocean Links Course at Omni Amelia Island Resort to be restored. Resort operators had begun bulldozing the course, which has five ocean views, in an effort to convert it into a park.

ClubLife Management, sponsored by ClubCorp, has taken over the management of Boca Lago Country Club in Boca Raton. The 27-hole private facility is undergoing a $3.6 million renovation of its clubhouse and that follows a just-completed renovation of the course by Jan Bel Jan Golf Course Design and superintendent George Redshaw.

HERE AND THERE

Pinehurst’s Dormie Club now has some partner clubs.

The Nebraska-based Dormie Network has added a fifth club to its portfolio. Victoria National, the Indiana course that has hosted the Web.com Tour, joined a group that includes Dormie Club, in Pinehurst, N.C.; Briggs Ranch, in San Antonio, TX; Arbor Links, in Nebraska City, Neb.; and Ballyhawk, in Roanoke, Va.

Smart Golf & Fitness has broken ground on a new indoor facility in Chicago’s Lincoln Park area. The two-level 11,000 square foot facility is expected to open in early 2019.

Architect Todd Eckenrode has announced the opening of Twin Dolphin in Los Cabos, Mexico. The layout is the first Fred Couples Signature Course in that area.

Sanctuary Cap Cana has re-opened in the Dominican Republic following a renovation. It’s located near the Corales Puntacana Resort, which hosts a PGA Tour stop from March 28-31.

CourseCo, a golf course management company with properties in California, Oregon, Washington and Texas, has been selected to receive the President’s Award for Environmental Stewardship by the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America board of directors.

The Dormie Club Network has a unique look at its namesake course in Pinehurst, N.C.

Jan Stephenson’s new golf course provides a boost for veterans, first responders

Jan Stephenson has taken a hands-on approach to reviving her Tarpon Woods course.


PALM HARBOR, Florida – Jan Stephenson is about to go into the World Golf Hall of Fame. That’s not surprising given that she won 16 LPGA tournaments including three majors, among them the 1982 LPGA Championship and 1983 U.S. Women’s Open. She also has 41 world-wide wins including 10 titles on the LPGA’s Legends circuit. That’s a lot of wins – but there’s more.

She’s also involved in tons of outside projects, more – in fact – than virtually every other touring pro, man or woman. And, one of those projects is particularly special. On April 1, 2017, Stephenson – through her Crossroads Foundation – bought a golf course.

It’s not all that surprising for a touring golf professional of Stephenson’s stature to own – or at least partly own – a course somewhere. Again, though, Stephenson’s course is particularly special. She bought it to help others. That’s why it is officially owned by Stephenson’s foundation.

Diane and Michael Vandiver and service dog Eddie are all part of Jan Stephenson’s Crossroads Foundation team in her newest golf venture, the Tarpon Woods Golf Club.


“We wanted to make it a veterans’ golf facility,’’ said Michael Vandiver, executive vice president of the foundation. “We didn’t acquire it for personal gain. We wanted a facility to accommodate veterans and first responders.’’

Many of Stephenson’s golf memorabilia items have been used to decorate the clubhouse but there’s much more to her involvement than that.

Though her purchase of Tarpon Woods Golf Club was no secret, Stephenson has doubts that even her fellow members of the LPGA Legends Tour realize just what the purchase meant.

“I’ve always had a charity,’’ said Stephenson. “I had a junior program before this, but now juniors are well taken care of. There’s lots of programs for them. I had been an ambassador for the disabled and the blind and this is for the veterans. “I would like to teach them all about golf and to even help them to have a career. This place became available, and we could devote it all to them.’’

Improvements to the outdoor garden dining area are part of the Tarpon Woods’ upgrades.


Tarpon Woods was built as a high-end private club in 1971 with Lane Marshall the course designer. In the 1990s it was called the Lost Oaks of Innisbrook and owned by the flourishing upscale Innisbrook Resort about eight miles away.

Over the years it was particularly popular when the New York Yankees held their spring training nearby. The Yankees’ owner, George Steinbrenner, particularly liked to play the course. It remains a par-72 that measures 6,613 yards from the back tees but lots of things changed, and not for the better, as Tarpon Woods was converted to a public venue under different owners.

The club was certainly no hot spot when Stephenson’s foundation took it over.

“It was a sand pit. It had no grass,’’ recalled Stephenson. “No one was playing it, and it was losing a lot of money. Its reputation was bad. The maintenance irrigation system didn’t work and the clubhouse had only two lights that worked.’’

Then things got worse. Hurricane Irma hit, and that slowed down the restoration efforts. Those were being done by with a hands-on approach that even included Stephenson coming over to trim hedges and pull weeds. Her brother Greg, who is a first responder, spent a few months painting the clubhouse.

It’s out with the old and in with the new on Tarpon Woods’ ongoing bunker renovation.


Vandiver, who is also president of club manufacturer Razor Golf, and his wife Diane are also deeply involved in the day-to-day operations. Stephenson is also part owner of Razor Golf and Vandiver also works with Jan Stephenson Events – a side business that puts on concerts and other entertainment events.

Tarpon Woods is another of their joint ventures, and it’s been a rewarding one as public play is picking up and thousands of veterans have already benefitted from visiting there.

“We’ve got a long way to go, but people have thanked us for what we’ve done already,’’ said Stephenson. “We’ll probably get 1,400 rounds a week in the winter. A lot of people wouldn’t have played here, but now they’ve seen it’s in pretty good shape and it’s a value ($46 per round in peak season). ‘’

The club has all brand new golf carts, and veterans and first responders get 20 percent off on greens fees as well as discounts in the restaurant and well-stocked pro shop.

Stephenson has organized monthly clinics for the disabled and about 50 – ranging in age from 14 to 80 – turned out for a clinic designed for blind golfers. She has also hosted a fund-raiser – the Jan Stephenson Invitational Pro-Am – that included Robert Gamez and Cindy Figg-Currier, a couple of former tour players.

Vandiver is tackling a bunker renovation in an innovative way. He’s trying to raise $90,000 via corporate and individual donations. He says one bunker can be renovated at a cost of $2,360 but he’d like to find 18 corporations willing to donate $5,000 for the project. The bunker renovation isn’t just for a cosmetic improvement. The bunkers need to be re-designed to accommodate the disabled golfers.

The Australia-born Stephenson, who has lived in nearby New Port Richey the last seven years and obtained her U.S. citizenship the same month she acquired the course, has another goal for Tarpon Woods. She wants a building to be built specifically for teaching golf to the veterans.

Innisbrook re-opens its South Course, completes its four-course greens renovation

Innisbrook leaders (from left) Dawn Mercer, the director of instruction; managing director Mike Williams and director of golf Bobby Barnes hit the ceremonial first tee shots together to re-open the South Course.


PALM HARBOR, Florida – The golf resort business is highly competitive in Florida, and the managing director of one of the best thinks there may soon be a changing of the guard.

Mike Williams, managing director of Innisbrook Resort, presided over the re-opening of his South Course last week and took an aggressive stance after outlining all the work that has or is being done there.

“This is a great day for Innisbrook,’’ Williams said. “Innisbrook will be – is – the premier golf resort in the Southeast. Our competitive set is PGA National, Streamsong, Doral, TPC Sawgrass. We now have the guest accommodations that not only rival what they have but far surpass their offerings.’’

Those are strong words, but Williams may have a case with the snowbirds starting to return to the Sunshine State.

Innisbrook has four courses – Copperhead, Island, North and South – all designed by Larry Packard who lived on the property until his passing at age 101 in 2014. Copperhead has hosted a PGA Tour event for 29 straight years and the Valspar Championship returns there in March.

The Island course hosted NCAA championships that were won by Phil Mickelson and Lee Janzen and the LPGA, Symetra and Legends tours have all had events on Innisbrook courses at one time or another. The U.S. Golf Association has also held U.S. Open qualifiers there.

Now, though, the resort’s focus is on the recreational visitors. After a six-month long renovation of the South layout, Innisbrook has all four courses with the same TifEagle Bermuda grass on its greens. That’s a big deal as far as the resort is concerned.

“We had a perfect summer for growing grass, and it’s so important to have all four courses with the same putting surface for the people who come down from all over,’’ said Williams. “They don’t want to go from course to course and have a different putting experience. Every year the pros rave about the greens that we have here and how consistent they are.’’

Now the South Course has greens like the other three courses at Innisbrook Resort.


The North Course, dubbed Little Copperhead, got those new greens in 2017. The South was the last to get them.

“We’ve expanded the greens to the original Larry Packard size and we also replaced the grass on three practice greens,’’ said Bobby Barnes, Innisbrook’s director of golf. “That’s extremely beneficial to us because it allows for more foot traffic and helps the greens stay healthier longer. We couldn’t be more excited about that. What we did this summer will pay dividends for years to come.’’

In addition to the greens’ renovation the Innisbrook crew also improved the condition of the bunkers, cleared all storm canals, trimmed trees in the fairways and re-sodded in some areas.

“The South is our newest, and most user-friendly course, and probably my favorite golf course to play,’’ said Barnes. It’s now up to the standards of the other three.

More work is being done, too. The remodeling of all 400 rooms at the resort started in September and is expected to be completed in early 2019. When that work is done it’ll mark the first time in 20 years that Innisbrook could do all the upgrading at one time. In previous upgrades the work was done in phases. The work done is all leading up to the course’s 50th anniversary celebration in 2020.

Innisbrook isn’t the only golf resort in the Salamander portfolio to make a major upgrade. The Jack Nicklaus course at Reunion Resort in Orlando now has a new 12,000 square foot clubhouse. It features an upscale sports bar, named Traditions, and features lots of Nicklaus memorabilia.

Bunkers, especially these on the seventh hole, were a major challenge on the South Course.

Golf shared the spotlight at this Mississippi resort with Capone and Elvis

No, that’s not the real Elvis, but the king’s memory lives on in his tribute suite at Gulf Hills Resort.

OCEAN SPRINGS, Mississippi – Not all the golf destinations that we visit are just about golf. Gulf Hills Resort is a prime example.

Knowing our interest in history as well as golf, one of our tour guides suggested we hit this 91-year old resort on the Mississippi Gulf Coast that was founded as a golfing hot spot in the late 1920s. We found it much more than that.

We came from having never heard of the place to learning that it was initially a hideout for gangster Al Capone and later a retreat for prominent entertainers like Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, Fats Domino, Judy Garland and Gypsy Rose Lee.

Presley, especially, has left an impact here. There’s a classy tribute to him in the Gulf Hills Hotel’s “Love Me Tender, Love Me Suites’’ that are almost always rented out even when the golf course and rest of the resort is quiet. We’ll be getting into that later and, rest assured, Elvis hasn’t completely left this building

Only the Gulf Hills swimming pool and golf course remained after a 1971 fire. The present hotel was constructed using the same frame structure of the original building.


For us, though, there had to be a golf component to Gulf Hills Resort, and there is. It also helped that there were some prominent Chicago people involved over the course of its colorful history.

Branigar Brothers, Chicago-based developers, began work on the resort in 1925. As initial owners they envisioned “an upscale winter resort with one of the most beautiful golf courses in the Southeast, a yacht basin, riding stables, clubhouse and a handful of homes built close to the water.’’

The Branigars delivered on that, and their offspring would later carry on, as Branigar Organization, in the creation of Illinois golf resorts Eagle Ridge, in Galena, and Indian Lakes, in Bloomingdale.

Just the Branigars weren’t enough to fulfill the creation of Gulf Hills, however. According to local historians the resort’s hotel was financed by laundered money from Capone and Chicago mob figures.

It’s undergoing maintenance work in this photo, but Golf Digest magazine once called Gulf Hill’s signature hole — the par-3 17th — one of the five most beautiful and challenging holes in the Southeast.


The golf course was designed by Jack Daray, who was then in the midst of a six-year stint as head professional at Olympia Fields Country Club – the tournament-tested multi-course private club in Chicago’s south suburbs. Daray, like several other club professionals in that era, spent winters teaching in Mississippi. Daray’s winter base was at nearby Biloxi Country Club.

Daray’s design at Gulf Hills was immediately well received, and the No. 17 hole – an uphill par-3 – was quickly cited by Golf Digest as “one of the five most beautiful and challenging holes in the entire Southeast Region.’’

One of the first American golf professionals to get involved in course architecture, Daray also designed three Chicago area courses – two 18-holers at White Pines in Bensenville and another at Coyote Run in Flossmoor.

Colorful signage and tee markers make for a pleasant atmosphere for Gulf Hills golfers.


Root & Hollister, also a Chicago connection, did the building of the 1,300-acres course at Gulf Hills using 170 men, 20 mule teams, road graders, tractors and a 30-ton dredge. It was completed in less than two years. Even with that course just completed there was already plans for a second 18-holer to be built at the resort. Those plans never materialized, however.

The first event played on the Daray course was on Christmas Day, 1926, when Walter Hagen – then in the midst of his five-year run as winner of the PGA Championship – joined three club pros in an exhibition match. Tragically, it was also on a Christmas Day, in 1971, that a fire destroyed most of the place. Basically all that was left was the swimming pool, golf course and structural frame of what had been the hotel. The rebuilding process has been slow and ongoing.

Golf was at the forefront of activities at Gulf Hills in its early years and visitors from the Chicago were commonplace while the resort underwent numerous ownership changes. In 1949 it was transformed into a Dude Ranch, and that’s when the celebrities started pouring in.

The wall at Ocean Spring’s Cultural Center calls attention to the many of celebrity visitors to Gulf Hills. You’ll need to double click on the page to read the captions.


Presley made Gulf Hills his summer home from 1951-57 when he was building his career with appearances on the Louisiana Hayride radio show. During that time he was a regular on the piano at the resort’s Pink Pony Lounge. Mary Ann Mobley, Miss America of 1959, and her actor-husband Gary Collins had their honeymoon at Gulf Hills. Jayne Mansfield was on her way to the resort when she was killed in a horrid traffic accident in 1967. The apparent heir to Monroe as America’s sex symbol, Mansfield was only 34 years old.

Even during the Dude Ranch days golf was more than a basic amenity at Gulf Hills. The resort’s professional staff included Johnny Pott, a mainstay on the PGA Tour, and Mary Mills, an LPGA regular. John Revolta, a PGA champion in his days as Evanston Golf Club’s head professional, also did some winter teaching at Gulf Hills.

Fast forward to today, Gulf Hills isn’t nearly as busy a place as it was in its heyday but we found it a pleasant place to hang out. Other than the re-routing of several holes and the installation of cart paths, the golf course is much the way Daray designed it.

What Gulf Hills is best known for now, however, is the Love Me Tender, Love Me Suites. Though Presley’s connection with Gulf Hills was well known, Donna Brown wasn’t enthusiastic about reviving those memories when she was named general manager in 2000. A local family, which wishes to remain anonymous, had purchased the fading hotel and golf course and begun efforts to revive it.

“Six months after I took the job I had to call them and tell them I made a mistake,’’ recalled Brown. She had received too many inquiries from hotel guests of the past who had fond memories of the Dude Ranch days.

From the beds to the memorabilia Gulf Hill’s four-room Elvis Presley tribute suite is something special.


A decision was made to create “a tribute, something we thought he (Presley) would like,’’ said Brown. This four-bedroom suite was not to be anything like Graceland, Presley’s home in Memphis. It’s become an ongoing project with authentic antique pieces and furniture brought in to capture the life and times in Presley’s heyday.

Presley’s attachment to Gulf Hills wasn’t taken lightly. Though he didn’t make use of the golf course, Presley learned horseback-riding and water-skiing while staying at Gulf Hills and also met his first girlfriend, Biloxi resident June Juanico, there. They were engaged for four years before she broke off the relationship, and they remained friends and until his death in 1977.

The tribute suite project was briefly derailed when Hurricane Katrina decimated the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 2005 but the suite is in constant demand now. It goes for $1,000 a night, though Brown has accepted less if something else is booked in connection with its use. That’s taken the form of wedding receptions, corporate board retreats, golf groups and business-after-hours events.

Here’s how the guests at the Love Me Tender, Love Me Suites do their dining these days.

Texas resort Horseshoe Bay figures to cash in on big-money upgrades

The `Million Dollar Hole’ — No. 14 at Slick Rock — is Horseshoe Bay’s most photographed hole.


HORSESHOE BAY, Texas – This is good news for all of golf. Major new construction, renovations and upgrades aren’t just being done in the Missouri Ozarks. Not by a long shot. Other golf destinations – especially in Texas – are taking on expensive projects as well.

Granted all the projects undertaken by the visionary Johnnie Morris in Missouri – latest are just-opened Ozarks National and the under-construction Tiger Woods design, Payne’s Valley — are the most eye-catching, but Horseshoe Bay Resort in the Texas Lake & Hill Country is making some noise, too. So is Barton Creek, a Texas resort less than an hour’s drive from Horseshoe Bay.

The big spending at Barton Creek is mainly on its lodging options. Horseshoe Bay is upgrading most everything and the results figure to be rewarding. They’ve already elevated the resort’s profile.

Did you know that the last two Masters champions – Sergio Garcia and Patrick Reed — are members at Horseshoe Bay Resort, which is located near the bigger town of Marble Falls. Anthony Holder, the resort’s director of golf, mentioned that only in passing – and after being asked a basic fact-finding question about membership.

Lake LBJ will be a factor on two holes when the Apple Rock renovation is completed.


Most any place else a connection with two such prominent players would be put out front and center by a club blessed to having them as members, but in this Texas Lake & Hill Country golf is different.

Horseshoe Bay has operated since 1971 with three courses designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr. He’s the late father of today’s prominent architects Robert Trent Jones Jr. — the name attached to Alabama’s popular golf trail – and Rees Jones, who gained the moniker of “the Open Doctor’’ for his frequent callups to get courses ready to host major championships.

Jack Nicklaus designed the fourth course at Horseshoe Bay. It opened in 2012 as a private club that is rarely made available to resort guests. Nicklaus’ course is called Summit Rock. The three Jones designs are Slick Rock, Ram Rock and Apple Rock and Ram and Apple are operated together under the title of Cap Rock.

There’s a lot of Rocks, to be sure, and nobody could quite explain why. What was explained in detail by Holder and director of agronomy Ken Gorzycki was the ambitious plans the resort ownership has for the future. That future isn’t far away, either. Holder said the golf aspects of an overall $70 million renovation should be completed by July of 2019.

Rock walls are an attractive feature at Horseshoe Bay — especially on the Ram Rock course.


“Our goal is to be the No. 1 golf resort in the state of Texas, and eventually expanding that to the nation,’’ said Holder. “With that comes the updating of your facilities, making sure we can deliver. Our ownership has put a wad of money into all the touching points.’’

Holder grew up in Dallas before spending 14 years at prominent California destinations Mission Hills, Indian Wells and PGA West. He’s been at Horseshoe Bay just a year but is already caught up in the enthusiasm for what’s been happening there.

Horseshoe Bay has basically had just two owners. Norman Hurd and his cousin, Wayne, got the resort started in 1971. Morris D. Jaffe has been the owner since the mid-1990s and he more recently has gotten an investment partner, IBC Bank. That enabled all the upgrades to be tackled in relatively short order.

How is this view of the No. 18 green of the Apple Rock course for a memorable visual?


Slick Rock, which opened in 1971, is the most user-friendly and most heavily played of the courses. It also has the resort’s most famous hole – the par-4 14th which plays anywhere from 236 to 361 yards. This eye-catcher is called “the Million Dollar Hole’’ because of the elaborate 35-yard waterfall that greets players at the tee. They have to clear the waterfall with their drives, then get to see the attraction up close when they drive past it to their approach shots.

The renovation of Slick Rock was completed in the spring of 2016. The renovation of Ram Rock, the second course to open at the resort in 1981, was a $3 million project and required the most work. It was completed in May of 2018.

“It was our least-desired golf course because it was so hard, the greens were small and it was heavily bunkered,’’ said Gorzycki. “It was considered as the hardest golf course in the state, and we made changes to make it more playable for higher handicap players. Those changes have been extremely well received.’’

Boulders are incorporated into the design of many of the holes at Horseshoe Bay.


The Bermuda grass on the greens was replaced by 007 bentgrass and diamond zoysia collars were installed around the greens to keep Bermuda from creeping into the bentgrass. The practice was part of all three renovations. So was the extension of cart paths.

Because of the invasion of the Bermuda on the greens at both Ram Rock and Apple Rock had been shrinking dramatically.

“A lot of greens had no hole locations left,’’ said Gorzycki.

While the greens were being expanded the bunkers were restored to the size and appearance that Jones had originally created. To make sure of that Robert Trent Jones Jr. – son of the original architect – was involved in the renovation.

Director of agronomy Ken Gorzycki (left) and director of golf Anthony Holder are in the forefront of the work being done at Horseshoe Bay.


“He helped us with the process to maintain the integrity of his Dad’s designs,’’ said Gorzycki. Austin design consultant Mark Voss was also involved in that process.

Jones Sr. was an architect well ahead of his time. His work at Horseshoe Bay is a testament to that.

Apple Rock, the prettiest of the Jones courses, opened in 1986 and has the best water views. Lake LBJ will impact the layout at the 11th and 12th holes. The in-process renovation, a $2.5 million project, is to be completed by May 1.

Like Ram Rock, the putting surfaces were extended. When the renovation began the course had less than 65,000 square feet of greens. When it re-opens it’ll have up to 87,000 – which is slightly more than Ram Rock’s 84,000.

When Apple Rock opened it was selected the No. 1 new resort course in the nation by Golf Digest. That came in the heart of the golf boom, so the accomplishment was particularly noteworthy because many courses were under consideration. (Summit was similarly honored, but the boom had subsided by then and only two or three other courses were considered for the honor).

As part of the renovation work the bunkers included new drainage and the overall sand area became 40 percent less than what it had been.

Horseshoe Bay also has the most impressive 18-hole Whitewater Putting Course, which surrounds the 360 Sports Bar. Whitewater is all grass and is set apart from other such courses around the country in that the scorecards givs measurements to each hole in yards, not feet. The whole course is 1,712 yards so obviously some putts are really long ones.

“The ownership sees the potential of this area and wanted to sink its teeth into it, to see how far it can go,’’ said Holder. “Not a lot of properties can offer the array of amenities that we can. This opportunity has a lot of upside, and they have seen a return on their investment so far.’’

The recent financial support has also led to the building of two clubhouses. It’s not all done yet, but the end is near. The clubhouses need just a few more months and Apple Rock is the last course to get renovated. The work there is scheduled to be done by May 1, 2019.

When all is said and done Apple Rock and Ram Rock will share a new clubhouse, pool, cabana, pro shop, pavilion and indoor-outdoor addition to their practice range. A new clubhouse will also be built at Summit Rock. Hotel room upgrades have already been completed.

Numerous fountains spice up the atmosphere at the Horseshoe Bay courses.

Golf is thriving in Lake Charles — and not just at the casino courses

Early morning dew only adds to the beauty of the No. 1 hole at Contraband Bayou.


LAKE CHARLES, Louisiana – Casino courses Contraband Bayou and The Country Club at Golden Nugget tend to get the most attention when visiting golfers come to this popular golf spot near the Texas line. That’s not always the case, however.

A couple other courses well known to the casino crowd are making major upgrades. Gray Plantation has opened its new indoor academy – one of the very few in Louisiana – and another with a fancy name is about to take on a major new look.

The National Golf Club of Louisiana, the municipal course for Lake Charles neighbor Westlake, expects to break ground on a new clubhouse. The significance of that addition to the premises is already had an impact. Housing construction around the course is booming and 600 new homes are expected to be built in that area.

There’s no denying the importance of what golf courses mean to the operators of the L’Auberge and Golden Nugget casinos, however. The courses at both could be welcoming the PGA Tour Champions in 2020. If negotiations on that materialize that’ll be a really big deal for the economy in Lake Charles.

Drivers make constant use of the long I-10 bridge that is also a focal point for casino golfers.


It’s no secret that golf courses and casinos fit together quite well. Casinos need more gambling patrons and offering the option of quality golf is a way to get them there. A quality course, meanwhile, is also an enticement for golfers willing to travel, and casinos across the United States offer plenty of those. Las Vegas, with its abundance of casinos with courses, is the best example that the golf/casino collaboration works.

All the good casino golf isn’t in Las Vega, though. Lake Charles is certainly no Las Vegas but the casino with courses formula works there, too.

The Golden Nugget and L’Auberge casinos are within walking distance of each other. Both have 18-hole courses on their premises.

“As everybody knows, the golf business now is tough to make money at,’’ said John Hurt, director of golf at The Country Club at the Golden Nugget. “But, with the casino, our owners don’t necessarily look at our numbers. They give us credit for the people we bring in to the casino that come because of the golf course. They make money across the street at the casino because of this amenity. Amenities are what sets casinos apart. Golf is an amenity which brings people in.’’

The L’Auberge Casino Resort (above) and Golden Nugget have made good use of golf courses.



Tillman Fertitta owns the Golden Nuggets casinos and hotels as well as the Landry’s restaurant chain. In 2017 he purchased the National Basketball Association’s Houston Rockets for a reported $2.2 billion.

Fertitta was quick to make his presence felt at The Country Club at the Golden Nugget when it opened five years ago. Hurt had expected the clubhouse music to be kept at a level so it wouldn’t impact golfers. Fertitta disagreed.

“We’re not as stuffy as a private club. We have music,’’ said Hurt. “Our owner tells us to kick up the music. He wants a party atmosphere.’’

So, the sounds of music are part of the golfing ambiance at this Golden Nugget. And even bigger things could be coming.

Director of golf Jonathan Jester shows up the new indoor academy at Gray Plantation.


Hurt said there’s “better than a 50-50 chance’’ that the Golden Nugget and Contraband Bayou will co-host a PGA Tour Champions event in the near future.

“We’ve met with some PGA people a couple times and they really want to do it,’’ said Hurt. “It all boils down to sponsor money. They definitely want to play here and they have an open week that year in either March or April.’’

Scott Davey, golf operations manager at Contraband Bayou, isn’t as optimistic as Hurt but admits that meetings have been held.

“Nugget said they’d donate their golf course and I’m sure we would, too,’’ said Davey. “They don’t have a driving range, and we do. I don’t know how that dynamic would work out but they want to get a tournament here.’’

Landing a PGA Tour Champions event would be big breakthrough for the courses – and casinos – impacted.

Contraband Bayou, a Tom Fazio design, opened 12 years ago and has served its casino well.

“There’s not a drive for revenue here,’’ said Davey. “It’s for the high rollers to come and play. It’s a well-maintained course, and the service level is high. Ours isn’t your typical Fazio. Our course has to be playable for all levels of players. The greens are flat and the fairways are wide open. It’s built for 4-hour 15-minute rounds – so the players can get back to the casino. What do golfers like to do? They like to gamble, so our course is a great tool to get people here.’’

Like Contraband Bayou, Golden Nugget draws heavily from the Houston area. Todd Eckinrode designed that course with gamblers in mind as well. It has wide fairways, rough that’s not very thick and a course that’s of moderate length overall.

“The main thing is the playability,’’ said Hurt. “The majority of our play is from groups of 12 to 20 players. They’re having fun at night gambling and drinking and staying up late. They don’t want to be beat up by a hard golf course.’’

The National Golf Club of Louisiana, a municipal layout in Westlake, has its share of challenging holes

Opening of Ozarks National takes Branson’s golf boom to a new level

Spectacular vistas are commonplace when you play a round at Ozarks National.


HOLLISTER, Missouri – Given the history of golf in the Missouri Ozarks, it’s shocking what’s been happening in that area these days.

This area 20 miles south of Springfield didn’t have a golf course until 1938 when Don Gardner, a club pro at two of the Chicago area’s premier private clubs – Olympia Fields and Flossmoor, and his wife Jill built a nine-hole short course they called Gardner Golf Ranch. They sold it in 1961 and the course was eventually expanded to 18 holes in what is now Holiday Hills Resort.

That was the Branson area’s only course until Pointe Royale opened as the area’s “original championship course’’ in 1986. While the Branson area was blossoming into a tourist destination, its golf offerings weren’t keeping pace.

Over two decades passed with little in the way of golf development, the notable exceptions being a course honoring Payne Stewart – a Springfield resident who won three major championships before dying in a plane crash in 1999 – and John Daly’s Murder Rock. Daly had roots in both Missouri and Arkansas, but his course didn’t last long.

The deep ravine fronting the No. 13 green may be Ozarks National’s most intimidating feature.


Enter Johnny Morris, owner of Bass Pro Shops. This visionary billionaire bought two local courses and the golfing boom here was on. What Morris has already accomplished is impressive.

He hired noted architect Tom Fazio to create Buffalo Ridge, which has been declared the No. 1 course in Missouri. Morris also coaxed Jack Nicklaus into designing a striking par-3 layout called Top of the Rock and Gary Player to create Mountain Top, a 13-hole, walking-only par-3 course with some wild elevation changes.

Other big names got involved, as well. Arnold Palmer designed a world-class practice facility and Tom Watson a putting course but now, with the opening of Ozarks National, things are getting serious.

Despite all the other unique attractions to entice golfers, the fact is that if you have one 18-holer you have just a golf course. If you have two (or more) you have a golf destination. Now Morris has two fine 18-holers around his Big Cedar Lodge – and he’ll soon have three.

Construction is well underway at Payne’s Valley, a Tiger Woods design that will open in the fall of 2019.


By the time the third, the Tiger Woods-designed Payne’s Valley, opens in the fall of 2019 the Missouri Ozarks will be – at least arguably – America’s best golf destination. It’s more centrally located than Oregon’s Bandon Dunes – my choice as the best for now – and many more golf addicts will weigh in on that topic once Payne’s Valley opens.

There’s no reason to ponder what the Woods course – under construction in clear sight of both Buffalo Ridge and Mountain Top — will eventually offer, however. Ozarks National is plenty good and deserves to be in the spotlight for at least the next year.

Designed by the well-respected architectural team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, Ozarks National will start offering preview play to the public on Nov. 1. November fees will be $150 for a preview round and $100 for a replay. The fees will drop to $125 and $85 in December and be in effect until the course is closed for the season on Dec. 16.

Ozarks National is within a short cart ride of Mountain Top and can be seen during a round at Buffalo Ridge. The fact that all these courses are close together will inevitably stir debate about which is best. A little controversy will stir up excitement, and that’ll be a good thing for the entire area. Golfing tourists will flock to the place and those who don’t play will find plenty of other things to do.

Ozarks National’s stone house may be one of the most sought-after lodging spots in the Branson area.


Now, about Ozarks National.

The views are spectacular. That’s what you’ll notice first.

As you move from hole to hole you’ll encounter a great mix of challenges. The variety offered through the rotation is extraordinary. The first two holes aren’t difficult, but they get you in the mood to move on to better things.

I love the fifth hole – a true drive-able par-4 if you play the right set of tees. They range from 161 yards up to 352. No. 9 is the toughest – and longest – hole. The No 1 handicap hole, it’s a winding three-shot par five that measures 597 yards from the tips.

No. 12 will probably go down as one of the best long par-3s in American golf. It’s 254 yards from the tips but more recreational types can go after it from 133, 175 or 213 yards. Still, a par-3 is rarely accorded status as a course’s No. 2 handicap hole but this one deserves it.

And, as soon as you putt out on that hole you come to a stunning landmark — a 400-foot wooden beam and plank bridge that connects the tee box an fairway on No. 13. It stands 60 feet above a flowing creek.

For those into more numbers, Ozarks Naional is 7,036 yards from the tips with 73.9 rating and a slop of 131.

Fall colors will be changing at Ozarks National before preview play concludes for the season on Dec. 16.


Though our party was all riders, Ozarks National figures to be a good walking course when the opportunity arises. The buffalo grass in the roughs is troublesome but the Zoysia fairways and bentgrass greens were more than ready for play even before the official start of preview play.

There’s also an on-course attraction worth visiting. A refurbished stone house, said to be over 100 years old, overlooks a lake that is stocked with bass between the Nos. 5 and 16 greens. It has an indoor fireplace, an outdoor fire pit and a dog house, and it’ll be a lodging option for visitors once the operation is in full swing.

One other thing to remember about the early Ozarks National experience. There’s still plenty of work to be done. Most notably, a big, upscale clubhouse is targeted to open next spring. Until then dining and pro shop facilities at the Mountain Top course will also serve Ozarks National players.

Apparently there’s no serious concerns about applying the finishing touches. Though it’s not official yet, Ozarks National is expected to be the 18-holer used for the Legends of Golf, the popular PGA Tour Champions event that returns to the area from April 22-28 in 2019. Grand Opening festivities for the course will be held during that big event and Buffalo Ridge – a previous tournament site – will be used for public play during the tournament.

Given all of Ozarks National’s special features, a round there will be hard to beat.