Nick Bonfield jets off to South Florida to savour the grand Biltmore Hotel and its immaculate Donald Ross golf course
Golf In Miami - Biltmore Golf Club
Not many will be aware of Coral Gables, for the city of Miami attracts the lion’s share of tourists heading to the south-east corner of Florida.
But this charming locale – which is a 20-minute drive from South Beach and has a population of just over 50,000 – offers a more tranquil contrast to the hedonistic delights of its near-neighbour.
The area is characterised by banyan trees, pastel-coloured houses and a general ambience of affluence, which put me immediately into holiday mode.
At the heart of Coral Gables lies a resort that emanates history and provides everything any reveller could possibly wish for in terms of relaxation, leisure, gastronomy and comfort.
The Biltmore Hotel is a storied complex that has welcomed American presidents and played host to Miami socialites since opening its doors in 1926.
You’d class the architecture as Mediterranean in style, as evidenced by the giant Moorish bell tower – a replica of the Giralda in Seville – that watches over this lavish Floridian resort from its central station.
It’s hard not to be struck by the sheer scale and opulence of the place.
Everything is stylishly appointed and it’s clear that no expense has been spared when it comes to those little touches that transform good hotels into five-star ones.
The luxury feel pervades all corners of this grand complex, from the pool, rooms and spa to the excellent golf offering.
After numerous delicious cocktails on my first night and a subsequent morning mimosa – it was the waiter’s idea, I’ll have you know – I headed to the recently renovated tuition area for a lesson with Jon McLean, who, it transpired, was roommates with Rickie Fowler at Oklahoma State University.
What he didn’t do was answer my prying questions on Fowler’s behaviour at university; what he did do was provide expert tuition using state-of-the-art technology that’s now synonymous with The Biltmore’s practice offering.
Jon is son of Jim McLean – a former tour player, distinguished instructor and one of Golf Digest’s Top 50 Best Teachers In America. His golf school – now at The Biltmore – has produced Major Championship winners since opening its doors in 1991.
The practice facilities here are impressive and investment continues to be made in order to keep The Biltmore near the vanguard of golf tuition.
The Best is Yet to Come
From the range, it’s just a short ride to the 1st tee – mind you, I had to divert to dodge a particularly large iguana on the way.
South Florida is beautiful and exotic and there are constant reminders of this everywhere you look.
Indeed, a manatee popped up to watch my unsuccessful par putt on the 7th green.
You probably wouldn’t describe the course at The Biltmore as a world-beater, but there’s plenty to get excited about, not least the £1.9 million renovation project that started in July and will conclude before the end of the year.
The aim is to restore the course to the original Donald Ross blueprint, including the addition of new bunkers and Bermuda grass on the tees, fairways and greens.
The course length will be extended to more than 7,100 yards to provide a Championship-standard test (although there are various teeing options to cater for all abilities) and a challenging signature hole will be created.
These changes should enhance a golf course that already has much going for it.
Yes, some of the holes are fairly similar and it perhaps lacks the visual ‘wow’ factor, but the conditioning is superb – I honestly can’t remember putting on truer greens.
Water comes into play on many holes to create genuine excitement, the doglegs demand shrewd strategy and risk-reward elements abound.
The opening hole is a fairly gentle par 5 demanding an accurate drive through a narrow channel to a fairway flanked on the left by a massive banyan tree.
If you’re able to produce a gentle fade, though, the green is very much in reach.
The putting surfaces are slick and slopey and often have run-off areas, so it’s prudent to keep yourself below the hole where possible.
And, if you’re going to miss the greens, make sure you miss in the right places!
The first four holes do present a good opportunity to get under the card, but you’ll need to be on form with the putter and precise with your wedges to score well.
The 5th, 6th and 7th are then difficult and in different ways, requiring a combination of accuracy, length and pragmatism.
The par-4 7th is one of the standout holes, thanks mainly to the lake that sits between fairway and tee.
You can play safe and go round the outside or take on the carry of 240 yards or so.
I chose the latter option and failed to clear the drink, but where’s the fun in laying up, eh?
A mid-length par 3 and sharp dogleg left round off the front nine.
There are numerous good holes on the inward nine, but two deserve special mention.
The par-5 14th again gives you much to ponder, especially if you get a decent drive away.
The green sits above the level of the fairway and a pond lurks ominously in front of the putting surface, leading to a difficult decision.
Naturally, I decided to reject the percentage play once more and found the water, but in my defence, the green has a steep run-off area at the front, so the third shot isn’t easy even if you do choose to lay up.
The penultimate hole also features water, which flanks the left side of the fairway before cutting across in front of the green.
The course at The Biltmore really does tick a lot of boxes.
Challenging holes are interspersed with birdie opportunities, and water creates a real sense of drama on numerous holes.
What’s more, it’s very difficult to convey the feeling of freedom and relaxation you get from playing golf under the Floridian sun.
Granted, Miami is much further away than the likes of Spain and the Algarve, but it really should feature in your next holiday planning discussions.
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