Golf Life: Brian Silva recaptures essence of Donald Ross classic at The Biltmore

Biltmore Hole 17 The Biltmore (17)

Golf Life: Brian Silva recaptures essence of Donald Ross classic at The Biltmore

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Golf Life: Brian Silva recaptures essence of Donald Ross classic at The Biltmore

If you want to know why golf’s Golden Age architects are still so revered a century removed from their glory days, architect Brian Silva can offer a succinct explanation.

“These guys had it going on,” Silva said, the awe evident in his voice.

Silva just completed a $2.5 million restoration of The Biltmore Golf Course in Coral Gables, Fla., a 1925 Donald Ross design that reopened Dec. 15. The project was based on Ross’ original routing, which was discovered a few years ago.

Those highly detailed plans served as a reminder to Silva of what helped distinguish the work of architects such as Ross and his contemporaries.

“I gotta tell you, they’re a little embarrassing because every one of these original plans, whether it’s (Donald) Ross or (Seth) Raynor, these guys really had it together,” Silva said. “The fairway movement, the strategy, the fade drives followed by a draw approach … They weren’t going to rest until they got it right.”

Campo de Golf Biltmore

The 18th fairway at The Biltmore. 

Silva, in turn, was committed to a faithful restoration of Ross’ vision. This was the architect’s second crack at The Biltmore. He did a comprehensive restoration of the course in 2007, though without the benefit of Ross’ plans. The golf course is owned by the city of Coral Gables, and Silva credited Gene Prescott, president and CEO of The Biltmore, with greenlighting the project as part of a larger, $25 million renovation of the grand 92-year-old resort.

With its distinctive Moorish Giralda tower, vaulted ceilings and marble columns, The Biltmore long has been one of the most iconic structures in south Florida. During the Jazz Age, the resort was a haven for celebrities, who often gathered around the pool, billed as one of the largest in the continental United States. Much of that history is celebrated in photos throughout the resort.

“If you can’t be inspired by some of the unbelievable black-and-white photography lining the halls in the hotel, then you’re not the person to be working on a vintage golf course …” Silva said. “I want the golf course to be as much of an event, in its own way, as the hotel is.”

To accomplish that, Silva relied heavily on those original plans. Silva speculated that the limitations Ross and his contemporaries faced a century ago forced them to give extensive thought to their work before breaking ground. Hence, the detailed plans on which Silva relied.

“One of the advantages they had was that they did not have heavy earth-moving equipment,” Silva said. “One way or the other, they were going to make that routing plan fit the property.”

About 100 trees were removed during this restoration, which impacted about 52 of the 140-acre layout. That width, along with an additional 300 yards in length, created many more options that challenge better players while allowing recreational golfers who can’t overpower a course to tact their way down the fairway, not unlike a sailboat at sea. Silva adheres to Alister MacKenzie’s maxim that a great golf hole can be played with a putter because it has so many options.

One of the most dramatic changes at The Biltmore came on the 18th, where tree removal on the left side helped accentuate the dogleg-left finish.

“The 18th hole keeps turning to the left, and there were unusually, dynamically strong bunkers up the left side that you couldn’t even see be-cause of these pine trees that are considered weeds today,” Silva said. “When those were cut back, it was like, ‘Oh, my God, where has this golf hole been the past 40 or 50 years?’ ”

Silva doubled the size of the 18th green and installed a “thumbprint green on the par-3 14th. Much of his work, however, focused on rebuilding the “skeleton” of the course. He borrowed that term from the late architect Bob Cupp, who talked about how architects had to perfect the lines and angles of a golf hole before moving any earth. The style of bunkers easily can be altered, but the skeleton of the hole is paramount.

“If you don’t get the skeleton correct, it’s not a one-day job,” he said. “It’s moving irrigation, it’s moving bunkers.”

Silva said he continually sees that level of detail when he studies the routings of the Golden Age architects.

At The Biltmore, he said it perhaps was most evident on No. 16, which appeared in his 2007 restoration to have few defining features. Ross’ drawings told a different story, identifying bunkers that apparently were filled in over time.

“There was no way I would know from working on some of these (classic) courses that the twistiest and turniest fairway was on 16 and not on 4,” he said. “(Ross’) skeleton on the map really helped me.” Gwk

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