NAPLES, Fla. – The 87-year-old golf course at The Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club isn't in need of some renovations or an upgrade. Like many other properties in Old Naples, it needs a complete makeover.
"It's like what a lot of people do in Naples – they tear down the house and start over again," said Henry B. Watkins III, whose family has owned the course since 1946 and built the accompanying hotel the same year. "That's basically what we're doing. We're tearing down the house."
That started April 11 in a process that will take up to five months to complete, and around eight before it reopens, with a target date of Christmas Day. The golf course renovation will be $4.5 million, with another $4.5 million in new golf carts, maintenance equipment, and other items.
Over seven decades, the "Beach Club" as it's known in Southwest Florida has hosted clients from its hotel across the street, countless city of Naples and Collier County amateur tournaments, the South Florida PGA Open, the Florida State Senior Open, the LPGA Tour's first foray into Southwest Florida in the 1960s, an amputee golf championship, the International Junior Classic – and one time a certain legendary golfer named Jack Nicklaus, who coincidentally will have a role in the redesign.
In the past two decades, the Watkins family – Henry III and his brother Michael share ownership – has pumped money into building the spa, meeting rooms, pro shop and Broadwell's restaurant on the east side of Gulf Shore Boulevard, and redoing the hotel's lobby, dining rooms, pool, and the rooms themselves.
But with little being done to the golf course as time has gone on, it has more than wasted away.
John Sanford, the golf course architect picked to do the project, rode around with Watkins, 64, looking at the course, and may have put it best.
"Just as your furniture and fixtures in your hotel, every element of the golf course has a useful life," he told Watkins. "I'll be real honest with you. Every element of your golf course is well past its useful life."
One of Sanford's interests when he's redoing an old course like the Beach Club's is to try to go back as far as possible into the course's history. Fortunately, that impetus led to the Watkinses finding out its original architect.
A Feb. 14, 1936 article in the Naples Herald was discovered at the Collier County Museum. In it, James Muirden, a golf course superintendent from Aberdeen, Scotland, is credited with the original design, and T.R. Frederick oversaw the construction. Allen Joslin and his wife Lois, an heir to the Jergens lotion fortune, built the golf course in 1929 and the Beach Club across the street. Muirden worked at the Cincinnati course where Joslin was a member.
Years later, there was a man named Henry Watkins Sr. who was the owner of Kilgore Manufacturing in Westerville, Ohio, that made toy cap pistols. But during World War II, the government requisitioned that the company manufacture munitions, according to his grandson. Watkins ended up visiting his daughter, who was stationed in nurses' training in Tampa, and some friends from Ohio who were in Naples talked him into coming down to fish and play golf.
After the war, Watkins had an offer to sell the Kilgore company, and retired at 54. The Naples Company, owned by the Crayton family, was for sale, and Watkins and some other Ohioans bought it. In addition to a ton of undeveloped land, the deal included the original hotel, which was built in the 1880s next to the Naples Pier and sat 1 1/2 miles south of the current hotel site – and a lease for the golf course.
Joslin had died several years earlier, and the condition of the course had slipped. Watkins made an offer to Joslin's family to buy the course, so then the family owned the old hotel, the Beach Club, and the golf course in 1946. From there, Watkins turned the Beach Club site into what is now the Naples Beach Hotel.
"It's very important to our family," Watkins III said.
Besides a renovation by architect Ron Garl in the 1980s, not much else on the golf course has been touched – at least to much of a degree. Hurricane Andrew may have been the biggest renovator, knocking out 400 trees in 1992, and resulting in a $13 million renovation to the property that included the course.
Really, though, that had been just about it.
"We really haven't touched the golf course," Watkins III said.
Over the years, as the course's conditions waned, it lost such events as the South Florida PGA Open and the Florida State Senior Open Championship.
It got to the point that when General Manager Jason Parsons was greeting hotel guests in the mornings, he noticed many had their golf clubs packed in their cars. They were going somewhere else to play.
"We know that's going to happen (regardless of the renovation)," Watkins said. "What we want is instead of them leaving the property four out of five days, we'd like them to stay maybe three out of five. And maybe we could have people who are staying at the (Naples Grande Beach Resort) or the Ritz-Carltons or the other resorts come and play."
THE NICKLAUS EFFECT
Sixty-five years ago, an 11-year-old kid was on vacation and ended up playing golf with his dad at the Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club. He shot a 37, the first time he broke 40 for nine holes.
Fast forward to present day, and now Jack Nicklaus, winner of a record 18 major golf championships, is a consultant for the golf course's redesign.
Nicklaus' involvement is a twist of fate.
"That was such a neat kind of coincidence," Sanford said.
Sanford and Nicklaus had worked together on Trump Links at Ferry Point, a public course in the Bronx that opened a year ago. Sanford also had been in talks with Watkins about the Beach Club project. They hadn't met yet, but Watkins and his wife happened to be up in the Hamptons at the time of the Trump course grand opening, and Sanford invited them to come. Watkins met with Sanford and Nicklaus, and the Beach Club came up.
"(Sanford) said they'd like for you to be involved with the project," Nicklaus said in January when his signature course in Naples, Bear's Paw, reopened after its own renovation. "They knew that's where I broke 40 for the first time. ... I sort of had a feeling toward it."
When Nicklaus and Sanford came to take a look at the Beach Club in September, and Watkins mentioned Nicklaus' connection to the golf course, Scott Tolley, Nicklaus' vice president of corporate communications, talked with the Jack Nicklaus Museum about the feat. By the time the site visit was over, the museum had discovered the score card from that round.
"It was pretty amazing," Watkins said.
"Finding out Jack's history there, and that piquing his interest, was such a neat thing for everybody," Sanford said.
The Beach Club, an iconic course in Southwest Florida, indeed has its own connection to one of the most iconic golfers ever. One that will carry over with his involvement in the course's redesign.
This article was written by Greg Hardwig from Naples Daily News, Fla. and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.