The Legendary Sara Bay Country Club

By | December 19, 2012

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sara-bay-country-clubThe opening of the Whitfield Estates Country Club (now Sara Bay) during the peak of the 1920s Florida Land Boom marked a new era in the sporting and social life of this region.  The club was the centerpiece for Whitfield Estates, one of the most ambitious development ventures of that era.  As one of the oldest country clubs in Florida, Sara Bay has served as a mecca for the world’s greatest sports figures and social elite, including the Ringlings, Powel Crosley Jr., Esther Williams, Bob Hope, Bobby Jones, and Babe Ruth.

The golf course was designed by “the dean of golf course architects,” Donald Ross, who is credited with the plans for approximately 400 courses throughout the U.S. and Europe, including the famous Pinehurst No. 2.  Upon its completion, Ross stated he “… had accomplished as much in the achievement in the Whitfield Estates course as any of his master works throughout America and Europe.”

The golf course opened to the public in December 1925 with green’s fee of $2 per day.  In a brilliant plan to market the development, illustrious golfers Bobby Jones, who was also an assistant sales manager for Whitfield Estates, and Tommy Armour, the club’s first professional, played in tournaments at the club that featured one of the greatest galaxies of golf stars ever assembled.  Participants included French Open and Open Championship winner Arnaud Massy, British Open champion Archie Compston, U.S. Open champion Johnny Farrell, and PGA champions Gene Sarazen, Leo Diegel, and Jim Barnes.

The biggest spectacle of the club’s opening season occurred on February 28, 1926 when the Whitfield course became the scene for one of the greatest golfing classic in the history of golf, as Bobby Jones, U.S. amateur champion, played the leading pro and current PGA champion Walter Hagen. So important was this event that, while 750 people paid $3.30 admission to witness the match, several hundred more crashed the gates to get in. The match received worldwide coverage (including Time magazine) and was detailed in both Jones’s and Hagen’s autobiographies.

Plans for another big season the following year fizzled with the unexpected crash of the Florida Land Boom, followed by the Great Depression.  Although the clubhouse remained open, unfavorable financial conditions forced the golf course to close.  Nevertheless, the club achieved some national notoriety when, in 1936, Babe Ruth, Dizzy Dean, and other noted major league baseball figures had lunch at the Whitfield club while participating in a golf tournament at the nearby Bobby Jones course.

In 1937, a group of prominent residents who believed Sarasota needed a first class country club formed a syndicate and purchased the Whitfield country club.  After several months of reconditioning, the golf course reopened and quickly ascended back into the national limelight.

In 1940 and 41, the club co-hosted with Bobby Jones Golf Course, the 3rd and 4th annual Seniors’ PGA Championship, marking the first time that tournament was not played in Augusta, Georgia.  Several former champions, Jim Barnes, Jack Burke Sr., and Jock Hutchison were among the featured golfers.  From 1952 to 1956, when women’s professional golf was in its infancy, the club (then named Sarasota Bay Country Club) hosted the Sarasota Open of the LPGA.  Participants included all the leading female golfers of that era, including Olympic gold medalist Babe Zaharias, Patty Berg, Louise Suggs, Betty Rawls, and sisters Marlene and Alice Bauer who lived on Whitfield Avenue and were members of the club.

Eighty six years after legendary golfers Tommy Armour and Bobby Jones launched the Whitfield Estates Country Club into the national spotlight, Sara Bay Country Club remains one of the most distinguished clubs in the region.  Although the magnitude of notoriety of its opening season was never recaptured, its significance remains legendary in the history books of golf.  In 1960, reflecting on his first job as a pro at the Whitfield Estates Country Club in an interview for Golf Magazine, Tommy Armour commented “…it was glorious, for I played golf every day for five months with Bobby Jones…we picked up pointers from one another. It helped both our games.”  Both golfers went on to experience greater fame after their experience together at Whitfield Estates.

The original section of the clubhouse that includes the entrance tower and grand period ballroom has the distinction of being the oldest surviving clubhouse built for a country club on the west coast of Florida.  In 2006, an extensive renovation to the golf course re-established the glory of the original Donald Ross design.

More information on the club, including membership, can be found at

Courtesy of Sarasota History Alive!

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