Follow Kennedy and Trump to Palm Beach

The Breakers, Palm Beach, Florida (Image: The Breakers)

The Breakers has been the focus of Palm Beach society for more than a century. (Image: The Breakers)

Renowned as the golf-rich Florida playground of the fabulously wealthy, Palm Beach is where first John F. Kennedy and now Donald J. Trump have chosen to take their wintertime presidential divots.

(Last updated January 2020.)

With the 2017 inauguration of Donald Trump, glamorous Palm Beach once again became the preferred wintertime retreat of a golf-loving United States president.

John F. Kennedy could often be seen teeing it up on the Ocean Course at The Breakers, the towering Italian Renaissance-inspired luxury hotel that has been the focus of Palm Beach society for more than a century. During his presidency, the Spanish-style Kennedy family compound at 1095 N. Ocean Blvd. served as the unofficial Winter White House.

Trump on the golf course. (Image: Trump Golf)

Trump purchased Marjorie Merriweather Post’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach in 1985. (Image: Trump Golf)

Trump enjoys even fancier digs. In 1985, he purchased Marjorie Merriweather Post’s Mar-a-Lago estate and turned it into a members-only club. The President, who brags of playing to a handicap of three and owns 16 golf clubs around the world, plays most of his local rounds at nearby Trump International Golf Club.

Famed as the beachfront playground of Kennedys, Rockefellers and Vanderbilts, Palm Beach is the historic heart of Palm Beach County, extending from Jupiter in the north to Boca Raton in the south. The county, the largest southeast of the Mississippi River, is home to more than 165 golf courses, including several of the top resort tracks in the South.

On this stretch of the Atlantic coast, less than a two-hour drive from Miami, the cobalt-blue waters of the Gulf Stream run close to shore, promoting milder winters and an abundance of ficus, Royal Poinciana and banyan trees, species that refuse to grow in the harsher climes to the north.

Many of golf’s biggest names—including Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman, Gary Player, Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson and Bernhard Langer—own homes here. Golf academies and equipment shops are as ubiquitous as gasoline stations and Starbucks outlets.

Palm Beach County’s premier golf resort, PGA National Resort and Spa, shares the same address as the PGA of America in the upscale enclave of West Palm Beach, about 20 minutes north of Palm Beach. Home of the PGA Tour’s Honda Classic since 2007, the luxury property also famously hosted the 1983 Ryder Cup and the 1987 PGA Championship.

The Breakers, Italian Renaissance-inspired design (Image: The Breakers)

The Breakers in old Palm Beach is home to Florida’s oldest 18-hole golf course. (Image: The Breakers)

Of all the highlight-reel moments at PGA National, none tops the final-day drama of the 1983 Ryder Cup, won by the U.S. side by a single point. No one who has seen it will ever forget Seve Ballesteros’ 245-yard bunker shot on the Champion Course‘s 18th hole. Using a 3-wood, the Spaniard landed his ball on the fringe of the green and then saved par to halve his match with an astonished Fuzzy Zoeller.

PGA National has completed a US$100-million renovation that included an extensive refurbishing of the hotel and a tweaking by Jack Nicklaus of the Champion Course, the marquee attraction of the property’s five 18-hole layouts. Originally designed by Tom Fazio, the course was first reworked in 1990 by Nicklaus, whose most significant contribution was the infamous “Bear Trap”—holes 15 through 17—a windswept and watery trio that has broken the hearts of countless golfers.

Rounding out the roster at PGA National are layouts by several more of the game’s top architects: The Palmer (Arnold Palmer), The Estates (Karl Litten), as well as The Squire and The Fazio (both by Tom and George Fazio).

PGA National’s major rival among Palm Beach County’s golf resorts is Boca Raton Resort and Club, a Spanish-Moorish beachfront palace designed in the 1920s by visionary architect Addison Mizner, famous as the creator of the Palm Beach Style. Rich in golf history, the lavishly refurbished Boca, as the resort is known locally, once employed legends Sam Snead and Tommy Armour as golf professionals.

Though just 6,253 yards in length, the property’s original William Flynn-designed layout, the Resort Course, is sneakily difficult, with rapid elevation changes and numerous water features. A far stiffer test is the Country Club Course, a 6,714-yard Joe Lee design located a short drive from the resort, where water comes into play on 14 holes. Also found at the Boca is the Dave Pelz Scoring Game School. Phil Mickelson and Patrick Reed are among the PGA Tour stars tutored by Pelz, a renowned short-game guru.

Lee, the Florida-born designer of Boca’s Country Club Course, was a master at shaping the local terrain. The architect (a direct descendant of American Civil War general Robert E. Lee) liked to raise and cant his greens toward fairways, and then guard them with water hazards. “I don’t think there should be any tricks on a golf course,” said Lee. “Golfers want a challenge, but they want a fair one.”

One of Palm Beach County’s busiest public courses is the Abacoa Golf Club in Jupiter, the last of the 71 courses Lee designed in Florida before his death in 2003. Sloping fairways and treacherous sand bunkers are the hallmarks of a lush and immaculately conditioned track where water comes into play on 14 holes.

Another almost mandatory stop—especially for fans of Donald Ross, arguably the greatest of all golf architects—is Delray Beach Golf Club. Once ranked among the top courses in the United States, this classic and affordable 6,907-yard design features rolling fairways, water on five holes and Ross’s distinctive random bunkering.

Architect Addison Mizner, Palm Beach style (Image: wikipedia)

Architect Addison Mizner, creator of the Palm Beach Style (Image: wikipedia)

By the time Ross unveiled his Delray Beach course in 1923, hotels were springing up throughout the county. Vacationers had been arriving in steadily growing numbers ever since Standard Oil magnate Henry Flagler extended his Florida East Coast Railway south from St. Augustine in the 1890s.

Flagler built two luxury resorts (Royal Poinciana Hotel and Palm Beach Inn, the precursor of The Breakers) on the 16-mile-long spit of land known as Palm Beach. Accessible by drawbridges over the Intracoastal Waterway, Palm Beach quickly attracted the attention of captains of industry and socialites who came for the sun, seclusion and to enjoy a life of privileged luxury.

Many of Palm Beach’s most opulent waterfront mansions are the handiwork of Mizner, the architect of the Boca Raton Resort and Club. Mizner, a California-born bon vivant who first visited Palm Beach for his health in 1918, took his inspiration from the medieval buildings of the Mediterranean. Tiled roof towers and turrets, stucco walls and wrought-iron accents featured prominently in his designs, as did terraces and balconies that let his clients better enjoy the balmy Florida weather.

Mizner’s imprint is seen everywhere in Palm Beach County, but especially in old Palm Beach, where he designed dozens of homes for the ultra wealthy. Today, rubber-necking tourists stop to admire the waterfront mansions built by Addison and his imitators along Billionaire’s Row, and crowd as close to Mar-a-Lago as security guards will allow to either cheer or sneer at the current president.

Equally essential is a browse through the chic boutiques and galleries that line Worth Avenue and its gracefully colonnaded corridors—Via Mizner, Via Prigi and Via Roma.

But for many visitors, the Palm Beach experience isn’t complete without a round of golf at one of the two courses operated by The Breakers, the palatial 538-room hotel that sits on 140 acres of prime Atlantic oceanfront in the heart of Palm Beach.

The Breakers Rees Jones Course, set in a gated community about 10 miles from the hotel, is a superbly conditioned 7,104-yard parkland layout defined by hundreds of palm trees and other tropical flourishes. In building one of Florida’s top resort courses, Jones dotted his routing with ponds strategically placed to set up often-heroic water carries.

Purists and history buffs, perhaps imagining themselves in the company of a youthful John F. Kennedy, might prefer a tee off at the Ocean Course, in the shadow of the hotel. The iconic course has emerged triumphant from a recent full-scale renovation by Jones that stretched the yardage of the par-70 layout to just shy of 6,000 yards. Jones’s makeover included the replacing of green complexes, as well as the addition of still more water features and tropical landscaping.

Reputed to be Florida’s first 18-hole golf course when it opened in 1897, the Ocean Course is credited with igniting the game’s growth throughout Palm Beach County, the most presidential of golf destinations.

 

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