BELLEAIR, Fla. – The first tournament held at the majorly overhauled, ultra-exclusive Pelican Golf Club was a member-member event won by two women. Dan Doyle Jr., who co-founded the club with his father, found it fitting given that they’d just announced plans to host an LPGA event in 2020.
“Some guy came up to me and kind of started giving me a little bit of a hard time, ‘Ah these women this and women that, that’s ridiculous,’ ” said Doyle. “I literally turned to him, my son was with me, and said, ‘You should practice more and play better’ and walked away.”
The 13 women who founded the LPGA would’ve given Doyle a rousing ovation for that glorious retort. The LPGA turned 70 this year, and its first-ever tournament, the Tampa Open, was held down the road in 1950. But, well, it’s been a while.
The last stand-alone LPGA event staged in this area was the St. Petersburg Women’s Open in 1989. The JC Penney Classic, a mixed-team tournament co-sanctioned with the PGA Tour, was last contested down the road at Innisbrook Resort in 1999. Two-time major winner Brittany Lincicome, a native of this area, worked as a standard-bearer for years there, requesting to walk with bombers John Daly and Laura Davies.
U.S.-based events on the LPGA are critical to the growth of the women’s game, and Doyle, CEO of DEX Imaging, met with the LPGA about hosting a tournament at Pelican long before the club even opened its doors last spring.
“We met out here in a job trailer and it was just a mud pit,” said Doyle. “There was nothing there. They took a big chance on us.”
The clubhouse at Pelican Golf Club. (Photo courtesy Pelican Golf Club)
Doyle learned to play golf at the original Belleview Biltmore Golf Club, a Donald Ross design that opened in 1925. It was important to Doyle, and the waterfront town of Belleair, which encompasses about two square miles, that a well-maintained course remain on this property. The Doyle family purchased the course in 2017 and hired the Beau Welling Design group to oversee the renovation, which quickly turned into a passion project.
“It’s like restoring a car,” said Doyle. “You peel back something and say and ooh, we should fix that before we put this new part on. We realized we had to fix all the parts.”
Fred Ridley’s U.S. Amateur trophy sits inside a glass case at the entrance to the club’s Albatross steakhouse. The Augusta National chairman is a friend of the Doyle family and one of the club’s 250 full golf members. (There are also 50 national members.)
“He’s a big sounding board for really all parts (of the club),” said Justin Sheehan, Pelican’s director of golf. “He helped with our architect. He helped bring me over here. He’s helped with the club’s by-laws. He helped pick which sand we have. He’s sort of had his handprint in everything.”
(The bright white bunkers, by the way, are filled with crushed quartz from Arkansas. Pelican is the first club on the west coast of Florida to use the Latitude 36 Bermudagrass.)
Sheehan came over from Old Memorial in Tampa and was quick to pitch the idea of an LPGA tournament to the Doyle family, given the club’s emphasis on growing the game among women.
Ridley is expected to be at this week’s Pelican Women’s Championship with his daughters later in the week. While there is no general admission due to the COVID-19 pandemic, each member is allowed four guests. Several national members are flying in for the occasion.
The Tampa Bay area is an exploding sports scene. Sheehan, who works with Nelly Korda, Brittany Altomare and Elizabeth Szokol on the LPGA, confirmed that there are a number of athletes who are members at Pelican, including one GOAT, though he wouldn’t give names. (One famous quarterback who recently moved to town comes to mind.)
The Stanley Cup on display at Pelican.
The Stanley Cup drew plenty of attention on Wednesday at Pelican as players and members had their pictures taken with the 36 1/2-pound trophy that stands 3 feet tall. The presentation Cup has made its rounds around the area since the Tampa Bay Lightning prevailed. At Busch Gardens, cheetahs ate meat out of the top of the bowl.
Both the Lightning and the Tampa Bay Rays are sponsors of this week’s event. The Rays fell to the LA Dodgers in this year’s World Series.
The Doyles have been heavily involved in sponsoring sports teams at DEX Imaging and first got involved on the LPGA with Altomare, a rising player who made her debut on the Solheim Cup team last year. DEX Imaging now also sponsors Nelly Korda and Ryann O’Toole and is in talks with two other players.
The sponsorship with O’Toole sparked from a round of golf with PXG in Scottsdale, Arizona. It’s the kind of scenario that plays out often on this tour. Doyle says that when his clients play a round with LPGA pros, they become instant fans.
“If they can get exposure to it,” said Doyle, “they get hooked.”
The number of former female college players on staff at Pelican speaks to a purposeful strategy of helping women, particularly beginners, feel more comfortable at the caddie-only club.
Courtney Harter, director of women’s golf at Pelican, played golf at Alabama while Ashley Burke captained the team at South Florida and now works as the club’s merchandiser. Sisters Anna and A.J. Newell played at Tennessee. Anna holds two NCAA records and works as a second teaching pro at Pelican while A.J., who recently gave up a pro career that had her ascend to the LPGA, splits time between the gym and pro shop.
The Ladies member-member at Pelican nearly doubled from the club’s first year to the second. Sport coats are required in the Albatross and the primary member wears a blue blazer. It’s not uncommon to see a number of women sporting the blue blazer. The women’s locker room even occupies the prime real estate in the clubhouse, overlooking the 18th green. The men’s locker room overlooks the parking lot. It’s important, Doyle said, for women to feel that “This is my club; it’s not my husband’s club.”
“Mr. Doyle cares so much about growing the game of women’s golf and giving women more opportunities,” said A.J., “and he proved it by hosting the event out here. You see a lot of people talking about wanting to grow the women’s game, but he’s done something active to do it.”