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Five Things to Know: Pelican Golf Club

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Five Things to Know: Pelican Golf Club

Host for The Match: Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy vs. Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth

    Written by Jeff Eisenband @JeffEisenband

    It’s Saturday Night Golf, starring…Tiger Woods…Rory McIlroy…Justin Thomas…Jordan Spieth…featuring…Pelican Golf Club!

    How to Watch Capital One's The Match: Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy vs. Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth

    In the seventh edition of “The Match,” four FedExCup champions will go to Belleair, Florida (not to be confused with The Fresh Prince of) in the Tampa Bay area for primetime golf under the lights. While Pelican Golf Club is a mainstay on the LPGA Tour, this will be the first time PGA TOUR players will put the Donald Ross original design to the test.

    The 12-hole exhibition will raise money for Hurricane Ian relief efforts.

    Donald Ross left his mar

    Getting Donald Ross to design a golf course in the 1920s was like getting The Rock to star in a film today. Ross could give a course instant legitimacy. But with Pelican, it’s not that simple.

    At the end of the 19th century, Henry B. Plant purchased several railroads in the Southeast and saw a real estate opportunity in the St. Petersburg suburb of Belleair. Plant established the Belleview Hotel in 1897 and built a six-hole winter golf course. After his death in 1899, his son Morton took over, and in 1915, he brought in Ross to craft 36 holes at the previous site of the six-hole course. The two 18-hole courses now make up Belleair Country Club.

    When Morton passed away in 1918, the Belleview Hotel was sold to John McEntee Bowman, founder of Bowman-Biltmore Hotels and the 36-hole Westchester Biltmore Country Club in 1922 (now Westchester Country Club). He asked Ross to return to Belleair to create an 18-hole course beside the Belleview-Biltmore Hotel. The course opened in 1925 and was at one point called Pelican Golf Club before being renamed Belleview Biltmore Golf Club.

    For the next nine decades, Ross’ design operated as a public course. In 2009, the hotel closed its doors, and the conversation turned to the future of the course. The Town of Belleair, paying $3.5 million, won the rights to it in 2013. Four years later, Dan Doyle Sr. and Dan Doyle Jr., the father-son co-founders of Tampa’s DEX Imaging, bought it for $3.8 million.

    The Doyles saw an opportunity to freshen up and revitalize an important piece of work. Beau Welling, a past associate of Tom Fazio, would do the redesign.

    Welling found little on-site or in Donald Ross archives regarding the creator’s original 1925 vision. Welling chose to focus on restoring the course to “Golden Age” qualities, shaping the contours of the fairways and greens in ways that would have made sense to Ross.

    “Donald Ross was known for having large greens with a lot of movement,” says Justin Sheehan, Pelican’s director of golf. “Although we have some small greens with a lot of movement, you talk to anybody, talk to the LPGA players, that's the thing with Pelican. It's pretty fair off the tee, but the defense is the size of the greens and the movement of the greens.”

    Sheehan estimates 15 of the 18 holes resemble the original Ross routing. The staff like to say that with modern irrigation, new grass and other features, the course is “inspired” by Ross.

    Welling also serves as a senior design consultant for TGR Design by Tiger Woods.

    It’s a fixture on the LPGA Tour

    Pelican Golf Club’s 2017 renovation did not dictate the future of the club. The future of the club, and its tournament aspirations, dictated the renovation of the course. “We met out here in a job trailer and it was just a mud pit,” Dan Doyle Jr. told Golfweek in 2020, recalling initial meetings with the LPGA. “There was nothing there. They took a big chance on us.”

    The LPGA’s history in Tampa Bay dates to the first tournament of the inaugural LPGA season, the 1950 Tampa Open at Palma Ceia Golf & Country Club. Ironically, it was won by amateur Polly Riley. The St. Petersburg Open would become Tampa Bay’s signature LPGA event, but after its final playing in 1989, there was no stand-alone LPGA event there for 30 seasons.

    The Pelican Women’s Championship changed that with its arrival in 2020. Sei Young Kim won. Nelly Korda followed with back-to-back victories in 2021 and 2022.

    “They wanted everybody to realize this is a club for everyone,” says Sheehan of the Doyle Family, which situated the women’s locker room in prime position, with a view overlooking the 18th hole. The men’s locker room, on the other hand, faces the parking lot.

    ‘The Lamborghini hole’ requires a steady nerve

    Pelican Golf Club requires just one forced carry over water, but it’s a famous one. The par-3 12th hole is roughly 150 yards and demands a clean tee shot into a sideways Biarritz green.

    In various ways, the hole takes inspiration from other iconic par 3s. With the left side of the green being slightly shorter and the right side being deceptively longer, its diagonal shape recalls the 12th hole at Augusta National. The layout on the ground, with players needing to walk all the way around the pond to get to the green, recalls No. 17 at TPC Sawgrass. And the atmosphere of the hole during the LPGA event, with grandstands surrounding the pin, could turn the hole into the LPGA’s version of No. 16 at TPC Scottsdale during the WM Phoenix Open.

    No. 12 at Pelican Golf Club is also the Lamborghini hole. During the LPGA’s Pelican Women’s Championship, anyone who makes a hole-in-one gets the racy car. In 2021, three players – Austin Ernst, Pavarisa Yoktuan and Su Oh – all made aces and earned two-year Lamborghini Huracàn leases, courtesy of Morgan Auto Group, a luxury retailer based in Tampa.

    No. 12 at Pelican became the first-ever LPGA Tour hole to get the featured hole treatment when it was given its own sole stream on Peacock for the 2021 event. For The Match, it will serve as No. 8, as the event routing will go 1-2-3-8-9-10-14-12-15-16-17-18.

    This assures the hole will provide drama during the second half of the match.

    The bright lights will be no problem

    For a course constructed on the west coast of Florida, just a short walk from the beach, Pelican Golf Club has a surprising inland feel. A handful of holes have ponds, but spectators will not find themselves trudging through surprise creeks or swamps. This was a necessary part of Pelican’s bid to host “The Match” in primetime.

    “The way the golf course is laid out, I would call it a parkland, especially the back nine,” says Sheehan. “It's pretty open. We have minimal rough, so it's got a really nice big open feel, which is why it's so good for a tournament. It's easier than most golf courses would be to put light trucks in place. We're not going through woods and marshes and tons of water.”

    Now a membership course, Pelican sees 100-110 players on its busiest days, Sheehan says. It’s mostly a walking course, keeping the surface in prime condition. Woods, McIlroy, Thomas and Spieth will ride, however, especially with Woods battling plantar fasciitis.

    Speaking of those four players, even with 133 PGA TOUR wins among them, they will not be immune to the challenges of Pelican thanks to the seeds planted by Ross.

    “The trouble is really the second shot and onward, the ability to hit your approach shot on the correct section of the green,” Sheehan says. “There's ample room off the tee, and even the holes that have sort of trouble off the tee, it’s kind of fair on the other side of the fairway, for the most part, but starting from the second shot, some of the greens are pretty large with a lot of slope. There's a few that are smaller, and if you get on the wrong side, or even miss the green on the wrong side, then the up-and-down becomes incredibly challenging.”

    Even more challenging: No. 14, which will play as No. 7 for this event, is usually a 520-yard par 5. Using a tee box on the 17th hole, positioned behind a pond, Pelican will add 90-100 yards to the hole, making it potentially difficult to reach the green in two.

    Blue blazers abound

    When the LPGA arrives at Pelican in 2023, it will do so with a new name: “The Annika driven by Gainbridge at Pelican.” Inspired in part by the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard in her adopted hometown of Orlando, Annika Sorenstam had been seeking a way to give back to the LPGA with her own signature event. In the Doyle Family, she found partners who share her vision for a premier LPGA Tour event that also makes a charitable impact, as a portion of proceeds will go toward the ANNIKA Foundation.

    Still 11 months out, the 2023 Annika is set to make history. With a prize pot going up to $3.25 million, it could have the highest purse on the LPGA Tour outside of majors and the CME Group Tour Championship. This is no surprise to those who know the Doyle Family.

    “What we'd love to turn this into is a tournament for the ladies that they come to every year,” Doyle Jr. told in 2021. “The only way I could equate it would be, you've got the Masters, and they play it in Augusta every year. We want this to be the women's version of the Masters. That would be, ‘Hey, we accomplished what we wanted.’”

    Pelican does have an Augusta National connection. The club’s Albatross Steakhouse displays the 1975 U.S. Amateur trophy won by Fred Ridley, won edged Keith Fergus 2 up, at Country Club of Virginia. Ridley, the chairman of Augusta National Golf Club, is a commercial real estate lawyer in the Tampa Bay area and a member at Pelican.

    Even before Pelican opened, Ridley was involved in everything from helping write the club’s by-laws to picking the course’s sand, crushed quartz from Arkansas. Pelican is also the first course to bring Latitude 36 Bermudagrass to the west coast of Florida. Furthering the Augusta National comparisons, Pelican members – men and women – can be found wearing distinctively blue blazers around the grounds during the Pelican Women’s Championship. Look out for the club’s signature hue in the crowd under the lights for “The Match.”

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