Today, the Tampa Bay area is home to approximately 100 golf courses, from municipal courses open to the public to members-only private country clubs. This was far from the case 115 years ago, when only two golf courses were available for those who loved the links.
Both of those courses were part of Henry B. Plant’s resort empire — the Belleview Hotel in Belleair and the Tampa Bay Hotel (now the University of Tampa).
The ancient Scottish game of golf was just gaining popularity in the United States when Plant decided to feature it as one of the amenities his guests could enjoy.
News of the plans for a golf course at the Tampa Bay Hotel, among other large-scale improvements, was announced in The Tampa Tribune on Oct. 23, 1897. A new “golf links” was promised, along with a half-mile track, large grandstand and baseball diamond.
The term “links” was indicative of the type of course planned for the hotel. Unlike today’s more common manicured courses, a links course uses both the natural topography and, in most cases, the natural grass found in the area. Additionally, the greens were not yet “green” but made of clay or compacted sand instead.
Even though the course would take on a more natural look than is common today, there was still a considerable amount of work to be done to prepare the grounds for the planned improvements. The land set aside was largely unchanged from Tampa’s pioneer days. Other than a few small buildings, which were moved to the west side of 10th Avenue (today’s North Boulevard), the land was covered by a mix of oak and pine trees and acres of scrub palmetto.
Work did not end at clearing trees and stumps. Workers brought in clay from Bartow for the track, ball field, and a portion of the golf course. In addition, a small marshy area had to be filled in with dirt taken from higher ground within the site. Once site preparation was complete, the grandstands were constructed, the half-mile track was completed, Bermuda grass was planted, and a fence was built around the perimeter of the property.
Plant spared little expense in the preparation of the golf grounds. He brought in J.H. Gillespie, a noted golfer who had recently moved to Sarasota, to do the course layout. Plant then hired well-known golfer Tom Dunn and his son, Willis, to operate the golf course at the Tampa Bay Hotel plus those at the Kissimmee Hotel and the Belleview. All three were links courses, which served as a natural fit for the Scottish-born Dunns.
The Tampa Bay Hotel golf links opened in early January 1899, which was toward the beginning of the winter season, and local players and hotel guests took full advantage of the nine-hole course. The sport proved so popular with local businessmen that A. E. Dick, Tampa Bay Hotel manager, helped establish the area’s first golf club — the Tampa Bay Hotel Golf Club.
The initial membership of the hotel’s golf club offers a window into Tampa’s early business and social elite. Aside from Ybor City’s Cherokee Club, this was Tampa’s first relatively exclusive social club — predating the Tampa Yacht and Country Club and Ye Mystic Krewe by five years, and Palma Ceia Golf and Country Club by 17 years.
There were 32 inaugural members of the Tampa Bay Hotel Golf Club, with several out-of-town members, including Plant, Gillespie, Jefferson Browne (a Monroe County judge), and two Plant System managers. Of the 22 members who could be identified through the 1899 Tampa City Directory, 13 lived in Hyde Park, very near the hotel, five lived in Tampa Heights, three lived in today’s downtown and one lived at Ballast Point.
The list of names includes several prominent or soon-to-be prominent Tampans. Peter O. Knight (attorney and business leader), Hugh Macfarlane (founder of West Tampa), Frank Bowyer (mayor of Tampa in 1899), past and future Tampa mayors Herman Glogowski and Frederick Salomonson, and bankers James Anderson and Thomas C. Taliaferro were among the notables who joined. Nine of the original club members would eventually become pirates in Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla.
Henry Plant’s death on June 23, 1899, did little to dampen the expansion of the golf links at the hotel. An additional nine holes were added to the course for the winter 1900 season, with those holes located within the infield of the half-mile track. As was the case with the first nine, these holes were laid out using the natural (though slightly altered) topography with little in the way of hazards.
Tournaments and regular matches continued on the Tampa Bay Hotel course until sometime in 1904, likely coinciding with the end of the tourist season in late spring. The end of golf at the Tampa Bay Hotel did not mean the end of the sport in Tampa. Six of the local charter members of the Tampa Bay club helped establish the Sweetwater Golf Club, also known as the Tampa Auto and Golf Club and now known as Rocky Point, in 1912.
Four years after the founding of Rocky Point, several local golfers — weary of the long drive to play on the only course in the area — established Palma Ceia Golf and Country Club in the new suburb of Palma Ceia. The following year, in 1917, Macfarlane helped open the municipal course at Macfarlane Park. That course was the second municipal golf course in the state. Eighteen years after helping to start the hotel’s exclusive golf club, Macfarlane was instrumental in making golf available free of charge.
Rodney Kite-Powell is the Saunders Foundation Curator of History at the Tampa Bay History Center. He welcomes your questions and comments and can be reached via email at [email protected] .org or by phone at (813) 228-0097.