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For many visitors, the Palm Beach experience isn't complete without a round of golf on the Ocean Course at The Breakers, the towering Italian Renaissance-inspired luxury hotel. (Associated Press)
For many visitors, the Palm Beach experience isn't complete without a round of golf on the Ocean Course at The Breakers, the towering Italian Renaissance-inspired luxury hotel. (Associated Press)

Palm Beach keeps on swinging Add to ...

Even Mother Nature, as if mindful of the inflated expectations of the fabulously rich, seems to try harder in Palm Beach.

The famed beachfront playground of the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, Kennedys and Trumps roughly marks the start of the tropics in South Florida.

Here, about 100 kilometres north of Miami, the cobalt-blue waters of the Gulf Stream run close to shore, promoting milder winters and an abundance of ficus, Royal Poinciana and banyan trees, species that refuse to grow in the harsher climes to the north.

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Gawking at the Mediterranean-style waterfront mansions along Billionaire's Row and splurging on Chanel, Gucci and other designer labels in the chic boutiques that line Worth Avenue and its colonnaded corridors - Via Mizner, Via Prigi, Via Roma - are the top tourist activities.

But for many visitors, the Palm Beach experience isn't complete without a round of golf on the Ocean Course at The Breakers, the towering Italian Renaissance-inspired luxury hotel that has been the focus of Palm Beach society for more than a century.

Reputed to be Florida's first 18-hole layout when it opened in 1897, the Ocean Course sparked the game's rapid growth throughout Palm Beach County, a winter tourist destination touted as "Florida's Golf Capital" by marketers.

Stretching from Jupiter in the north to Boca Raton in the south, the county, the largest southeast of the Mississippi River, is home to more than 165 courses, including several of the top resort tracks in the South.

Many of golf's biggest names call Palm Beach County home, including Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman, Justin Leonard, Nick Price and golf architect Tom Fazio. Here, golf academies and equipment outlets are as ubiquitous as gas stations.

Also found here is the headquarters of the PGA of America, professional golf's governing body. Sharing the same address as the PGA in the upscale enclave of West Palm Beach, about 20 minutes north of Palm Beach, is PGA National Resort and Spa, home of the annual Honda Classic (March 5 to 8) and the scene of numerous past championships, including the 1983 Ryder Cup and the 1987 PGA Championship.

PGA National recently completed a $40-million renovation that included an extensive refurbishing of the hotel and a tweaking by Jack Nicklaus of the Champion Course, the marquee attraction of the property's five 18-hole layouts. Originally designed by Tom Fazio, the course was first reworked in 1990 by Nicklaus, whose most significant contribution was the infamous "Bear Trap" - holes 15 through 17 - a windswept and watery trio that has broken the hearts of countless golfers.

During the Saturday round of the PGA Tour's 2007 Honda Classic, Gavin Coles hit four balls in the water at the 179-yard par three 15th hole. His score of 11 was the highest recorded on any hole in the tournament.

PGA National's major rival among Palm Beach County's golf resorts is Boca Raton Resort and Club, a Spanish-Moorish beachfront palace designed in the 1920s by visionary architect Addison Mizner, famous as the creator of the Palm Beach style. Rich in golf history, the lavishly refurbished Boca, as the resort is known locally, once employed legends Sam Snead and Tommy Armour as golf professionals.

Though just 6,253 yards in length, the property's original William Flynn-designed layout, the Resort Course, is sneakily difficult, with rapid elevation changes and numerous water features. A far stiffer test is the Country Club Course, a 6,714-yard Joe Lee design located a short drive from the resort, where water comes into play on 14 holes.

Lee, a native Floridian who is a master at shaping the local terrain, also designed the Abacoa Golf Club in Jupiter. Water hazards and sand bunkers are almost constantly in play at this lush track.

Another must-play course, especially for fans of Donald Ross, arguably the greatest of all golf architects, is Delray Beach Golf Club. This classic and affordable 6,907-yard design features rolling fairways, water on five holes and Ross's distinctive random bunkering.

By the time Ross unveiled his Delray Beach course in 1923, hotels were springing up throughout the county. Vacationers had been arriving in growing numbers ever since Standard Oil magnate Henry Flagler extended his Florida East Coast Railway south from St. Augustine in the 1890s.

Flagler built two luxury resorts (Royal Poinciana Hotel and Palm Beach Inn, the precursor of The Breakers) on the 26-kilometre-long spit of land known as Palm Beach. Accessible by drawbridges over the Intracoastal Waterway, Palm Beach quickly attracted the attention of royals, captains of industry and socialites who came for sun, seclusion and to enjoy a life of privileged luxury among their own kind.

Many of Palm Beach's most opulent waterfront mansions are the handiwork of Mizner, the architect of the Boca Raton Resort and Club. He took his inspiration from the medieval buildings of the Mediterranean, flamboyantly including plazas, courtyards and arcades to let his clients better enjoy the balmy weather.

Long-time residents sniff that the Golden Age of Palm Beach is long past, blaming the decline on arrivistes such as Donald Trump, who bought Marjorie Merriweather Post's fabulous Mar-a-Lago estate (just past the Southern Boulevard drawbridge) in 1985 and later turned it into a members-only club.

Another sign of the changing times was the departure of the Kennedy clan in 1995. Their Spanish-style compound at 1095 N. Ocean Blvd., designed by Mizner and purchased from the Wanamaker family in 1933, served as the Winter White House during the presidency of John F. Kennedy.

Rather than Du Ponts, Dodges and other blue bloods, today's tax roll is heavy on aging pop singers and fashionistas: Vera Wang, Vic Damone, Jimmy Buffett and Rod Stewart all own property in Palm Beach.

But even in these recessionary times, there still appears to be enough old and new money, as well as rubber-necking tourists, to keep the cashiers humming at the dozens of boutiques, galleries and upscale restaurants on Worth Avenue and its spider web of courtyards and vias.

Equally reassuring is the steady lineup of golfers seen every day on the first tee at The Breakers, the iconic society hotel that launched Florida's golf boom more than a century ago.

*****

WHERE TO STAY AND PLAY

THE BREAKERS 1-888-273-2537; www.thebreakers.com. Room rates from $499. Green fees $205 to $215.

PGA NATIONAL RESORT AND SPA 1-800-633-9150; www.pgaresort.com. Room rates from $329 (golf packages available). Green fees $158 to $269.

BOCA RATON RESORT AND CLUB 1-888-491-2822; www.bocaresort.com. Room rates from $179 (packages available). Green fees $155 to $168.

ABACOA GOLF CLUB 561-622-0036; www.abacoagolfclub.com. Green fees $65 to $140.

DELRAY BEACH GOLF CLUB 561-243-7380 www.delraybeachgolfclub.com. Green fees $38 to $54.

MORE INFORMATION

P ALM BEACH COUNTY CONVENTION AND VISITORS BUREAU 1-800-833-5733; www.palmbeachfl.com.

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