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A facelift in green

After years of neglect, the Belleview Biltmore is being renovated with design history in mind.

By JOHN SCHWARB

© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 5, 2001


BELLEAIR -- The architect steers the cart around 8-foot-high mounds of dirt, jagged piles of broken concrete and tangled webs of unearthed irrigation pipes displaying decades of rust.

To most people, this would be a mess of a construction site. To Chip Powell, it is sweet progress -- and on schedule to be a golf course again by Dec. 1.

With the help of a design team and a multimillion-dollar budget, the Belleview Biltmore Golf Club is shedding most of its 76-year-old skin. When the transformation is complete, the course is expected to be a modern incarnation of the layout Donald Ross set in the soil in 1925.

Ross, an acclaimed architect who died in 1948, designed 399 courses, including U.S. Open venues Pinehurst (N.C.) No. 2 and Oakland Hills (Mich.). He also left his mark in Florida. Located within a few miles of each other, the Dunedin Country Club, Belleair Country Club and Belleview Biltmore are sites Ross is believed to have visited to create his brand of course design.

In recent years, the Belleview Biltmore has more than shown its age. It has screamed it. Played mostly by locals and guests staying at the nearby Belleview Biltmore Resort and Spa, the club has changed names (Pelican Country Club for most of its history, then Belleview Mido) and ownership several times, but little had changed for the better with the course. "The infrastructure of this golf course was probably as antiquated as any that we've been involved with," said Powell, a Sarasota-based golf architect hired for the renovation. "We haven't really encountered one that had as outdated an irrigation and those types of basic services as this one did."

As far as the course's integrity, however, a lifetime of being left alone proved beneficial. Ross historians, brought in to evaluate the layout before the renovation, marveled at distinct Ross design elements. "It's a surprisingly interesting golf course for a relatively flat site," said Bradley Klein, a board member of the Donald Ross Society and Ross biographer who played the course in January. "I thought it had some really neat holes and some really good green contours. You get the feeling it was an intelligent routing and an economic use of the ground. That's always a good sign (of a Ross course)."

Ross' trademark greens, accessible in the front to rolling approaches but penalizing to aggressive shots that fly off the back, had maintained their character but had no drainage system. Many strategic fairway bunkers were intact but obsolete for modern clubs and balls.

To make maintenance easier, some of Ross' greenside sand traps had been turned into grass bunkers. Exotic trees such as eucalyptus and melaleuca, prone to blowing over in storms and shedding massive amounts of bark, took over along the fairways. And concrete paths for carts -- a design element early 20th century architects didn't have to contend with -- had been haphazardly added, often within the line of play.

Fixing these elements and adding maintenance features including tee-to-green irrigation, all while keeping Ross' original design intact with concessions made to the modern game, is the architect's job. Nothing less -- but nothing more. "I know guys that would come here and not want to respect anything Ross did. They would put the modern style and modern featurework on this," Powell said. "They would say that the Ross work today is without merit. We certainly didn't see it that way.

"Once we got out and got a feel for how this course played, we felt real strongly about trying to restore what was here. Our job is to enhance."

The project is in full swing. More than 150 exotic trees have been removed -- one eucalyptus was left at the outer edge of the dogleg of the old 17th hole (the eighth after the club reverses the nines) -- allowing the native oaks and pines to flourish. Greens have been rebuilt with a maze of irrigation systems. In two months a new hybrid grass, TifEagle, will be planted, ideal for year-round play in Florida. Grass bunkers have been made sand traps again.

Along the fairways, piles of galvanized pipes that once delivered water are ready for the junkyard, to be replaced by plastic PVC pipes. Old cart paths are also being removed, to be replaced by paths of concrete and coquina shell, tucked behind new fairway mounds and into wooded areas away from well-struck shots.

At a glance, it is not pretty. But Powell's contractor beams with pride at the sight of it all.

"The opportunity to be able to work on and rebuild a Ross course is every remodeling contractor's dream," said Reed Berlinsky, who visits the course about once a week to check his crew's progress. "It's just good for everybody when you redo a course like this. You create better turf, and their water's going to be 10 times more efficient. It changes the whole environment of the course."

When it opens for the peak season (construction ends Sept. 15, and the course will have 10 weeks to grow) the Belleview Biltmore will play 6,652 yards from the back tees, 43 yards shorter than before. It will be par 71, down from 72 (the 18th, once a par 5, will be a long par 4), and rated around 73, up from 70.7. Not overpowering but no pushover.

"For your regular guy who plays golf, this is going to be tremendous fun for them. My hope is that it's a course they want to play a bunch of times," Powell said. "I think most of them who played it before will just say, 'Wow, I didn't know this could be this good.' "

- Times researcher Mary Mellstrom contributed to this report.

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