BELLEAIR, FLORIDA | Even in the fickle world of modern art, with its underbelly rumors of money laundering and tax shelters, this piece caught the eye. And not just of the high-brow critic wearing creased trousers and those new, hip, red-soled shoes, but the gaze of average folk, the fellow in a striped Peter Millar shirt who couldn’t pick a Monet out of a lineup and who might mistake Georgia O’Keefe for a player in the field this week at the Pelican Women’s Championship. That guy also did a doubletake, staring at the original piece, acrylic on canvas with red and blue swirls and white starburst splatters; unmistakably Old Glory in windblown flight with the touch of an artist who spent some time in his younger days staring at Jackson Pollocks, just as those who pass this work now stand and linger themselves. But the guy in the golf shirt asked a question that the more cultured critic almost certainly would have missed. Why is this hanging outside of the men’s room?
The answer doesn’t come immediately. But with a little more time to wander about, you realize that this is just one of the touches at the Pelican Golf Club that lets you know that there’s no skimping at this place.
The artwork in question hangs in the learning center, a white wedding cake of a structure with three hitting bays, two on the bottom and one stacked on top, where you would expect Florida’s finickiest to come for an hour on the TrackMan or to test the latest Grand Bassara shaft. It’s the middle building, between the clubhouse and the villas, which include two eight-bedroom setups and one 12-room boutique hotel where out-of-town members can put in a night or two while enjoying the amenities at one of this area’s better finds.
“It’s not typical Florida golf,” said Sarah Kemp, who will be playing in her first Pelican Women’s Championship this week. By that, she means Pelican Golf Club doesn’t have a serpentine routing with water on one side of each hole and condos on the other. Nobody put a waste bunker near a tee box in order to steal sod. And you won’t find a cart path anywhere past the driving range. It’s contained and contiguous golf, an easy walk that makes you smile and think that this is what the game is supposed to be.
“We bought this golf course in June of 2017,” club owner Dan Doyle Jr. said. “The town had come to us looking for a donation on an infrastructure project, and as a joke we said, ‘You guys have this golf course. We'll buy the golf course. That covers your infrastructure project. We'd like to own the golf course.’”
Doyle is one of the area’s more successful entrepreneurs. He’s the CEO of DEX Imaging, the digital document company found in every Staples in the country. He also grew up two miles away from what was once called the Belleview Biltmore, a Donald Ross course that opened in 1927, back when Florida was closer to the panther and bear-infested wilds of a Margorie Kinnan Rawlings novel than the Tampa-St. Pete metroplex you find today.
“When I was a kid, you'd pay $120 and you could play unlimited golf in the summertime from 2:00 on,” Doyle said. “You'd get here at 1:30, get a hotdog, you'd wait and at 2:00 you'd tee off. Afternoon thundershowers would come so you'd find the biggest tree to hide under. Mom would pick me up when it was pitch black. I did that for probably three or four summers in a row.”
The Belleview Biltmore had long since seen its best days. The neighborhood was no longer a remarkable winter retreat for wealthy industrialists who rode their own train cars south at first snowfall. The golf course had become like a beautiful woman living on the street, tattered and worn with dirt penetrating her pores.
“We kind of wanted to bring that old world luster back to it,” Doyle said. “But we also wanted to make it fun to play. We've got a great ladies' golf group that plays on Tuesdays and Thursdays. They play Saturday mornings. They actually get early morning tee times. Then we have a group of younger ladies, younger girls, all in high school, about six of them, that play out here that are phenomenal. I love taking them out and playing golf with them because you'll get some cocky male guy who thinks he can outdrive them, and these girls clobber the ball. It's just fun to watch.”
The club is structured for everyone, with a lot of effort made into making women feel comfortable. Three members of the professional staff played high-level women’s college golf. And the ladies’ locker room overlooks the 18th green, leaving the men with no view beyond the three televisions on the wall.
“When it came to hosting the tournament, our Director of Golf, Justin Sheehan, called me while we literally had a trailer parked on the side of the street, this was a dirt pile, these buildings didn't exist, and Justin called up and he said, ‘Hey, I've got this great idea. What if we have an LPGA event?’ I think he expected a debate, which led to, ‘Okay, what do we have to do?’ He said, ‘Well, I'll set up a meeting.’”
Now, the penultimate week on the LPGA Tour schedule seems to have found a home.
“The idea is we want to turn this into an incredible event. We're not there yet but we will get there,” Doyle said. “But when we get there, I'm going to tell you we're going to take it to the next level.
“What we'd love to turn this into is a tournament for the ladies that they come to every year. The only way I could equate it would be, you've got the Masters, and they play it in Augusta every year. We want this to be the women's version of the Masters. That would be, ‘Hey, we accomplished what we wanted.’”