Biltmore Golf Course: Trying to unearth Donald Ross in South Florida

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

The Biltmore is one of Miami's most historic and prestigious hotels. They may not have the beach - but they do have a Donald Ross golf course. And this Florida vacation spot boasts an enormous swimming pool, tennis, world-class spa, fine dining and more.

Bridges at Biltmore, Miami
Bridges take Biltmore golfers over the Coral Gables Waterway.
Bridges at Biltmore, MiamiBiltmore Golf CourseNo. 18 at Biltmore Golf CourseThe Biltmore Hotel swimming pool
If you go

CORAL GABLES, Fla. - The Biltmore is one of the Miami area's most luxurious, historic and prestigious hotels. True, you won't see hunks and honeys frolicking in skimpy suits here, but for golfers that's no big deal.

"We don't have the ocean here, which is OK," said Jason Epstein, the head professional at the Biltmore's golf course. "The ocean is overrated. We've got a Donald Ross golf course."

That they do, and they're doing everything they can to bring it into high relief.

Like many Ross tracks, the Biltmore layout, built in 1930, lost much of the master's imprint over the years, through storms, neglect and the biggest destroyer: time. Though long in the hands of the well-heeled city of Coral Gables, the course didn't get much investment and fell into disrepair (city councils don't revere Ross like many golfers do).

The Biltmore took over management several years ago and has been slowly bringing Mr. Ross back to life, spending its own money on the renaissance. A recent $1.5 million renovation saw the unsightly St. Augustine rough grass replaced with Bermuda and many of the more than 200 (!) bunkers filled in.

This is, after all, a resort course, and pace of play is always important.

There is still a ways to go - the greens have some patchy areas, the tee boxes could use some work and the driving range and practice areas are nothing special - but the Biltmore is promising to spend what it takes to restore the course's glory.

"Over the years, a lot of Donald Ross golf courses are no longer Donald Rosses," Epstein said. "This golf course still has some of Donald Ross in it, and one of our goals as a company is to maintain the integrity and take steps to get us back to the tradition and spirit of Ross.

"Our goal is not to put on Band-Aids. Our goal is to build a foundation from the bottom floor up."

Epstein said the hotel plans to redo all 18 greens and replace the existing bridges over the Coral Gables Waterway, which runs through the course on its way to Coconut Grove and, eventually, the Atlantic.

The course has gotten back some of its character, and won fans in high places. Will Smith played here when he was in town, the Biltmore is one of President Bill Clinton's favorite courses.

"Clinton knows a lot about golf history," Epstein said. "And he's a good golfer. He may take 200 shots a round - yes, he likes mulligans - but he's a good golfer."

It's also a course Babe Ruth played, as did Gene Sarazen and other south Florida stars.

The Biltmore is deceptively difficult, thanks in part to Ross' trademark small greens, which can be notoriously hard to hit and hold. They don't have the radical drop-offs of many Rosses, but you can find yourself in trouble if you hit to the wrong area.

"That's Ross - the only place you can miss and be OK is the front [of the green]," Epstein said. "The slope around the greens can be harsh. ... There are some severe misses here."

The greens also have Ross' typical false fronts, though they aren't shaved down like many, par for a resort course hosting 40,000 to 45,000 rounds a year.

"One of our strengths is, for an average golfer it's very fair," Epstein said. "It's got ample room for you to miss a shot and still be ok, but for good players, it's a very difficult golf course.

"At the Junior Orange Bowl Championship, one of the more prestigious junior tournaments in the world, four- to six-under usually wins it, even when Tiger Woods and Sergio Garcia played. It really has a lot of character in that sense."

Biltmore Golf Course: The verdict

The Biltmore is a pleasant day on the course, more so for Ross fans. It's not an especially difficult course, especially off the tee, and especially if you don't miss greens in the wrong places.

It is not in tip-top shape at the moment, but if the Biltmore follows through with its stated upgrade plans, it will be a particularly memorable Donald Ross experience.

Biltmore accommodations

The Biltmore Hotel rises majestically over a tony Coral Gables neighborhood, with views of the Miami skyline, the golf course and tropical gardens.

It's a beautiful, old-world-elegant hotel (they still serve afternoon tea) that has hosted presidents Clinton and George Bush, Prince Albert of Monaco and the Dalai Lama along with the usual litany of Hollywood celebrities. Several movies have been shot at the hotel.

The 150-acre grounds are dotted with palm and banyan trees, gardens, pools, lakes and waterfalls. The swimming pool is one of the largest in the world. There's a tennis center, fitness center and world-class spa. There are 276 rooms (including 133 suites); mine was the only hotel room I've ever had with a hall.

Restaurant tip

The Biltmore's Palme d'Or is one of the best restaurants in south Florida.

Fast Fact

President Clinton hosted 34 Western Hemisphere heads of the state at the Biltmore at the 1994 Summit of the Americas.

Tim McDonaldTim McDonald, Contributor

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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