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South Florida Facelifts

After completing significant makeovers, the Biltmore and Fairmont Turnberry Isle now appeal to a new generation of visitors to the Miami area

By: Brian McCallen

Appeared in April 2008 LINKS

Everything old is new again in the Sunshine State, a golf peninsula that continues to reinvent itself and renew its perennial appeal to winter-weary visitors. Florida’s nip-and-tuck trend is especially strong around Miami, a city in which youth and beauty are obsessions. Against this backdrop, two stalwarts from different eras—the Biltmore Coral Gables, a glamorous icon from the Roaring Twenties, and the Fairmont Turnberry Isle Resort & Club, which twinkled during the disco era—have reinvented themselves as destination resorts. 

Excavating a Ross
The Biltmore, centerpiece of Coral Gables on the outskirts of Miami, was long overdue for a facelift. Dating from 1926, this brilliant evocation of the Mediterranean Revival style is a rare luxury getaway within a major metropolitan area. In addition to the nation’s largest hotel pool, the resort offers a spa and fitness center with more toned bodies per square foot than any similar South Florida facility.

Sunday brunch is served in a loggia with tables set around a fountain in a courtyard, while Palme d’Or—rated in the “extraordinary to perfection” bracket of the 2008 Zagat Survey—offers a continental dining experience nonpareil. The hotel’s 276 guest rooms, including the Everglades Suite once favored by Al Capone, were refurbished in the late 1990s.

The resort then turned its attention to the tired, worn Donald Ross-designed course. Working from original routing plans, aerial photos and Ross’ notes, Brian Silva set about the task of rediscovering the Biltmore Golf Course. Rather than attempt a slavish imitation of the original, Silva adapted the layout for the modern game, describing his handiwork as a “sympathetic restoration” of a layout that was a big hit in its day.

In 1926 Bobby Jones and Gene Sarazen played an exhibition. Four years later the Miami-Biltmore Open attracted top players including Sarazen and Walter Hagen. However, by the time a 16-year-old Tiger Woods captured the 1991 Orange Bowl Junior International at the resort, the course had deteriorated badly.

Retaining the routing, Silva widened fairways to their original dimensions to create more strategic options. The holes, flanked by palms, live oaks and banyan trees, invite the wind from all vectors.

The open-entry greens, which had shrunk and lost much of their character, were enlarged to their original dimensions. Slightly above fairway level with subtle undulations, the putting surfaces are framed by rolling mounds and gentle swales. Steep drop-offs at a few holes will penalize careless shots.

Most impressive are the bunkers. Silva identified long-abandoned or grassed-over bunkers, excavated them to their original depth and created a wavy-edged, filigreed look along the top edges.

“The fairway bunkers pull you through this golf course in a way that’s outstanding,” Silva explains. “Ross designed the fairways to subtly twist and turn around the bunkers, even on the straightaway holes.”

The strength of the 6,742-yard course is its superb collection of par 4s. They range from drive-and-pitch gems to dangerous holes like the 450-yard 17th, which calls for a solid drive followed by an unerring approach over water to a bulk-headed green. The 17th is one of several holes crossed by the Coral Gables Waterway, a canal built in the 1920s to provide guests access to Biscayne Bay. (Italian gondolas manned by gondoliers imported from Venice once plied the waterway.) Several free-span bridges were installed prior to the layout’s reopening last November to enable players to more easily traverse the course. They also provide passage for the large iguanas that sun themselves on the banks of the canal, aptly capturing the relaxed atmosphere at this South Florida getaway.

‘An old flame’
Turnberry Isle was the brainchild of Don Soffer, a shopping-mall mogul who bought 785 acres of swampland in Dade County north of Miami, sketched a vision for a resort community on a napkin, and hired Robert Trent Jones Sr. to build the South course and his son Rees for the sportier North. When the resort debuted in 1970, the director of golf was Julius Boros, the happy-go-lucky pro who liked to spin-cast for bass in the man-made lagoons.

Soffer sold the resort in 1993. But as if attracted to an old flame he never got over, Soffer, 75, reacquired the property in 2005. After a $100 million transformation, including a $30 million makeover of the two courses, the 392-room Mediterranean-themed property reopened under the Fairmont flag in December 2006. 

In his second try, Soffer did away with the dead-flat designs the pere-fils Joneses had built. He brought in truckloads of fill to create contours and spent more than $100,000 in landscaping for each hole of the former South (now the Soffer course) to create a “tropical Augusta” look with tall, swaying palms.

Then there are the water touches: A brook and thundering waterfall greet players at the 1st hole of the South. At the 18th, a 64-foot faux-rock waterfall—one of the largest and most expensive cascades ever built—near the green recirculates more than 20,000 gallons of water per minute.

But for all the theme-park touches, Soffer and design consultant Ray Floyd came up with a 7,047-yard layout that is a first-class test of precision and course management. Make no mistake: Soffer made all the major design decisions. Jones’ routing is intact and Floyd assisted, but there isn’t a single hole that the owner didn’t transform.

“This is not a ‘grip it and rip it’ course,” Soffer says. “John Daly would not have a very good time here.” In addition to well-placed drives, the key is hitting approach shots that hold the slick, undulating greens.
 
Soffer exercised restraint on the North (now called Miller), which reopened last summer. The layout has plenty of water in play, notably at Lake Julius, where pink flamingos nest on a man-made island. The 6,417-yard layout will not give average duffers heartburn, but neither is it a pushover.

If the courses bear little resemblance to the originals, neither does the resort itself. The guest rooms, in shades of butterscotch, taupe and chocolate brown, are highlighted by natural textiles, wood furnishings and oversize baths with soaking tubs. Each room has a furnished terrace or balcony.

On the dining side, Bourbon Steak marks the first South Florida venture by culinary star Michael Mina. Innovative regional cuisine is featured at Cascata Grille, its outdoor seating area overlooking fairways and waterfalls.

Turnberry Isle’s new recreation area features a lagoon-style pool, lazy river, 180-foot waterslide and a 35-foot waterfall along with poolside dining. Willow Stream Spa offers pampering while the Ocean Club, fronting a gorgeous stretch of Atlantic beach, is five minutes from the hotel.

Long gone are the playboy tennis pros and disco-happy celebrities. In their place is a family-oriented Northeast crowd, the golfers among them eager to tackle a pair of “back to the future” courses. 

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