The Biltmore Turns Back the Clock to 1925

It was the Roaring Twenties, that infamous decade of boom and bust, and Florida, the “Sunshine State,” was just coming of age as a tourism destination.

George E. Merrick, a visionary developer who by 1921 had amassed 3,000 acres of undeveloped land on the outskirts of Miami, set out to create a planned community he called “The City Beautiful.” Named after the native rock home where he grew up, Coral Gables was inspired in part by Frederick Law Olmstead, the famed landscape architect who had popularized the use of tree-lined boulevards, ornate plazas and gurgling fountains in the design of New York’s Central Park and other municipal projects. In addition, Merrick sought to evoke Florida’s rich Spanish history by borrowing architectural motifs from historic cities in the south of Spain, notably Seville, Cartagena and Malaga.

Arabesques grace the hotel lobby ceiling

The jewel in the crown of the fledging city was the Biltmore Hotel, a brilliant evocation of the Mediterranean Revival architectural style, its terra cotta, ochre and sienna color scheme blending beautifully into the subtropical landscape. As the hotel’s impressive tower began to rise skywards in the mid-1920s, golfers began to circulate around the Biltmore Country Club’s new Donald Ross-designed course.

Ross, a transplanted Scotsman, had become the pre-eminent golf course designer in America by the 1920s. His deceptively simple design style incorporated naturalness and a subtle links touch derived from Dornoch, the ancient links in the north of Scotland where he came of age as a golfer and course superintendent. Ross tended to build user-friendly courses with plenty of room off the tee. “It is not difficult,” he once said, “to make courses impossible, but that is a betrayal of true principles. In building my courses, my aim is to lay out an alternate route on practically every hole. That is, in the case of the two-shot hole, the scratch player or long hitter has one way of getting home in two shots—he must place his drive accurately to do so—and the high handicapper or short hitter has another route to reach the green in three.”

Ross was a master at designing courses that would test all the shots, and a genius at molding putting surface contours into the existing terrain. His subtly contoured greens, generally raised slightly above fairway level, require a sure putting touch and place a high premium on delicate chips, pitches and creative recovery shots. Variety, strategy and naturalness are the most consistent traits in a Ross design. In the wake of its recent $5 million makeover, the Biltmore Golf Course once again embodies all of these characteristics.

In the words of the late golf scribe Charles Price, “Ross didn’t believe courses should be tough, never thought golf was supposed to be fair, and knew that people who played the game for fun would soon get over it.” Given Merrick’s insistence on the highest standards for the Biltmore, Ross, the best-known and most widely traveled architect of the day, was the designer of choice for the fledgling property. The first 18 holes of the planned 36-hole facility were completed in January, 1925.

The Biltmore’s first head professional was Alex Smith, like Ross a Scotsman who had emigrated to America to play, teach and spread the seeds of golf.  Smith, a former U.S. Open champion and a well-respected instructor, made a winter sojourn to Florida from his summer job at Wykagyl Country Club in New Rochelle, N.Y. to head up the Biltmore’s golf operation.

Soon screen stars and sports luminaries began to show up to play a course ranked among the best in the South. In 1926, Bobby Jones joined Tommy Armour, Leo Diegel and Gene Sarazen in a golf exhibition at the Biltmore as part of the resort’s “Fiesta of the American Tropics,” a lavish three-day celebration. Yankee baseball great Babe Ruth teed it up in 1930 with Al Smith, the former governor of New York. That same year, the $10,000 “Miami-Biltmore-Coral Gables Open,” the richest golf tournament at the time, was held at the resort. The event attracted an outstanding field of players. The following year, the “Miami-Biltmore $10,000 Open,” as it was then called, attracted the biggest names in the game, including Walter Hagen, Gene Sarazen, Paul Runyan, Ralph Guldahl, “Wild” Bill Mehlhorn and reigning U.S. Open champion Bill Burke. Sarazen claimed the title in 1931 and went on to win the U.S. Open later that year. Sarazen, known as “The Squire,” captured the Biltmore event a record four times.

By 1934, the tourney purse had increased to $12,500, and the Miami-Biltmore Open had become an established event on the winter calendar of most big-name pro golfers. With more than 230 players, it attracted a world-record entry for an open tournament.

At present, the Biltmore hosts the annual Junior Orange Bowl International Golf Championship, an event won by the likes of Mark Calcavecchia (1977), Tiger Woods (1991) and Camilo Villegas (1999). The tournament established a girl’s division in 1977. Among the future LPGA stars who captured the Junior Orange Bowl title are Grace Park (1993) and Christie Kerr (1994).

Among the many notables who have enjoyed a round at the Biltmore is former President Bill Clinton, a frequent guest at the resort who has played the course several times. Even the worldly Mr. Bill claims to have been dazzled by designer Brian Silva’s recent stem-to-stern refurbishment of the course. (The par-71 layout, with five sets of tees stretching from 6,742 to 5,189 yards, reopened for play in November, 2007).

The revamped golf course, set on the doorstep of the iconic hotel, will be barely recognizable to long-time patrons who haven’t visited the resort lately. Only the original corridors for the holes have been retained. All greens, tees and bunkers have been reconstructed and grassed to contemporary standards. In addition, a new irrigation system has been installed and course drainage improved as part of the rehabilitation program.

The Biltmore overlooks the largest hotel pool in the nation

Having restored the hotel in the 1990’s, management hired Silva to completely revitalize its golf course. “I’d like to think the golf course is now much closer in quality to the hotel, if not its equal,” says Silva, who thoroughly involved himself in the layout’s renewal. A golf architect renowned for restoring classic courses, notably Donald Ross-designed courses, Silva says “the Biltmore Golf Course was a great story before I ever stepped foot on the property”.

Working from original routing plans, vintage aerial photographs and Ross’s handwritten notes, Silva set about the task of rediscovering and restoring the course. Rather than attempt a slavish imitation of the original, Silva instead adapted the layout for the modern game, extrapolating what Ross might have done were he alive and building today. He describes his handiwork at the Biltmore Golf Course as a “sympathetic restoration” of Ross’s design. (Ross, a native of Scotland and one of the founding fathers of American golf architecture, built nearly 400 courses in his prolific career and established the principles of strategic design in the U.S.).

Silva has a special appreciation for the Biltmore course, describing it as “one of [Ross’s] more original designs. It has a high degree of authenticity. No major changes or alternations were necessary or appropriate. We restored the spirit of the course and brought the physical plant up to contemporary standards by planting new grasses and rebuilding the greens to USGA specifications.

Working like an archaeologist at a prehistoric site, Silva identified long-abandoned or grassed-over bunkers, excavated them to their original depth and rebuilt their rolled down grass faces, creating a distinctive filigreed look along the top edge of each bunker. Because the bunkers had evolved through the years into small, oval-shaped pits, Silva added Ross-inspired flourishes to the randomly-shaped bunker faces, notably capes and bays as well as large and small grass “noses.” Sand was pushed up or “flashed” into the rising walls of the bunker faces, creating both drama and improved visibility of the hazards. In addition, Silva built bulging faces and concave floors in the bunkers, so that a ball that lands near the lip will roll back from the edge, as Ross intended.

“The fairway bunkers pull you through this golf course in a way that’s outstanding,” Silva explains. “Ross designed the fairways to subtly twist and turn around the bunkers, even on the straightaway holes. The idea is to tack your way around the course from one safe landing area to the next in the same way that a sailor tacks to and fro on the sea.”

By re-establishing fairway bunkers to create varied angles of attack, Silva was able “channel” Ross and create a ‘risk-reward’ element at nearly every hole. Tactics are everything at the Biltmore. Accomplished players can opt for a shorter route to the hole by boldly flying their drives over the hazards, thereby gaining an advantage. Average golfers content to steer clear of trouble can chart a longer but safer route around the imposing fairway bunkers.

Silva also revived the classic Ross strategy of placing a bunker well short of a green and yet making it appear as if it was flush to the putting surface. To the unwary player, these foreshortened bunkers create optical illusions. Seamlessly pressed into the landscape, the Biltmore’s beautifully sculpted bunkers—71 in all—are the signal feature of the restyled course.

Rare in this day and age, the Biltmore is a core golf course with no interior housing. Silva credits the expansive site—a full 140 acres, an impressive parcel given the Biltmore’s proximity to Miami—with his ability to reinstate the fairway widths to their original dimensions. Silva also rerouted the golf cart paths to the outside perimeter of the fairway bunkers, broadening the field of play and creating more strategic options.

The Biltmore’s bunkering is dramatically improved

Silva acknowledges that Ross did not believe in penal driving areas. “Ross felt that the tee shot, the longest shot, should be allowed the most room for error,” he says. The Biltmore’s newly widened fairways may seem overly generous in places, but usually the drive must be played to a specific area of the fairway to afford the ideal shot to the green.

The original routing of the course, which Silva retained in large measure, is clever and intricate. The holes quarter to all compass points and invite shifting trade winds from all directions. There are a few forced carries, but most of the greens were left open in front to accept run-up shots. In addition, greens and tees at the Biltmore are in close proximity to each other to facilitate walking. (Golf carts were unknown in the 1920s). The resort plans to institute a caddie program on a seasonal basis in future.

While Silva identified and reclaimed many of the Biltmore’s defunct or eroded bunkers to properly signpost the holes, he performed miracles on the greens, which had shrunk in size and lost much of their character over the years.

By enlarging the putting surfaces to their original dimensions (as in 1925, they once again average 6,500 square feet), Silva reclaimed lost cupping areas on the greens. He also reintroduced many of the subtle slopes and undulations on greens that had become level or bland over time. Most of the Biltmore’s greens are of the “open-entry” type, which means flanking bunkers have been pulled away from the entrance to the greens, inviting players to play “bump-and-run” shots along the ground. Maintained to a high standard, the Biltmore’s putting surfaces are uniformly true and fast.

The greens, most of them subtle plateaus raised slightly above fairway level, are framed by low rolling mounds and embraced by shallow swales, with steep drop-offs at a few holes to penalize a careless shot. A golfer who misses a pedestal green on the “wrong” side is often left with a difficult chip or pitch.

“Ross’s chipping areas are actually tougher than bunkers or heavy rough around the green because he forces you to manufacture a shot,” Silva explains. “You can putt it or wedge it or punch it or half top it or make up some other kind of shot. Ross gives you so many choices. That’s the beauty of his chipping areas. He makes you think, and you’re never sure which shot will work best.”

While the distance from the Championship tees (6,742 yards) is relatively short by modern standards, Brian Linton, the Biltmore’s director of golf, points out that the sea-level layout is often swept by brisk ocean breezes and plays longer than the measured yardage. “On a typically windy day, the Biltmore will play more like a 7,000-yard course from the tips,” he said. “Even seasoned players will be in for a surprise.” Linton noted that for competitions, the relatively short par-five 18th hole can be converted to a long par four to create a very testing finish.

“A course that continually offers problems—one with fight in it, if you please—is the one that keeps the player keen for the game,” wrote Ross. From the Championship markers, the Biltmore has more than enough “fight” to hold the interest of low handicappers. On the other hand, Ross believed that golf should be a pleasure, not a penance, and that the course should present golfers with many different ways to proceed from tee to green. The staggered tee system devised by Silva presents graduated challenges based on player ability level.

The strength of the Biltmore Golf Course is its superb and varied collection of par fours. They range from short drive-and-pitch holes like the fourth to long, dangerous holes like the 17th, which calls for a solid drive followed by an unerring approach over water to a huge bulkheaded green. The 17th, along with several other holes on the course, is crossed by the Coral Gables Waterway, a canal built in the 1920s to provide hotel guests access to Biscayne Bay. (Italian gondolas manned by Venetian gondoliers were imported for the purpose). Several new environmentally-friendly free-span bridges enable players to more easily traverse the course.

The Biltmore’s par-35 front nine is short and sporty, offering players several good scoring opportunities. The longer, tougher par-36 back nine is another story. The holes here are generally longer and more challenging. The 448-yard 13th and 450-yard 17th holes are now ranked among the finest par fours in Dade County, while the 558-yard 15th hole, its green fronted by the canal, is a true three-shot par five that only the longest of hitters can think about reaching in two shots.

While generally open and links-like in appearance, the better to welcome the prevailing southeast breeze, the Biltmore Golf Course has a beautiful array of tropical trees. In addition to several enormous banyan trees (notably behind the first green), fairways are framed in places by royal poinciana, live oak, mahogany, casuarina pine and a variety of palms—coconut, sable, fishtail and foxtail.

There is also wildlife. The canal, which is home to manatees, also attracts great blue herons, great white ibis, red-tailed hawks and other birds. Perhaps the best-known denizens of the course are the large, colorful iguanas—several of them up to five feet in length–that favor the banks of the canal that runs along the eighth and ninth holes.

Of the nearly 40 golf courses that Donald Ross built in Florida, only Seminole in North Palm Beach (restored by Silva in 1996) and one or two others can be placed ahead of the reinvigorated Biltmore Golf Course. As a bonus, nearly every hole commands a fine view of the hotel’s ochre façade and dramatic tower, which rises to a three-stage cupola and was inspired by the Giralda tower atop the Cathedral in Seville, Spain.

Like Ross himself, Silva finished the course with fine brush strokes. The overall effect is one of charm and subtlety. The course not only presents a fine strategic test for golfers at all ability levels, the holes are imbued with an enticing naturalism. Perhaps best of all, the Biltmore Golf Course cannot be fully grasped or appreciated in a single outing. Shifting winds coupled with changing pin positions ensure the course never plays the same two days in a row.

“Now that we’re finished, I believe those who love the game will regard the Biltmore Golf Course as one of the best classic golf experiences available anywhere,” Silva says. “As far as I’m concerned, the Biltmore is at the dawn of a second Golden Era.”

With its modern grasses and redefined landforms, the Biltmore Golf Course is probably better now than when it opened to acclaim 85 years ago. Addressing the fine art of restoration, Brad Klein, a Donald Ross authority, has written, “The ultimate goal, after the architect has left, is for golfers to revel at the layout and to have the sense, however ironic, that the course is more like it used to be than it ever was before.”

With its resurrected golf course, updated clubhouse and National Historic Landmark hotel, the Biltmore, the only independently-owned luxury resort in greater Miami, can take its rightful place among the nation’s finest golf resorts. Just as Coral Gables was one of the nation’s first planned communities and epitomized developer George E. Merrick’s vision of “The City Beautiful,” the refurbished Biltmore Golf Course is once again a classic test of golf as well as the verdant centerpiece of the city.


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