As Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club closes, former golf pros reminisce about the historic course

Greg Hardwig
Naples Daily News

When the iconic golf course at The Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club was undergoing a renovation, Henry Watkins III of the Watkins family termed it a facelift.

Following Sunday's closure of the hotel, who knows what it all will look like or what it will be termed?

After 75 years, the Watkins family has agreed to sell the hotel and golf course to The Athens Group, which will redevelop the entire property. 

"Where's the home of golf in Naples? It was The Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club," said Larry Gantzer, 54, a former Beach Club professional who has lived in Naples since 1978 and started as a bag boy at the club when he was 15.

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Sunday, current director of golf George Willard, who has been in that role for 15 years, was among the last to play the golf course, as he was prior to a 2016 renovation.

"I've been playing a lot in the late afternoons," he said. "My wife said 'Honey, you've been out there playing a lot.' I said 'I don't want to sit here in the first week of June and say I should've played it more.'"

Willard is one of just five head golf professionals since the Watkins family started its ownership in 1946 — Paul Bell (until 1966), Jim Duffy (1966-92), Dan Bracy (1993-2000) and Gantzer (2000-06) are the ones who preceded Willard. Bell died in 1998 at the age of 88, and Duffy died of cancer at 59 in 2000.

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"It's been a quick 15 for some reason," said Willard, 65, who first played the course on Naples High's Senior Skip Day in 1973 and began working at the club in 1998. "Great family, great location, and more than a third of my life — and enjoyable. It's the best thing that ever happened to me."

"I'm sorry to see it's closing, but time does come along every now and then," said Bracy, who first started working at the club in 1973 seasonally, then stayed year-round beginning in 1987. "It's been a great pleasure to have the opportunity to work here for all of the years that I did. I couldn't have had a better situation than what I had."

An older aerial view of The Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club, which is closing after 75 years on Sunday, May 23, 2021, after being sold to The Athens Group, which is redeveloping the property.

Bracy, 66, moved on to Cypress Woods Golf & Country Club and now works at the PGA Tour Superstore, not too far away from the Beach Club. Gantzer left the golf business briefly following his departure from the club in 2006, and then joined Grey Oaks as a teaching professional where he's been for 12 years.

The Beach Club is part of their lives, and not just because they worked there. Gantzer was married there, and Willard met his wife there.

Besides some renovations to the hotel and golf course, and the addition of the two-story golf shop, convention center and spa building 10-plus years ago, not a great deal has changed. 

After Sunday, plenty figures to.

The Athens Group plans to close on its purchase within a week.

A scorecard of 11-year-old Jack Nicklaus from The Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club in 1951 when Nicklaus broke 40 for nine holes for the first time. Nicklaus was on a family vacation when he played the Beach Club with his father, Charlie. Nicklaus shot a 37, just a year after starting to play. Courtesy of the Jack Nicklaus Museum

It's not known exactly what will happen with the 18-hole course that was renovated in 2016 by John Sanford and legendary golfer Jack Nicklaus, who broke a score of 40 for nine holes for the first time when he was an 11-year-old on the former layout.

The original golf course was built in 1929.

"We are moving forward at this time with an 18-hole golf course," Jay Newman, chief operating officer of The Athens Group, said recently.

But talk of a 10-hole golf course and then green space, with some residents saying an "amusement park" would be built on the property, have created tensions with both the City Council and The Athens Group. Up and down South Golf Drive, which runs to the south of the property, there are yard signs reading "Save the 18-hole golf course! Stop the Athens Amusement Park! End the Bait & Switch!"

A sign that alleges a bait and switch by The Athens Group in their Naples Beach Hotel redevelopment project is placed in a yard on South Golf Drive in Naples on Friday, April 16, 2021.

Regardless of what actually happens, the chances are the 18-hole golf course as it has been likely will no longer be, perhaps later rather than sooner, given Newman's comments.

"I'm sorry to see it go, but that's progress," Willard said. "I'm sure the new people will make the golf course — however many holes they choose 9, 10 or 12 — they're going to build a superior product."

As many Neapolitans know, the Beach Club as an entity has a long and strong history in the community, not coincidentally parallel to its ownership by the Watkins family. And it goes way beyond the hotel — which has hosted Naples High's Senior Skip Day for decades, and did so for perhaps the final time Thursday — and the golf course.

While Naples and Collier County has certainly changed over the decades, that familiarity the Beach Club brings hasn't much. That's because of the Watkins family, first Henry Sr., then Henry Jr., and now brothers Michael and Henry III.

"I would say the family was completely dedicated to the City of Naples, and the growth of Collier County in a big way," Gantzer said. "I don't think people realize the amount of gift certificates that the Beach Club just gave away — rounds of golf, room nights — and for all of the charitable things.

"People did things for the Beach Club  and people that worked at the Beach Club because of what the Beach Club did for the city and the county."

Willard remembered that the family would put up the seasonal workers in the cart barn at the old Naples Beach Hotel, which he said was near where the current back parking lot of Tommy Bahama's is off Third Street South.

"The hotel would put them at the old hotel for free board," he said.

The original Naples Beach Hotel. The current Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club is closing after 75 years on Sunday, May 23, 2021, after being sold to The Athens Group, which is redeveloping the property.

Bracy, who got in perhaps a final round at the course last Monday, remembers people would stay in the same rooms every year, and for months at a time.

The golf course has hosted professional golfers, celebrities, and even celebrities who played professional golf (the Celebrity Players Tour had its first event in the area there in 1998). And Gantzer even got some local media to play 100 holes of golf in a day with him from 2000-03 to raise funds for junior golf and in memory of Duffy.

"Many, many golf professionals from all over the state, all over the South Florida (PGA) Section, enjoyed coming there for a couple of reasons," Gantzer said. "They loved playing the golf course — even though it was grainy and the greens were slow — but they loved bringing their family, and they loved staying at the resort."

The NFL's competition committee had its meetings at the Beach Club for years, and many took the opportunity to play the golf course. College hockey coaches did as well, and the club used to host a national amputee tournament.

Bracy remembers country legend Willie Nelson being there, and rock singer Bob Seger, a Naples resident. Gantzer said baseball Hall of Famers Joe Morgan and Johnny Bench made an appearance there, and so did John Denver, the Righteous Brothers, and the Smothers Brothers.

The Florida State Senior Open Championship was played there for decades, until the South Florida PGA Section merged it into the Florida Senior Open and moved it around the state. The South Florida PGA Open was too. And the International Junior was a top tournament in the state in its day. The Florida State Women's Senior was played there, and so many others.

Duffy played a large role in many of those.

"He did a lot for a lot of people," Gantzer said. "He helped guys get money together to play on tour. He grew junior golf to the point that we had the International Junior. The only reason there was a city and county championship was because of him.

"He did it for the love of golf."

Former Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club professional Jim Duffy, left, sits with Henry Watkins Jr. Duffy is one of only five known head golf professionals at the club since the Watkins family ownership began in 1946. The hotel and golf course will close on Sunday, May 23, 2021, after being purchased by The Athens Group, which will redevelop the property.

The Beach Club's pros weren't too bad either.

In 1963, Gene Sarazen, the late future Marco Island resident who is one of only five golfers to win the Grand Slam — all four major championships in a career — came to the Beach Club for a clinic and an exhibition. He played with Bell, Watkins Sr., and top local player Arthur Reis in the exhibition.

Bell shot a course-record 63 — with a bogey on the first hole followed by eight birdies and an eagle — that still stands. It's been tied many times, including by Gantzer. And Willard shot an unofficial 61 in match play of the city amateur back in 1983. 

Larry Gantzer, left, and former Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club head professional Jim Duffy at St. George & The Dragon restaurant. Gantzer began working at the Beach Club in 1981, and later became director of golf until 2006. He has been a teaching professional at Grey Oaks Country Club the past 12 years. They are two of only five known head professionals the club has had in its 75 years of ownership by the Watkins family. The hotel and golf course will close on Sunday, May 23, 2021 after being purchased by The Athens Group, which will redevelop the property.

For Gantzer, some of his memories of the golf course died when it was renovated. Part of the renovation was to put in a driving range, and that resulted in changes to many holes, and also turning a few into holes that shared the same greens.

"I made two double eagles at the Beach Club. I made two holes-in-one," he said. "Those holes aren't there anymore. They're gone. You go back and you play the layout of the course now, those are memories that I'll have forever ... but I can't ever see them again. People go back to places because they want to reintroduce memories and history that they're fond of."

And now that will apply to the whole property.

"It's got that history and it's going to be gone," Gantzer said. "It's a lot of history for people that live in Naples — the history that the Beach Club has and resonates."

Larry Gantzer, second from left, and George Willard, far right, at the Collier County Men's Amateur Championship, which The Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club was a former host venue for. Gantzer and Willard, the current director of golf, are two of only five known head professionals in the 75-year history of The Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club's ownership by the Watkins family. The hotel and golf course will close on Sunday, May 23, 2021 after being purchased by The Athens Group, which will redevelop the property.

Willard started to feel the end of the Beach Club coming only recently.

On May 15, he was the starter for the Poa Annua Classic and G.C. Horn Memorial Tournament, a two-day event by the Everglades Chapter of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America. Yet another golf event that may have to find a new home.

"I thanked them," Willard said. "I said 'I've had the good fortune to host this and participate in helping to run this tournament for 22 years now. Unfortunately now this is it, but I wish you all stay healthy, stay happy, and thanks for everything.'

"It's starting to hit me. it didn't up until about a week ago. I'm out on the course and I'm just looking around."

And, like so many, wondering what will become of it all.

Greg Hardwig is a sports reporter for the Naples Daily News and The News-Press. Follow him on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter: @NDN_Ghardwig, email him at ghardwig@naplesnews.com. Support local journalism with this special subscription offer at https://cm.naplesnews.com/specialoffer/