Golf historian discusses Florida’s golf history at Beaches Museum Boardwalk Talk


The first known golf course in Florida and the humble beginnings of THE PLAYERS Championship were among the anecdotes shared by Billy Dettlaff last week at his Boardwalk Talk hosted by the Beaches Museum.

The former TPC Sawgrass national director of golf and now a golf author and historian, Dettlaff discussed the history of golf in Florida, and how the sport helped build tourism in the state. The event was held at the Beaches Museum Chapel on Thursday, May 3.

Dettlaff first told the story of Henry Flagler, the former partner of John D. Rockefeller at Standard Oil Company who constructed the Florida East Coast Railway and developed a large portion of the state. The American industrialist opened resorts along the railway, said Dettlaff, and ultimately used golf to promote his efforts.

Flagler’s first golf course — and what Dettlaff referred to as the first course in Florida — was a nine-hole course located around the perimeter of the Castillo de San Marcos fort in St. Augustine.

According to Dettlaff, Flagler later built an 18-hole course in St. Augustine in 1916 that was known as the Ponce de Leon Golf Course, which played host to several celebrities, including President Warren Harding. According to Dettlaff, Harding visited there a few weeks before his presidency to decompress and prepare for his upcoming responsibilities.

After discussing Flagler’s other courses throughout Florida, Dettlaff addressed the origin of the Ocean Course at the Ponte Vedra Inn & Club. Prior to its construction, the golf historian said it was a nine-hole course built by the mining company that previously owned the property.

Then, the property was sold in the 1930s, and the Ocean Course was built. Dettlaff said it soon became one of the toughest courses in the United States. In fact, Dettlaff noted the PGA of America planned to host the 1939 Ryder Cup there, until World War II began and caused the cancelation of the tournament.

 Dettlaff concluded his address with the story of former PGA Tour Commissioner Deane Beman, THE PLAYERS Championship and TPC Sawgrass. Beman first brought the tournament to Sawgrass Country Club, said Dettlaff, where it was played from 1977 to 1981. Then, after failed attempts to buy Sawgrass, Beman hired Pete Dye to build his own course in the Florida swamp, and the beauty that today is TPC Sawgrass was born.

Dettlaff is the author of “Doctors of the Game – A History of the Golf Profession,” “PGA of America: The Official Centennial Commemorative Book - Celebrating The History of the Golf Professional” and “A Storyteller's Guide - THE PLAYERS and TPC Sawgrass.” For more information on his work and background, visit