Breaking Tradition at The Breakers

It’s what the world is coming to: instant access to information and rapid confirmation for everything, including golf lessons.

Despite the fact that it moves at a regal pace commensurate with its storied past, The Breakers, the landmark Italian Renaissance-style palace in Palm Beach, Fla., is changing with the times. Earlier this year, the fabled oceanfront resort flipped the switch on an online lesson booking system called Smarter Lessons. Guests can now access instructors’ schedules online at both the Ocean Course and The Breakers Rees Jones Course.

The grand entryway to The Breakers

The resort’s John Webster Golf Academy has eight instructors schooled by Webster, a Titleist Performance Institute certified pro with a loyal following. Among his pupils is New York Times columnist and book author Thomas L. Friedman, a low-handicapper who says he wouldn’t make a trip to Florida without stopping in for a tune-up with Webster.

If you have any say in the matter, work on both your accuracy and power, for both are needed to succeed on the resort’s two completely different courses.

Despite his belief that golf was a passing fad, railroad tycoon Henry Flagler, who founded The Breakers in 1895 and gave birth to the state’s tourism industry, hired Alex Findlay to build a modest course with dirt greens. Opened in 1896, it claims the title as Florida’s oldest 18-hole course. Now called the Ocean Course, this compact layout, wrapped around the hotel a mere 200 yards from the sea, was completely redesigned in 2000 by Brian Silva, the same year the resort’s clapboard-and-shingle golf and tennis clubhouse opened. While not long at 6,167 yards (par 70), the Ocean Course, with its random fairway bunkering and small, elevated greens, will give you a pleasant tussle on a breezy day. Tactics and strategy, not length, are required to score. Caddies are available.

If a fuller, more complete test is desired, head 11 miles west of the hotel to The Breakers Rees Jones Course, an excellent layout superimposed by the designer onto a pre-existing venue. Debuted in 2004, the gently rolling course is framed by relocated sable palms, transplanted oaks and 400 new pine trees. Non-indigenous vegetation and trees were taken out and nearly five acres of new lakes were added in their place. Marked by generous landing areas and beautifully contoured greens, this versatile test stretches from 5,164 to 7,104 yards. In place of Jones’s usual containment mounding are sweeping, flashed-face bunkers built in the style of Alister Mackenzie. These dramatic bunkers define the boundaries of the fairways and also collect stray shots headed for water.

While the quartet of par threes, three of which play over water, are a highlight, the most exacting hole on the course is the par-four ninth, which calls for a forced carry over water to a boomerang-shaped fairway that narrows to a bottleneck beyond the 150-yard marker. The target is a slender peninsular green staked out by deep bunkers. It’s the kind of heroic hole Robert Trent Jones, Rees’s dad, would have built in his prime.

Upon return, guests re-enter the resort’s long, stately drive lined with royal palms and flowering trees, the asphalt recently replaced with 200,000 antique clay bricks. The hotel’s white stucco exterior, graced by twin belvedere towers and graceful arches, calls to mind the palatial Villa Medici in Rome. Observant New Yorkers will recognize the work of architect Leonard Schultze, who designed the Waldorf-Astoria. (The current hotel dates to 1926—Flagler’s earlier versions were lost to fires).

Inside, The Breakers is a time machine that transports guests to the Renaissance. Priceless 15th-century tapestries grace the walls. The frescoed and vaulted ceiling in the lobby captures the essence of the Palazzo Carega in Genoa. The hotel’s central courtyard was inspired by the inner gardens of the Villa Sante in Rome.

The Breakers, in sum, is the greatest architectural pilferage of ancient Italy east of Vegas.

Not that anyone minds. Few if any Golden Era playgrounds have ushered themselves into the 21st century’s second decade with the style and grace of this Palm Beach grande dame.


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