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. During those years, he had interacted with all scores of celebs on their swings – from President Ford and Bush Senior to baseball Hall of Famer Tom Seaver (“he was a good friend,” notes Conway) to John Travolta. During 10 years from the ’60s into ’70s, Conway even lived in the former iteration of Belleview Inn. “My room was on the fourth floor, which is where the help lived, but, now, it’s the penthouse,” he laughs. “So I can brag and say I lived in the penthouse.”
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 its golf courses alongside local historian, Christopher Stills, and a syndicated writer for ESPN, Hal Bodley. Otherwise, guests – who have access to these two courses, named the East and the West Course, when they stay Belleview Inn – will see this Clearwater Beach local around the pro shop, taking lunch at the Clubhouse, and, of course, swinging a club on these notable holes that 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 – something very classic of 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 the courses. “Every issue, the USGA Golf Journal 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 isn’t just a challenging 490-yard-from-the-black-tee par-5 thanks to 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 most singly costly piece of real estate he’s 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 and up and over the bluff. “It calls for a very precise, very exact shot because the seawall to Clearwater Bay backs up right 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, 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.”
About the Courses
Before Donald Ross ever set foot in Florida, the country club was actually home to one very early course – thought to be perhaps the first in the state – of six sand and shell greens. But once Scotland’s native son designed and built the two courses, thought to be sometime between the dates of 1914 to 1916 (Conway is still digging through the archives to figure out the exact dates for his book), that’s when the club really took off, drawing all sorts of linksmen from Babe Ruth and Bobby Jones to Walter Hagen and Joe DiMaggio. Today, while the two courses still retain their historic charm, the East Course embodies a bit more of a Scottish, links-style layout, while the West Course plays more traditional. No matter which you play, expect to see classic Ross touches in both, including raised greens and false fronts.
Where to Stay Belleview Inn