(Updated November, 2023)
BELLEAIR, Fla. - In the place where it all began for the LPGA Tour, one ambitious golf club continues to push the world's foremost women's golf organization to the next level.
The club is Pelican Golf Club - simply "The Pelican," for those in the know - and it hosts THE ANNIKA Driven by Gainbridge at Pelican. The Doyle family, whose DEX Imaging is one of the region's foremost purveyors of business equipment, bought the course, then called Belleview Biltmore Golf Club, in 2017 and subsequently turned it from a scruffy town-owned facility into one of the Florida's most exclusive private clubs.
"What we'd love to turn this into is a tournament for the ladies that they come to every year," said Dan Doyle, Jr., who, along with his father, Dan Sr., owns Pelican Golf Club. "The only way I could equate it would be you've got the Masters and they play it at Augusta every year. We want this to be the women's version of the Masters."
While some might have dismissed this idea as a pipe-dream, there are an awful lot of factors in the club's favor. The biggest: a recent ripple in the LPGA Tour schedule: The Chevron Championship's move from California to Houston in 2023.
Anyone who knows anything about the Masters knows that that element - the golf course itself - is crucial to the history and prestige of the tournament. The Masters' mystique is inextricable from that of Augusta National Golf Club. Though several latter-day architects have made their own adjustments, Alister MacKenzie's original design there, inspired by that of The Old Course at St. Andrews, paved the way for decades' worth of indelible memories and shots. The course itself has played a major role alongside individual players; golfers who have never seen the course in person nevertheless feel like they know the course by heart.
Pelican Golf Club's design history is also varied. The original Belleview Biltmore was laid out by Donald Ross in the 20s, and was actually known early on by its current name. After purchasing the course, the Doyles hired Beau Welling, a former Tom Fazio associate who now partners with Tiger Woods in the design business while also doing work under his own imprimatur, to reimagine the course.
It's easy to take Pelican Golf Club's Masters-of-women's-golf ambitions literally, as the course is now a Florida homage to Augusta National. Welling kept much of Ross' original routing, but reconfigured and styled it in a way that now constantly invokes that famous course some 450 miles north.
Year-round lush green turf - thanks both to greenkeeper Terry Kennelly and dozens of acres of Latitude 36 Bermuda, which holds its color better than other Bermuda cultivars while also being game for firm-and-fast preparation - spreads through wide corridors, with most fairways on the more intimate, spiral-shaped front nine measuring more than 40 yards across. The back nine, set on the clubhouse side of Poinsettia Road, unfolds in grander fashion, with some of its landing areas closer to 60 yards wide in places.
Because of Welling's generosity off the tee, Pelican Golf Club does what the best of golf's old school did: make things trickier as the golfer nears the hole. LPGA Tour stars and mid-handicap members alike will hit most fairways, but positioning a ball on the wrong half will complicate matters, thanks to another Augusta trait: large, undulating greens.
"I think the greatest challenge is the greens," said veteran pro, commentator and club member Gary Koch of the course. Eight-time LPGA Tour winner and Tampa-area local Brittany Lincicome refers to some of the contours as "good [buried] elephants, but they're elephants."
"To play well at Pelican, you need to be able to place the ball strategically on the greens," said, GolfPass star instructor Nathalie Sheehan, who teaches out of the club and whose husband, Justin, is its director of golf. "Solid iron play paired with a hot putter will be keys to success."
Whereas Augusta National's greens are known primarily for broad, sweeping contours, Welling mixed in plenty of more intimate, subtle rolls, knobs and tiers at Pelican's putting surfaces, too, giving them their own flavor.
The excitement found on the greens helps make The Pelican a second-shot golf course through-and-through. When those approaches go awry, chances are they'll end up well below the surfaces of Pelican Golf Club's mostly convex greens, either in short-grass chipping areas or one of the clamshell-shaped bunkers outfitted with the super-porous Better Billy system and filled with bright-white, crushed-quartz sand.
Pelican Golf Club's ties to Augusta National go beyond the course design. Fred Ridley, Augusta National's current chairman, is a member of the club and has been said to be influential in its development. Club members wear jackets a distinctive shade of blue in the club's formal dining space and at club events. All golf is played on foot with caddies in tow.
We want this to be the women's version of the Masters.
But there are ways in which the club consciously diverges from its presumptive lodestar, including an embrace of women's golf from its outset. One example: the women's locker room is both larger than the men's and more centrally-located within the clubhouse, with a commanding view of the 18th green.
Avid golf fans and students of architecture will enjoy watching the LPGA Tour's best tee it up in THE ANNIKA. And who knows - in a few years, we may all feel the satisfaction of getting in on the ground floor of one of the game's biggest events.
Pelican Golf Club: Hole-by-hole guide
Hole 1 - par 4, 312 yards (328)
This is a very mild opener, like a first-pitch fastball over the heart of the plate. A wide fairway greets players, who will want to attack with a wood, then a wedge. Wandering too far away from the preferred left side off the tee can mean a tree complicates the approach from the right, but the majority of the field should salivate over makeable birdie putts here.
Hole 2 - par 4, 389 yards (484)
This is the first of several long par 4s where Welling was unafraid to parlay considerable length with one of the course’s tougher greens. This one sits above the landing area and falls off on all sides. Several rounds will start birdie-bogey as a result.
Hole 3 - par 3, 182 yards (198)
The first of a nicely varied set of par threes, this one drifts a few feet downhill, just enough to make judging the shot a little complicated. Hole locations here will call for successively bigger left-to-right shots as they wander back in a green that wraps around two front-right bunkers.
Hole 4 - par 4, 408 yards (461)
Another long par 4 means a third consecutive long-club approach. The one plays straightaway down the narrowest fairway on the course to a rectangular green with a "thumbprint" depression at the front and a slight gathering slope at the back. A helping wind could make a run-up appoach shot the smart play.
Hole 5 - par 4, 360 yards (360)
The first of two consecutive shortish par 4s in a quiet corner of the property, this one is defined by its shallow horseshoe green with a Valley of Sin-type depression creating the impression that the green is sliding down into it. As a result, this is perhaps the most important fairway to hit on the golf course, because a miss in fairway bunkers left or pine straw right will require an almost miraculous recovery to avoid bogey or worse.
Hole 6 - par 4, 369 yards (369)
Playing in the opposite direction of the 5th, a pesky right-side fairway bunker dictates tee shot strategy. The farther a player elects to play left of it, the the more awkward the look at this green, which angles from front-right to back-left. Separated through the middle by a trench, it is guarded by three bunkers. No matter the hole location, this is a strong test of the field’s powers of distance control with a short iron.
Hole 7 - par 5, 495 yards (542)
The first of two generally benign par 5s plays gradually uphill to a large, tilted green terraced above a large bunker that looks like a giant ice cream scoop shaped it. A solid drive will invite players to take on the green while being careful not to bail too far right and short, lest they be frustrated by small trees added this year to tighten things up a skosh.
Hole 8 - par 4, 425 yards (445)
Welling adhered mostly to Ross’ original routing, but here he reversed the par of the last two holes on the inward nine, eliminating a dogleg around a corner of the property where players had been blasting drives over neighboring houses. Instead, he turned the par-3 eighth into a lengthy par 4 with a charmingly ornery fall-away green that also has a false front. The conscious quirk on display here makes it my favorite hole on the course.
Hole 9 - par 3, 158 yards (158)
This par 3 was fashioned out of the approach of the old par-4 ninth. Despite being the shortest hole on the course, it has a large green, where Welling mixed sweeping contours with two central knobs in the center of the green that remind more of something Tom Doak might do than a Fazio disciple such as Welling. These knobs dominate the hole more than the more visually obvious greenside bunker and flanking pond because they sneak up on golfers. Having to putt over - or around - them is tricky work.
Hole 10 - par 4, 420 yards (512)
Now back on the clubhouse side of the property, the golfer is rewarded with a slightly larger-scale (and longer; the back nine is 200 yards longer than the front) collection of holes. It’s tempting to swing hard off the tee, but the real challenge is at the far end: the second front-to-back green in three holes, this one with a pronounced stair-step tier at the middle. Front-half hole locations near the point-of-no-return could be some of the most exciting on the course.
Hole 11 - par 4, 381 yards (381)
This shortish par 4 is the easiest since the opener, with a wide fairway and mellow green. Tee shots up the left can shorten the hole somewhat, but also may make the approach semi-blind over a fairway bunker.
Hole 12 - par 3, 143 yards (178)
A showy par 3 that is a clear nod to the 12th at Augusta with a pond fronting the angled, shallow green, this hole features the only true forced carry on the golf course and as a result, feels slightly out of place alongside so many greens that accept run-up shots. No matter - it is meant to be something of a set-piece. A Lamborghini is at stake for a hole-in-one (Austin Ernst captured it early in the week), and grandstands envelop the green, with future plans to turn this into the women’s game’s version of 16 at TPC Scottsdale. It will also be the stage for LPGA’s first-ever Featured Hole coverage, to air on Peacock throughout the tournament.
Hole 13 - par 4, 435 yards (483)
A long, straightaway par-4, this is the first hole other than the 6th not to run alongside a course boundary of some kind, and as a result invites a big lash at the tee ball, followed by an approach that must stay below the hole at all cost on the large, tilted green.
Hole 14 - par 5, 529 yards (529)
The second of Pelican’s two three-shotters has staggered bunkers pinching the landing area. Players who hit an arrow-straight tee ball will be able to reach in two, with strategy from there dictated by the day’s hole location. A fronting bunker leaves just enough room for a tightrope-walking run-up left or right.
Hole 15 - par 3, 191 yards (221)
The longest par 3 features some bona fide Golden-Age trickery in the form of a front bunker built into a mound that sits 20 yards short and obscures the right half of the putting surface, despite looking like it's much closer to the green. The green meanders to the left around another bunker, meaning one day the hole might call for a high fade and the next, a slinging draw. Variety is an essential component of superior golf courses and the built-in variety here makes this the best par 3 on the course and a fitting beginning of the course's final act.
Hole 16 - par 4, 388 yards (425)
The favorite hole on the course of many caddies and Director of Golf Justin Sheehan, this hole is all about the approach. A kick-plate short and eight of the green can be used to sling balls the length of the putting surface, thereby avoiding taking on the pond that flanks it to the left. The farther back the pin, the gutsier the approach will need to be from a player trying to come from behind.
Hole 17 - par 4, 340 yards (378)
This short par four with a storm of bunkers up the left pulls the golfer’s attention in that direction. The reward for resisting that siren call and tacking to the right is a view up the tilted green. The combination of a front pin and an up tee will make this a thrilling, drivable par 4 at least one day of the tournament (Sunday, hopefully).
Hole 18 - par 4, 428 yards (481)
Welling arcs back to the opening theme at the end: a short par 4 followed by a very long one. Playing into the prevailing wind, this hole requires nothing less than two first-rate shots to grant a player a birdie look on a green separated into three sections by two abrupt spines and menaced by a pond to the right. Disaster and glory await here, as bailing out left with an approach will leave an increasingly uncomfortable pitch. Here's hoping that someone comes to the fairway with the tournament on the line, because she will have no choice but to show us what she's made of.