People, Places and Personas of Tallahassee Golf
The game of golf has a rich and long history in Florida’s Capital City. In fact, golf has been played in Tallahassee for well over a century. From humble beginnings on rudimentary courses to hosting the world’s best professionals and other notable guests, the story of golf in Tallahassee can be told through both beautiful places and interesting personas. That story is still being written today and those visiting Tallahassee help to tell it with every swing they make.
While not as well known as other famed Florida golf destinations, Tallahassee is a unique place to discover a different side of the Sunshine State’s impressive golf lineage. Golfers coming to Tallahassee will find a diverse range of affordable golf offerings that showcase the many charms of North Florida. Any trip to Tallahassee can be made more enjoyable with a few hours spent amidst the live oaks, spanish moss, and rolling hills that populate local golf courses. Understanding the history which shaped those landscapes makes golf in Tallahassee all the more interesting.
Here are just a few of the people and places that have helped shape the story of golf in Tallahassee.
Dr. Tennent Ronalds
Golf began to spread across America at the onset of the twentieth century. With a climate perfect for playing year round, Florida quickly became one of the breeding grounds for the growth of the game. In Tallahassee, courses first began to pop up on private estates. The earliest record of golf in Tallahassee was at Live Oak Plantation. Shortly after inheriting the land from his brother in 1895, Dr. Tennent Ronalds formerly of Edinburgh, Scotland crafted a course there. The holes were maintained by a flock of sheep much like the early courses in his native land and as a popular resident it’s safe to assume he introduced the game to others. Without Dr. Ronalds, the game of golf may have taken much longer to arrive in Tallahassee.
The first organized golf effort in Tallahassee came in 1908 when the Tallahassee Country Club was founded on the grounds of The Grove. This former plantation site was the home of territorial Governor Richard Keith Call and later served as residence for Governor LeRoy Collins. On those lands a six hole course was created along with tennis courts and room for other games and gatherings. The Call-Collins mansion, first built in 1840, served as the clubhouse and now is a museum chronicling Florida’s journey from slavery to civil rights.
Capital City Country Club
As Tallahassee continued to mature as a Capital City, the community saw the need for expanded services and more leisure offerings. While the nation was battling the Great Depression, this became a unique challenge for every city. In 1936, a deal was struck between the Tallahassee Country Club and the City of Tallahassee that would double the size of the community’s only golf course. Championed by Fred Elliot, the chief engineer for the State of Florida and man responsible for draining the Everglades, the country club deeded its golf course to the City government in order to gain funding for the project from the Works Progress Administration. A grant was secured to renovate the golf course for public use and expand it to 18 holes. In partnership with the PGA of America, Hall of Fame golf architect A. W. Tillinghast designed the new holes and made suggestions regarding the original nine. Elliot oversaw construction and Tallahassee had its first championship course. In 1956, the course was leased back to the club which then reincorporated as Capital City Country Club.
Of all the golfers who have honed their games in Tallahassee, Bert Yancey was perhaps the Capital City’s greatest champion. Yancey was the son of the City Manager and found great success from long days spent at the municipal course as a kid. He later matriculated to West Point and was Captain of the golf team there. After turning professional, he quickly rose to prominence on the PGA Tour. Yancey won seven times between 1966 and 1972 including beating Jack Nicklaus at the Pebble Beach Pro-am. His close calls at the Masters tournament and obsession with winning there was the stuff of legend. Later diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Yancey’s career was cut short due to effects of his medication. He spent many years serving as a club professional across the Southeast and eventually returned to Tallahassee’s Killearn Country Club before succumbing to a heart attack while playing on the Senior PGA Tour.
Jake Gaither Golf Course
In 1956, when the City of Tallahassee leased the Municipal Course back to the members of the Tallahassee Country Club which later became the segregated Capital City Country Club, a smaller 9 hole course was built on the south side of town. The Jake Gaither Golf Course was originally constructed to provide a place for African American golfers to play and today it still serves as a beacon for Black golfers in Tallahassee. It was named for the legendary Florida A&M University football coach who won many championships while leading the Rattlers program. Today, the course remains an important part of Tallahassee’s golf fabric. As the only nine hole course in the city, Jake Gaither has proven to be a popular place to play for those seeking to get in a quick and affordable loop.
The name Becky Sauers is synonymous with women’s golf in Tallahassee. Sauers has been a force in the game for decades and to this day she remains a great champion for the ladies who love to play it. Turning professional in 1978, Sauers has a resume that can measure up with anyone in golf. She once played in the U.S. Women’s Open while pregnant with twins and her likeness was used to create the logo for the LPGA Tour. She went on to serve in the leadership of the LPGA and even was named Professional of the Year in 1987. Sauers has been widely recognized for her teaching abilities and has helped grow the game in many ways during her career. Today, she runs a Women’s golf association called the Lady Links which hold competitions across all the great courses in the Tallahassee area.
Killearn Country Club
The growth of golf in Tallahassee reached new heights in 1967 when the Killearn Country Club was founded on the North side of town. Built as the centerpiece of Tallahassee’s largest residential neighborhoods, the golf course instantly became an important social scene in the community. This was most evident when the PGA Tour began hosting a tournament there known as the Tallahassee Open. For twenty years, the best golfers in the world visited Tallahassee to compete in the event. Winners of the Tallahassee Open included Lee Trevino, Chi-Chi Rodrigez, Hubert Green, Jeff Sluman, and other notable players of the era. After the Tallahassee Open ended its run at Killearn, the LPGA Tour hosted an event there for three years known as the Centel Classic. Today, the course continues its tradition of providing great golf to residents and members while being one of Tallahassee’s most family friendly golf communities.
Sidney Matthew tends to stand out on the golf course. His handlebar mustache, throwback knickers, and antique clubs all harken to an era he has spent his life researching. Matthew is one of the leading golf historians on the planet. His favorite subject is the great gentleman amateur Bobby Jones. Matthew has written over a dozen books on Bobby Jones and he is often sought out by the world’s leading golf bodies to help preserve the history of the only man to ever win the Grand Slam in one year. Matthew’s collection of Bobby Jones photos, news clippings, video, and correspondence took up so much room his wife made him get rid of it. The collection now is part of Emory University where Jones attended law school. A trial attorney by trade, Matthew has been juggling his case load with a passion for golf history most of his adult life. He has appeared on every major golf outlet around the world and there is no one who knows more about Bobby Jones than he does. If you are lucky enough to encounter Sidney on the streets of Downtown or fairways around the area, be sure to make time for a few of his stories. They are always world class.
Southwood Golf Club
The Tallahassee area has long been a popular place for wealthy industrialists to visit for outdoor pursuits. Many such visitors bought sprawling farms and picturesque hunting plantations. One of the more notable names to do so was Edward Ball. Ball was best known for running the DuPont family trust which included massive business holdings in Florida such as railroads, newspapers, and paper mills. He also held a tight grip over politics in the state. His farm in Tallahassee, known as Southwood was an expansive countryside retreat located within earshot of the Capitol. After the turn of the century, the St. Joe Company, a remnant of the former Dupont holdings, developed the farm into one of Tallahassee’s largest residential communities. The Southwood Golf Club is at the center of that development and features a golf course designed by former Masters Champion Fred Couples. The course has played host to numerous collegiate tournaments and many other competitions and is noted for its beautiful live oaks and scenic vistas.
Jay Revell is a golf writer based in Tallahassee, Florida. He is the author of The Nine Virtues of Golf: Essays, Musings, and Other Contemplations on the Game. His stories, essays, travelogues and histories have been featured in a wide variety of popular publications including The Golfer’s Journal, McKellar Magazine, Golf.com, and Golf Advisor. Jay has also worked to tell golf stories for brands such as MacKenzie Golf Bags and Visit Florida. He publishes regular musings on the game via his personal website JayRevell.com.