Golf Like You Belong in Fabulous 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 Florida playground of the fabulously wealthy, Palm Beach is the historic heart of a county that’s home to more than 165 golf courses, including several of the top resort tracks in the South.

(Last updated January 2021.)

Even Mother Nature, as if mindful of the inflated expectations of the fabulously rich, seems to try harder in Palm Beach.

The famed beachfront playground of Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, Kennedys—and, yes, Trumps—roughly marks the start of the tropics in South Florida.

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.

Rubbernecking at the Mediterranean-style waterfront mansions along Billionaire’s Row and splurging on Chanel, Gucci and other designer labels in the chic boutiques that line Worth Avenue and its colonnaded corridors—Via Mizner, Via Prigi, Via Roma—are the top tourist activities.

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

The Breakers was built in the Renaissance Revival style. (Image: The Breakers)

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 towering Renaissance-inspired hotel that has been the focus of Palm Beach society for more than a century.

The Breakers Rees Jones Course, found 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, architect Rees Jones dotted his routing with ponds strategically placed to set up often-heroic water carries.

Golf history buffs, meanwhile, eagerly queue for a tee off on the Ocean Course, set in the shadow of the hotel. Reputed to be Florida’s first 18-hole layout when it opened in 1897, the Ocean 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.

It was the popularity of the Ocean Course that sparked the game’s rapid growth throughout Palm Beach County, a winter tourist destination touted as “Florida’s Golf Capital.” Stretching 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.

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 to the PGA Tour’s Honda Classic since 2007, the luxury property also famously hosted the 1983 Ryder Cup and the 1987 PGA Championship.

PGA National Resort and Spa, Palm Beach Gardens, Florida

PGA National is home to the PGA Tour’s Honda Classic. (Image: PGA National)

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. Improbably 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 courses 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 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 who have been tutored by Pelz, a renowned short game guru.

Lee, the Florida-born designer of the 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,” Lee said. “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 popular 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 created 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 society architect Mizner, a California-born bon vivant who first visited Palm Beach for his health in 1918. Mizner’s celebrated Palm Beach Style took its 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 Florida sunshine.

Snobs sniff that the Golden Age of Palm Beach is long past, blaming the decline on arrivistes like Donald Trump, who bought Marjorie Merriweather Post’s fabulous Mar-a-Lago estate (just past the Southern Boulevard drawbridge) in 1985 and later turned it into a members-only club.

A sure sign of the changing of the guard was the departure of the Kennedy clan in 1995. Their Spanish-style compound at 1095 North Ocean Blvd., designed by Mizner and purchased from the Wanamaker family in 1933, served as the Winter White House during the presidency of John F. Kennedy.

But even in these uncertain times, a reassuring stream of golfers can still be seen on the first tee at The Breakers, the iconic society hotel that launched Florida’s golf boom more than a century ago.

 

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