Brian Silva-restored Biltmore Golf Course reopens near Miami

The 18th Green at BiltmoreCORAL GABLES, Fla. - Sometimes it pays to have spent 80-odd years as a muni.

Designed by Donald Ross in 1925, the Biltmore Golf Course served the Miami area for decades as both stellar municipal track and playground to a parade of sporting celebrities, from Babe Ruth to Bobby Jones to Johnny Weismuller to Tiger Woods.

The course fell into disrepair late in the 20th century. In this case, however, it was better to have been neglected than irretrievably altered. Thanks to architect Brian Silva, whose comprehensive restoration of the course was unveiled this winter, the Biltmore GC has again joined the ranks of America’s premier resort tracks. 

“That’s the irony: If the Biltmore were a private club, the course would surely have been changed dramatically through the years — and probably not for the better,” said Silva, whose extensive Ross-restoration portfolio includes Minnesota’s Interlachen CC, site of June’s U.S. Women’s Open. “As it happened, the Biltmore was treated as any other underfunded muni would have been treated in tough times — it was simply left alone. This neglect was a blessing because the property was not planted with a forest of intrusive trees, and some of the most spectacular fairway bunkering Donald Ross ever created was merely allowed to grass over.

Biltmore“The restoration of those bunkers was straightforward and critical to our restoration plans. When you combine them with 18 fully refurbished greens complexes and state-of-the-art turf conditions, the Biltmore has never looked or played so well.”

Today the Biltmore GC is operated, not by the city, but by the Biltmore Hotel itself, opened in 1926 as part of the renowned Biltmore chain by visionary hotelier George Merrick. The towering Schultze and Weaver-designed hotel remains a National Historic Landmark.

Recent restoration of the hotel was closely followed by that of the golf course, under Silva’s direction. Only the original fairway corridors have been retained; all the greens, tees and bunkers have been reconstructed and grassed to state-of-the-art standards. The par-71 layout has also been stretched to 6,742 yards.

“Resuscitating George Merrick’s original vision for this entire property has been our goal all along. It’s reason we’ve spent so much time and money on restoration,” explained Dennis Doucette, general manager of the Biltmore Hotel. “This is the only historic landmark hotel in the state of Florida. Everything we’ve done here is related to bringing back the historic nature of the property. What Brian Silva brought back was the Donald Ross authenticity. Thanks to Brian, the golf course now has the same historical integrity the hotel property has.”

Silva, principal of Dover, N.H.-based Brian Silva Design (, is one of golf’s most trusted interpreters of vintage course design. His outsized Ross portfolio includes dozens of classics, among them Augusta Country Club, neighbor to Augusta National; fabled Seminole Golf Club, just up the Florida coast from Coral Gables in North Palm Beach; Brookside Country Club in Canton, Ohio, named Golf Digest’s Best New Remodel in 2006; and Biltmore Forest Country Club in Asheville, N.C., which Silva prepared for the 1999 U.S. Women’s Amateur.

The Biltmore GC boasts a glossy golf history the equal of any course in the South. The complex originally featured two Ross-designed 18s. Indeed, that these 36 holes were wrapped around a glamorous hotel (so close to downtown Miami) made the Biltmore an ideal celebrity magnet and tournament venue.

The historic Biltmore HotelIn 1926, Bobby Jones joined Tommy Armour, Leo Diegel and Gene Sarazen in a golf exhibition at the Biltmore as part of the resort’s lavish, three-day “Fiesta of the American Tropics” tourney. Babe Ruth would tee it up here in 1930 with Al Smith, the former governor of New York and presidential aspirant. Actual president Bill Clinton has since played the course several times. [Before he was Tarzan, Johnny Weissmuller was a swimming teacher and broke a world record at the Biltmore pool. Weissmuller was fired for running naked through the hotel one night; his female fans put up such a fuss, hotel management hired him back.

In 1931, the $10,000 Miami-Biltmore-Coral Gables Open, the richest tournament in golf at the time, attracted the game’s biggest names: Walter Hagen, Paul Runyan, Ralph Guldahl, “Wild” Bill Mehlhorn, reigning U.S. Open champion Billy Burke and Sarazen, who would capture the Biltmore event a record four times. Starting in 1964, The Biltmore has annually played host to the Junior Orange Bowl International Golf Championship, a proving ground for dozens of would-be PGA Tour stars, from Mark Calcavecchia to Tiger Woods to Camilo Villegas.

In 1945, the property was cleaved in two — 18 holes remained under the city’s control, while the other 18 was sold and recast as the private Riviera Country Club (where, as it happened, Silva performed a thorough Ross restoration in late 1990s). In the 1980s, funding cutbacks slowly transformed the once proud Biltmore course into a golf archeologist’s dream.

“The course was terribly rundown when I first visited, but the bones were still there,” Silva explained. “These fairway bunkers were a real find. The berms that Ross created behind them were still there — and they are extraordinarily high, meaning 1) these fairway bunkers we’ve refurbished provide for very deep and menacing hazards; and 2) because this is Florida, they also provide dramatic relief on the landscape.

“This sort of design touch doesn’t usually survive. Because Biltmore had been a muni, they did.”

A greenside bunker at BiltmoreSilva cites these fairway bunkers as the keys to some of The Biltmore’s best holes, such as the par-5 1st — a double dogleg in the finest sense, where the bunkers (not lines of trees) guide the golfer down a twisting, turning corridor to a classic green setting. The 4th — what the architect calls “a typically engaging, vintage-era, shortish par-4” — is another example of how Ross’ random-style bunkering not only draws the golfer through the hole but provides strategic hazards to players who hit it 300 yards and those who hit it 150.

The long par-4 17th plays along the Coral Gables Waterway, a canal built in the 1920s to provide hotel guests access to Biscayne Bay via gondolas manned by actual Venetians. Today it’s once again home to the putting surface Ross designed, an epic green fully 50 yards long and perched at water’s edge. The beautiful par-3 12th plays across the same canal to a plateau green of unusual height and dimensions.

“The 12th features a sort of appendage that juts out and creates a single very intriguing pin placement,” Silva explains. “A half dozen other greens at Biltmore have this same peculiar lobe feature. The one at 12 juts out back left and is almost rectangular in shape. You see a lot of these on Ross plans, but very few were built or survive to the modern day. It’s just another example of what had been preserved here, mainly through benign neglect.”

Rare in this day and age, the Biltmore is a core golf course with no interior housing. Silva credits the expansive site — a full 140 acres, an impressive parcel given the Biltmore’s proximity to Miami — with his ability to reinstate the fairway widths to their original dimensions. Silva also rerouted the golf cart paths to the outside perimeter of the fairway bunkers, broadening the field of play and creating more strategic options. 


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