Just as Belleview Inn pays tribute to its history as a Gilded Age Gulf icon, the two historic Donald Ross–designed golf courses at the neighboring Belleair Country Club evoke a flashback to the days when clubs were wooden and golf knickers were de rigueur.
He may jokingly go by the title of PGA “Emeritus” now, but there really is no one who knows Belleair Country Club’s two Donald Ross historic golf courses like Bill Conway. So much so, he can recite the exact yardage that all 36 holes play from the black, blue, and white tees. That’s because he had spent more than 40 years on the courses – first working as the assistant golf professional from 1962 to 1971, then taking over the role of director of golf and head golf pro from 1971 until he retired in 2005. But just because Conway, now 80 and active as ever, retired as the PGA pro doesn’t mean he’s out of the game. In fact, he’s currently working on a book about the history of the Belleair Country Club and sharing his secrets for guests taking a swing at these notable holes he knows like the back of his hand.
Of the two golf courses, the West Course has better maintained its Donald Ross design – and this particular par-3 has not changed one bit. “I’ve seen old pictures of the hole – even from before my time at the club – and it looks exactly the same,” says Conway. Playing 176 yards from the black tee, the layout features an elevated green – a signature of the Donald Ross design.
“Bring your A-game to this long par-4, which measures 419 yards from the black tee,” says Conway. With bunkers on either side, it calls for a good tee shot in which you have a little carry-over water to the left-hand side. From there, your second shot is onto a very well-protected green that requires you to hit over the creek that meanders through both courses. “Every issue, USGA Golf Journal Magazine selects and profiles a different great golf hole from around the country on its back cover,” explains Conway. “I can’t tell you the exact year it was, but this hole has made their back cover.”
This 490-yard-from-the-black-tee par-5 isn’t just challenging because of the eight or nine bunkers that run along the length of the hole, but because it’s notorious for compromising players’ focuses. That’s because it’s just so darn gorgeous. “It runs along the top of the bluff overlooking Clearwater Bay and what is probably the highest point in Pinellas County,” says Conway. “When we updated the golf course back in the ’70s, the designer, Gene Bates, said it was likely the single most costly piece of real estate he had ever worked on.”
Holes #10, #11 & #12
After a leisurely front 9, the back 9 is where this course starts to show its teeth – particularly on holes 10 and 11, which are both long (413 and 414 yards, respectively), dogleg par-4s that require strong tee shots. Hole 12 is a 508-yard par-5, and a risk-reward with water carry on your second and third shots. “These three warm you up perfectly for what’s to come: the signature 14th hole,” says Conway.
Likely the course’s most challenging, this 409-yard par-4 is a very tight hole that calls for a well-placed tee shot, where you must drive toward the Gulf and Sand Key. The second shot is a blind shot straight ahead, up and over the bluff. “It calls for a very precise, very exact shot because the seawall to Clearwater Bay backs right up to the green,” cautions Conway. “If you hit over the green, your ball will be swallowed up by the bay.” Making par on this hole is like making birdie – so much so that LIFE Magazine even took notice. “Hanging in the pro shop is a copy of LIFE Magazine from 1947 that called this particular hole one of the top in the country,” says Conway. “Naturally, that was for its mix of beauty and challenge.”
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