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Fabled Floridian

Courtesy of Biltmore Courtesy of Biltmore

Photo: Courtesy of Biltmore

If ever there had been a golf course in need of restoration, it was the old Donald Ross layout at The Biltmore hotel in Coral Gables, Florida. Over the years the putting surfaces had shrunk and more than a dozen bunkers had been filled and grassed, making the golf holes look like bowling lanes. Tees and greens showed patches of hardpan. Crabgrass crept into the turf. "It was in as poor a condition as any course I’ve seen," says architect Brian Silva, who just completed a $5 million overhaul of the walkable, understated design.

Opened in 1925, a year before the hotel’s first guests splashed in its enormous Roman-style pool and dined on its colonnaded patio, the course became a winter stomping ground for celebrities and pros. Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey teed it up here. So did Walter Hagen, Gene Sarazen and other top players of the era. A tour stop called the Miami-Biltmore Open was held annually on Ross’s layout (which was then thirty-six holes and is now eighteen; the other eighteen became the private Riviera Country Club, across Bird Road).

During the Second World War, the resort was turned over to the Army, which operated it as a hospital for wounded soldiers (some of whom played the course as part of their convalescence). After the war, the property served as a V.A. hospital until 1968. Now owned by the city of Coral Gables, the landmark hotel—with its Spanish Renaissance belfry—is about to recapture its grandeur. Silva’s course makeover is part of a $40 million upgrade that includes the opening of new restaurants and a luxury spa.

A veteran of restorations at classic clubs, including Seminole up the Atlantic coast and Interlachen outside Minneapolis–St. Paul, Silva enlarged the greens to bring back their once-devilish false fronts. He replaced the grainy putting surfaces with a smoother-rolling strain of Bermuda grass. He also added or reshaped bunkers that had been removed or made smaller, restoring an optimal playing angle—the so-called "line of charm." At the par-four thirteenth, for example, golfers who skirt a fairway bunker on the left are now rewarded with a clearer angle into the green. Charming indeed.

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