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Gillespie Led Drive for Golf in Sarasota

Articles: Sarasota History

Author: Mark D. Smith, former County Archivist
Photo Credit: Sarasota County History Center

Sarasota History - Gillespie Led Drive for Golf in Sarasota photo

The game of golf came to Sarasota when Col. John Hamilton Gillespie arrived in 1886. Nobody in the small village of Sarasota knew what Gillespie was doing when in May 1886 he built a practice course consisting of two greens and one long fairway.

This miniature course was located on present day Main Street. Gillespie practiced there daily for many years. In 1905, he laid out a nine-hole golf course on a 110-acre tract east of his old practice course and built a clubhouse. He maintained the course at his own expense until he sold the course to Owen Burns in 1910.

Gillespie continued to help support and take care of the course because upkeep of a golf course can be quite an undertaking. In December 1913, Gillespie came up with the idea of organizing a golf club to help with expenses. On December 13, 1913, a meeting was held at the Sarasota Yacht and Automobile Club to organize the Sarasota Golf Club. Gillespie stated that maintaining a golf course without support from residents, as well as from visitors, is difficult. The group agreed to pay $10 per person to become charter members, and the money would go toward the upkeep of the course. The course's owner, Owen Burns, would also allow members to play for free, with the use of the clubhouse, as long as they made necessary repairs to the windmill and the lavatories in the clubhouse.

The first members of the club read like a who's who of prominent early Sarasotans. Some of these members were early politicians Hugh Browning, Harry Higel, and of course, John Hamilton Gillespie, physicians Jack and Joseph Halton, landowners Owen Burns, Ralph Caples, Honore Palmer and J.H. Lord. The club drew up rules for the organization and by-laws for playing golf on the course. To play golf for the winter season cost $10. For those who did not want to commit to an entire season, the fee structure was $5 for one month, $2 for one week and 50 cents for one day. Although Gillespie encouraged everyone to play, the course was rarely crowded.

Gillespie never stopped in his campaign to promote the game of golf. In a 1921 newspaper article, he wrote about how golf barely existed in the state at the turn of the 20th century. He said that "there was no East Coast golf in Florida then, the Jacksonville Country Club being in its infancy, and, to the credit for making golf well and favorably known in Florida and in the southern state. Tampa for a long time did not take to the game, although Mr. Plant spent considerable money on an endeavor to foster the game. It was not until Bellaire became famous as a golf course that Tampa woke up and took notice."

Gillespie continued to play on his course until his death in 1923. Although he knew that the game would grow in popularity, it was not until the Florida Land Boom of the mid-1920s that it became a popular sport in Sarasota. Two new 18-hole courses were built in Sarasota during the boom Gillespie's old course was sold in 1924 for development and no traces of it remain today.

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