Sarasota County's long and rich history of golf

Golf has been a part of Sarasota County since 1885, when John Hamilton Gillespie arrived in Sarasota from Scotland, forever changing the course of Sarasota’s future.

When John Hamilton Gillespie arrived in Sarasota from Scotland in 1885 he was keen to develop a new home in America, which would include his beloved game of golf. By 1886 he had laid out two new golf holes (eventually to be 18 holes) that would be played upon the ground that is currently near Sarasota’s downtown Main Street.

Was this the first golf course in America? Some say so. It certainly pre-dates the famous “Apple Tree Gang” that founded the St. Andrews Golf Club in Yonkers, NY in 1888. There is some claim of being the first by a group of golfers in South Carolina as early as 1786, but they were knocking golf balls around an open green space area that may or may not have had an actual golf course. I’ll let others argue about who was first, but to be sure, Sarasota was certainly a precursor of golf in the United States.

Sara Bay Country Club

Moving forward to 1926, an Atlanta businessman, Mr. Perry Adair, started the north Sarasota development of Whitfield Estates (later to be known as Sara Bay Country Club) and its new country club golf course, designed by famed architect Donald Ross. Mr. Adair had a young friend from Atlanta by the name of Bobby Jones, the top amateur golfer of the day. Since Jones was not a professional golfer he had to look to other means to earn a living. Besides being a wonderful engineer and lawyer he also acted as real estate sales manager for Whitfield Estates. Can you imagine this? The top sportsman and one of the most famous people of his day and Mr. Adair has him closing real estate deals.

To help jump-start Whitfield Estates there was a renowned golf match between young Jones and the best golf professional of that time, Walter Hagen. Bobby must have been a bit preoCountry Clubupied with sales that day as Hagen put a whipping on him. No matter. All who saw or heard about the great event then knew of the top-notch course that Whitfield Estates Country Club had. Adair even hired the celebrated “Silver Scot” Tommy Armour to be the first head golf professional. In 1964 the club was renamed Sara Bay Country Club and carries on the tradition as one of the most favorite private clubs to play or belong to in Sarasota.

Bobby Jones Golf Club

Also in 1926 the city of Sarasota had Donald Ross design and build what has become the 18 hole “British Course” at the 45 hole Bobby Jones Golf Club, which is open to the public. Located on Circus Boulevard, Bobby Jones himself opened it in 1927. It features many of the items seen on Ross’ famous courses around the world such as smaller greens with false edges to make the golfer really think out his shots.

The shorter 18 hole “American Course” (also by Ross and opened in 1927) is a little less demanding, but still a true test. By the way, the American and British courses are named in honor of Bobby Jones’ historic Grand Slam in 1930 when he won the titles of champion of the US Open and Amateur as well as the British Open and Amateur.

The “Gillespie Executive Course” is a brisk nine holes and par 30. It is the perfect track for newcomers to learn the game or if you just want a fun day of hitting irons into the greens and putting for birdies. In the 1930s through 50s it was not unusual to see golfers such as Gene Sarazen, Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Patty Berg, and even Babe Ruth tee it up at the Bobby Jones Golf Club. Sarasota’s own PGA Champion Paul Azinger holds the course record of 62 at the challenging British course.

Bent Tree Country Club

From 1976 to 1988 Bent Tree Country Club hosted the Sarasota LPGA Classic. East on Bee Ridge Road sits this wonderful golf course that tested the best of the women professionals during that time. Names like Kathy Whitworth, Judy Rankin and multiple winner Nancy Lopez hoisted the champions’ trophy at Bent Tree. The course has recently undergone a renovation that improved the layout and freshened the greens. Bent Tree Country Club is opened to outside play so give it a try.

TPC Prestancia

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s the TPC Prestancia hosted 13 Champion PGA Tour events. The “Stadium Course” (designed by Ron Garl) offered a strong challenge to the best senior golfers of the time. Arnold Palmer, Chi Chi Rodriguez, Raymond Floyd, and Hale Irwin were just some of the competitors. Baseball Hall of Famers Jim Palmer and Yogi Berra would play in the pro-am to the delight of spectators. The “Club Course” is a Robert Van Hagge design and a pleasurable layout to play.

Concession Club

Sarasota continues to hold historical golf championships. Most recently the 2015 Men’s and Women’s NCAA Championships were held at the Concession Club, north of Sarasota just off State Road 70. Voted one of the top 100 Courses in the US by Golf Magazine, it hosted the nation’s best college golfers. This private course of 7,474 yards from the back tees put forth a tough test for the collegians and the top players will surely be seen on the PGA and LPGA Tours in the future.

Be sure to see a few of these history packed golf layouts during your next trip to Sarasota.