Sunday, July 30, 2006

Swinging spot fades into history

By Karen Feldman
Originally posted on July 30, 2006

On Dec. 31, 1966, the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane played the Fillmore in San Francisco, the war in Vietnam raged on and Charlie Chaplin was about to open his last film, "A Countess from Hong Kong," in England.

Meanwhile, in Cape Coral, residents toasted the new year at an elegant new hot spot: the Cape Coral County Club.

With valet and concierge service, a lobby done in Brazilian rosewood, and crystal chandeliers illuminating the new dining room, the club ushered in a new era for the town, which wouldn't become a city for another three years.

The club was the brainchild of Leonard and Julius Rosen, the city's original developers.

"Leonard Rosen used to say, 'People think it's a country club, but it's not. It's a sales tool,' " said Paul Sanborn, a local historian who served as the club's first general manager.

In its heyday, luminaries such as Count Basie, Roy Rogers and John Cameron Swayze made appearances. Tommy Dorsey and his band performed.

The Rosens built the club along with a hotel and the 18-hole golf course.

The complex changed hands and names over its 40-year lifetime, most recently in 2001, when Scott Siler and a group of investors bought it for $3.6 million and spent an additional $4 million renovating the club and course. They renamed it simply The Golf Club.

On Monday, the club that has seen the city grow from a toddler to a high-powered adult will close its doors, a victim of a hemorrhaging bottom line.

Siler, the managing partner, has seen the club in good times and bad.

"I've been here since '72," he said. "I started playing the course when I got here. I always just thought it was a terrific layout."

In those days, "it was the best thing between Miami and Tampa," he said.

The golf course was designed by Dick Wilson, a leading golf-course architect of the time. The first nine holes opened in 1961, the second nine in 1963.

The development company, Gulf American Land Corp., built a 100-room hotel to house prospective buyers.

Gulf American brought in people by the plane load, put them up at the motel next to the golf course, treated them to rounds of golf, wined and dined them and sold them land.

Mitch Haley, of Fort Myers, said his father was one of the original members of the club. This was during the 1960s when the family lived in upstate New York.

"He bought lots in the Cape and Golden Gate and got lifetime memberships at both clubs," he said. "In the winter, he and his buddies would board a plane from Buffalo, fly to Tampa, drive here, stay and play golf for a couple of nights, go to Golden Gate, play golf there for a couple of days, then go to the Doral on the east coast. It was a guys' getaway."

The getaway also was the site of the 1972 NCAA golf championships, when top golf pros Tom Kite and Ben Crenshaw tied for the NCAA individual national title.

In 1974, the Southwest Florida Junior Golf Association formed there, giving players such as future PGA Tour member Nolan Henke an opportunity to hone their games.

The country club provided a social outlet even for nongolfers.

Fred Cull, of Cape Coral, joined the club in 1974 and remained a member for many years.

"It was the fulcrum around which most of early Cape Coral revolved," Cull said. "It was always a very desirable place, a lot of social events, clubs and organizations. There were many weddings. It was a social center — there was really nothing else."

Members gathered there on weekends for dinner and dancing to music by the Buddy Duo.

"It was a good time," Cull said. "You got to know everybody."

But as tonier places such as Innisbrook and all the Orlando resorts sprouted up in the 1980s, Siler said, "this got outdated. Rather than modernize, they kept lowering the price and lower expectations."

The hotel was torn down in 2000 to make way for Banyan Trace luxury condominiums, all with a golf-course view.

Siler and his investors bought the club and course in 2001, with the intention of restoring both to their former splendor.

Siler figured it would be a hit because it was close to new developments such as Tarpon Point and Cape Harbour, and it was a well-designed course.

For whatever reason, the club couldn't manage to make a profit.

"The members have been fabulous," Siler said. "It isn't the people that came and used it — it was the people that didn't that caused us not to succeed."