Inside Florida’s Storied History of Golf
According to the National Golf Foundation, 108 million people in the US play golf each year. As one of the world’s most popular sports, spectators and players alike enjoy the technical skills needed to play, as well as the natural settings most greens are found in.
However, the state of Florida has a more storied history with the sport than most might think. Since 1979, when the Arnold Palmer Invitational took over for the Florida Citrus Open Invitational, Orlando has welcomed some of the PGA Tour’s most dynamic competitors.
Each March, spectators crowd into the Bay Hill Club to watch pros like Bryson DeChambeau (last year’s champion), Dustin Johnson, and Rory McIlroy battle it out. Meanwhile, pundits who provide betting insight into major sporting events work behind the scenes to offer competitive wagers and follow up on last-minute changes.
Unlike other PGA tournaments, the Arnold Palmer Invitational is open to a select few golfers, which adds to the event’s allure. However, Floridians aren’t only spectators in the sport of golf. The state continues its longstanding relationship with the sport with annual events that bring locals together… but many Floridians may not know just how far back that history goes.
Between 1897 and 1949, over 50 golf courses were established throughout the state that can still be visited today. An immigrant named John Gillespie is actually to thank for this boom. After moving to Sarasota and establishing a homestead, in the mid-1880s, Gillespie decided to build a two-hole golf course in honor of Scotland’s sporting past time.
Though Scotland remains home to golf’s ruling body, the Royal and Ancient Golf Club (aka R&A), Gillespie’s two-hole course drew attention from Sarasota locals. From there, the trend expanded outside of Sarasota. Golf courses popped up around resort hotels, which were being connected by the railroad system.
From 1900 to 1930, Florida enjoyed its ‘Golden Age’ of golf, beginning with the construction of the first 18-hole course at the Palm Beach Hotel. Not only did large tournaments attract famous players, but the courses themselves were designed by architects who have since become legends for their work.
Celebrating the Florida Historic Golf Trail
Today, the Florida Department of State carefully preserves the original courses from this golf boom in the Florida History Golf Trail. The list of courses not only highlights where each can be found and who constructed them, but also provides insight into local knowledge and lore about the course (like who played there, and who won), as well as each course’s ‘claim to fame’ and its current state.
The Historic Golf Trail consists of more than fifty courses. However, there are five main clubs that functioned as centers of golf culture, beginning with Bobby Jones Golf Club in Sarasota (established 1927) and ending with the Eglin Golf Course in Niceville (established in 1923).
The oldest on the list is the Winter Park Country Club in Winter Park (established in 1914). Designed originally as a nine-hole course, architects later expanded the greens by ‘wrapping’ additional holes around the originals.
A Continued Legacy
Today, the PGA Tour is no stranger to Florida. Given the state’s agreeable climate, it’s a reliable location with ample greens and, as is clear now, a long history in the sport. Each year, the PGA Tour plays its Honda Classic, Players Championship, and Valspar Championship in addition to the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
The Honda Classic takes place in West Palm Beach on the distinctive (and difficult) Champion Course; the Players Championship is played at Ponte Vedra Beach at the TPC at Sawgrass Stadium Course and offers golf’s largest prize purse at $15 million (2020); and finally, the Valspar Championship is played in Palm Harbor at the Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club.
Of the four PGA Tour events held annually in Florida, three (Arnold Palmer Invitation, Honda Classic, and Players Championship) are held in areas that are home to reputable historic courses from Florida’s History Golf Trail.
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