Fore! Ace! Splash! Wham! Pow!
However much Palm Beach’s countless billionaires and priceless mansions measure the town’s standing among today’s social capitals, yesterday’s leisure class believed it was the sporting life that turned the resort’s seasonal convergence into an ultimate destination. During the Golden Age of Resort Life, amid escapist architecture and idyllic landscapes, a confluence of aristocratic sportsmen, robber barons, and newly-minted millionaires retreated to Palm Beach’s golf courses and tennis courts.
Along with hotel life, a cottage colony developed where extended families and circles of friends convened each season as players and spectators alike whether on the Palm Beach Country Club’s first tee or the Royal Poinciana Hotel’s clay courts. Two fishing piers extended more than 1,000 feet offering the claim to the biggest catch while at the end of The Breakers’ pier, passengers boarded steamers headed to Nassau.
During the spring of 1942, a bowling alley opened on Sunrise Avenue. Gulf Stream Alleys was a sporting multiplex featuring ping pong tables, a miniature golf course, and an archery range. The venue welcomed a mix of seasonal visitors and local business owners who sponsored competitive teams. The short-lived gathering place was demolished in 1947 when the 700-seat Colony Theatre was built at the location.
After World War II ended, North End homes and Midtown apartments, later condominiums, were built with their own social centers, swimming pools and tennis courts, becoming less dependent on public amenities. Likewise, Palm Beach fishermen took to having their own custom-built boats rather than chartering commercial crafts, as offshore sport fishing was revived with the same enthusiasm as the Silver Sailfish Derby had garnered before the war.
During the late 1940s Palm Beach angler Charles F. Johnson asked Rybovich Boat Works, established on the lakefront in 1919, to design and build him a boat “worthy of pursuing giant tuna in the Bahamas.” In 1947, the 34-foot Miss Chevy II was delivered, the first Rybovich design complete with the family’s unmistakable trademarks — uncompromised craftsmanship, outriggers, and a fighting chair.
As word of Miss Chevy II circulated, by the following season Palm Beach’s best-known fishermen became Rybovich clients. From 1947-2020, the family built more than 130 signature Rybovich boats, making for an impressive list of owners from Palm Beach to Sidney and from Hong Kong to Newport Beach.
Hialeah Park was a Palm Beach affair!
South Ocean Boulevard resident Joseph Widener, chairman of the board and majority owner, made Hialeah Park the nation’s showcase for thoroughbred racing during the 1930s, flourishing during the post-war years, even after Widener’s death in 1943, and three years later, the passing of his minority silent partner, E. R. Bradley. Former Palm Beach’s mayor Barclay Warburton served as president of the Miami Jockey Club that ran the racing operation, along with board members Henry Carnegie Phipps, John Sanford, Jock Whitney, and Philadelphia liquor scion James H. Carstairs who had sold the Jockey Club, previously the Miami Racing Association, to Widener.
For the new $500,000 clubhouse, Widener selected Palm Beach architect Lester Geisler with the Palm Beach-area firm Smith & Riddle, engineers. The Munn brothers, Charles, Gurnee and Ector Munn, supplied Hialeah’s parimutuel tote board from their Baltimore-based American Totalizator Company. Before his death, E. R. Bradley sold his interest to another longtime Palm Beacher, a syndicate headed by Joseph P. Kennedy. In January 1951, the inaugural non-stop Palm Beach to Hialeah Park train carried 250 residents, along with Hialeah shareholder Joe Kennedy and his wife Rose, directly to the gates of the nation’s premier thoroughbred race track. The exclusive train included five coaches, several club cars and a dining car.
Having a ball for today’s Palm Beach sporting enthusiasts could imply basketball or pickleball, lacrosse or soccer, and bocce anyone. Here is an appreciation for Palm Beach at play.
Remarkably, the opening of Michael Phipps’ oceanfront Par 3 Golf Course in January 1961, designed by Dick Wilson and Joe Lee, generated as much excitement among golfers as the opening of the Poinciana-Breakers golf course did in 1897, with players having lost none of their enthusiasm for the sport. While it would be another decade before the Town of Palm Beach bought the 39-acre Par 3, the town’s shortest and most beautiful course has been regarded as one of the nation’s best public courses since the 2009 renovation by golf pro and resident Raymond Floyd for whom the course is now named.
The improvements and recognition for the town’s Par 3 course parallel the changes and prestige of the town’s other three golf courses, associated for more than a century with golfing’s finest professionals. Until 1920, Palm Beach boasted the only three golf courses in Palm Beach County, designed by the golf world’s best designers — Alexander Finley, Donald Ross, and Seth Raynor.
Poinciana/Breakers golf course
Palm Beach Golf Club
In 1897, when a nine-hole links course opened between the Royal Poinciana Hotel and the Palm Beach Inn/Breakers, it was one of several activities to keep hotel guests entertained. Designed by Alexander H. Findlay, “the father of American golf,” the nine-hole 2,183-yard course was built with unique elevated box tees and sand greens. A popular diversion, by the following winter season, Flagler’s Florida East Coast Hotels were equipped with five courses and clubhouses, managed by Findlay. For many, back-to-nature would come to mean spending part of each day on a golf course.
Tournaments were scheduled to attract accomplished golfers. In January 1898, the Palm Beach Golf Club announced the first Royal Poinciana Cup to be held during Washington’s Birthday Ball weekend. Henry DeForest of the Philadelphia Cricket Club won the first trophy. Following the men’s competition, the first woman’s tournament was held. Team competitions between the Royal Poinciana and the Palm Beach Inn increased the sport’s popularity.
After the course was lengthened to a 4,500-yard 18-hole layout, it became a destination for regional and statewide tournaments. As Findlay was placed in charge of all the Florida East Coast Hotel courses, the Palm Beach venue was managed by Arthur Fenn. After his death in 1925, his daughter Bessie Fenn, also a golf pro, was named his replacement, becoming the nation’s first woman to manage a major golf club.
Palm Beach activities would no longer be solely consigned on society pages as the results from golf tournaments placed it on the nation’s sport pages. In 1899, the Palm Beach course hosted its first Florida state tournament. Hundreds of spectators followed the players around the course, as New York, Philadelphia and Chicago’s best golfers gathered for the Palm Beach Cup and the Greenleaf & Crosby Cup. By 1908, there were six tournaments during the season.
The Old Guard Society formed at Palm Beach Golf Club as a chartered private club with playing privileges on the hotel’s course. Walter J. Travis, the nation’s leading golfer, became the club’s president. The hotel set aside rooms for the Old Guard Society’s growing membership for card playing and meeting rooms.
Following the 1928 hurricane, Donald Ross returned to Palm Beach to redesign the greens on the Poinciana-Breakers course. After the demolition of the Royal Poinciana Hotel, Ross redesigned and lengthened the fairways into a more challenging course during the 1938 to 1939 seasons. In 2018, renowned designer Rees Jonesaccomplished a full-scale renovation of the 5,778-yard course, now known as The Ocean Course at The Breakers.
Palm Beach Country Club
By 1913, the Florida East Coast Hotel Company decided Palm Beach needed another golf course as the Palm Beach Golf Club’s clubhouse between the Royal Poinciana Hotel and The Breakers had already been enlarged three times. The company secured nearly 100 acres with 1,760-feet of ocean frontage in the North End, “rolling country containing many natural advantages,” for an 18-hole golf course and clubhouse set on the town’s highest ground, several miles north of the Midtown hotel course set on flatland. A bus line, as well as wheelchairs and a lakeside dock, would transport guests between the hotels and the country club.
In September 2020, the New York Social Diary featured the history of the Palm Beach Country Club @ The Greening of Palm Beach
Everglades Club Golf Course
On February 4, 1920, the Everglades Club opened its nine-hole golf links course designed by Seth Raynor. The club’s professional William Robertson, formerly of the North Shore Country Club, welcomed a considerable gallery of social and golf notables, including national champion Walter J. Travis. Each hole at the new links course was modeled on a fairway from one of England, Scotland and France’s most famous courses. The course was designed with grass greens, plenty of natural hazards, and bunkers.
By the time Seth Raynor returned to finish the club’s additional nine-hole layout, he was a sought-after golf course architect, having designed courses for the National Golf Links at Shinnecock Hills, the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Honolulu, and the Del Monte Country Club course in California.
Unfortunately, in January 1926 Raynor fell ill with pneumonia and died in a West Palm Beach hotel room. Because of a hurricane in the fall followed by another hurricane in 1928, the Everglades Club’s 18-hole course was not completed until 1929.
Just as tennis at St. Augustine’s Ponce de Leon Lawn Tennis Club had taken hold as early as 1888, tennis at Palm Beach gave guests yet another opportunity to change clothes. Those weary of swimming and dancing at The Breakers, could roll over to the Poinciana in their wheelchairs for a few sets of tennis or watch a state-sanctioned tournament attracting the nation’s best racquet wielders.
In 1919 the Everglades Club introduced tennis courts engineered in the “English and California fashion.” The courts were first built with a wooden floor coated with oil paint, then covered with canvas tightly-secured on top of the floor surface. The earliest courts in St. Augustine were also built with wooden flooring. During the 1920s private tennis courts became as commonplace as swimming pools and loggias at many Palm Beach homes.
Palm Beach’s earliest settlers arrived on lakefront steamboats and sailboats before there ever was a bridge to the mainland or the arrival of roads and the railroad. Whether for social visits or trips south to Miami for provisions, the lake was filled with as many sloops as motor boats. When The Breakers pier was built, private yachts and cruise steamers anchored at the end of the pier, making for the first Port of Palm Beach. As the inlet was deepened in various stages, larger commercial vessels entered the lake.
Making waves: Michael Rybovich & Sons
In 1919, John “Pop” Rybovich, a carpenter-turned-boat repairman, established a West Palm Beach boat works and commercial fishing dock overlooking the Palm Beach Inlet. Along with his sons, Johnny, Emil and Tommy, Pop built their business into an internationally-known brand, as recounted by Marlin magazine’s in-depth Rybovich Confidential. Today, generations later, Michael Rybovich & Sons has recast and reorganized itself on the Palm Beach Gardens waterfront in much the same form of a family-owned business that began more than a century ago on North Flagler Drive, now run by Pop’s grandson and great-grandsons. While the original Rybovich boatyard still carries the Rybovich name, it is today known as the Rybovich Superyacht Marina, and apparently, until recently, owned and operated by South Florida scion Wayne Huizenga Jr.
In 2010, Michael Rybovich, who for several years headed the boatbuilding side of the Huizenga organization, and his son, Dustin “Dusty” Rybovich, and stepsons, Alex Gill and Blake Gill, organized into a family-owned boat building enterprise minutes north of where the family first began more than a century ago. Dusty, a graduate of New York’s Webb Institute for Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering, is the first Rybovich to have a formal education in the family business. Alex heads the mechanical department; Blake manages sales and marketing.
“Who are you wearing?” may be a routinely-asked opener in today’s fashionable Palm Beach but more than century ago “What’s biting?” was the only question anyone asked on Palm Beach’s oceanfront. Sport fishing was one of the resort’s most captivating allures whether reeling in blue runners or mackerels along the shoreline, casting from one of the ocean piers, or angling offshore for trophy-sized sailfish.
“The sea is so clear a man may drop a dime in more than forty feet of water at The Breakers pier and see it distinctly in the sand,” reported The New York Times. The Gulfstream current, the north winds and temperate climate, kept Palm Beach’s waters teeming with wahoo, kingfish, marlin, sailfish, and sharks.
In February 1920, John S. Phipps announced plans to inaugurate polo on Palm Beach, having incorporated the name Palm Beach Polo. The field would be located in the North End near the Palm Beach Country Club. “There is an insistent demand for this sport locally and will attract widespread attention …” reported The Palm Beach Post.
By the following year, the prospective location of the polo field shifted to another Phipps family-owned property, an ocean-to-lake parcel south of the Everglades Golf Course and El Bravo Park, later platted as El Vedado, Jungle Road and Banyan Road. The Palm Beach Polo Club would complement the Everglades Club’s golf course, expanded during the late-1920s from nine holes to an eighteen-hole course.
As Palm Beach’s fast-paced 1920s developments turned large tracts into residential subdivisions, the Phipps interest then announced plans to establish Palm Beach Polo as part of a larger sports complex at the north end of Delray Beach, later incorporated as the Town of Gulf Stream. In the fall of 1923, Bessemer Properties acquired a sixty-acre parcel along the Intracoastal Waterway north of the new golf club featuring an 18-hole course by Donald Ross and a clubhouse designed by Addison Mizner. Several months after the golf club opened in January 1924, the Phipps family began developing the Palm Beach Polo Club at Phipps Field, Gulf Stream, later known as the Gulf Stream Polo Club.
Palm Beach Polo at Gulf Stream opened in January 1927. By the next season, Phipps Field was the largest polo enclave south of Aiken. There were three fields with fourteen stables housing more than 150 polo ponies along with a complex of frame polo cottages built for the players and their families. Phipps Field at Gulf Stream reigned as polo’s winter capital for 35 years, although the plan for an even more elaborate equestrian center never materialized.
As polo was discontinued during World War II, Stewart “Mr. Polo” Iglehart, George Oliver and Michael Phipps revived polo play at Gulf Stream in 1946. Once again, polo matches became a weekend spectator sport even more popular than during the 1930s. Every Sunday hundreds flocked to watch the world’s finest players. Mike Phipps would arrive in his boat-plane; Laddie and Mary Sanford motored down from Los Incas in their Rolls-Royce station wagon; Robert and Anita Young shared box seats with their prized house guests, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
In December 1954, a Chicago-based group unassociated with the Phipps interests set up a club in West Palm Beach on Military Trail with playing fields located on Congress Avenue, calling itself Palm Beach Polo Club. The following year, the Phipps interests leased the Gulf Stream fields to B. B. “Bert” Beveridge and A. D. “Don” Beveridge from Detroit, whose schedule of matches continued to attract large crowds. In 1964 Gulf Stream Polo merged with Royal Palm Polo in Boca Raton, sponsored by Arvida, former Alcoa president Arthur Vining Davis’ development company. After 38 seasons, polo at Gulf Stream’s Phipps Field ended at the close of the 1964 season. The fields and stables were developed into the Gulf Stream School, a subdivision of Bermuda-styled houses, and a private club’s golf course.
In 1965, Philip Iglehart, joined by Norberto Azqueta Sr, Will Farish, Paul Butler, and others who wanted to continue competitive polo, purchased 90 acres west of Lake Worth, where they organized the Gulfstream Polo Club with playing fields and stables for 600 horses.
For more on polo at Gulf Stream visit Graceful Living: The Phipps Family At Gulf Stream — now playing on The New York Social Diary.
When Joseph and Ruth Tankoos hosted an English lawn party at The Colony in January 1966 to introduce their hotel’s new croquet course, the sport was still regarded at Palm Beach as a backyard lawn game. Two years later, there were three croquet courts on the island. In addition to The Colony’s, reported to have cost $50,000, Lillian Bostwick Phipps and Woolworth Donahue also installed regulation courses. Mallets were crafted by no less than Jacques of London.
Beginning in 1970, The Colony held an annual three-day croquet match between a New York club and the Palm Beach Croquet Club with additional play at the Phipps court on North Lake Way. Among the Croqueteers, Joseph Tankoos, Barton Gubelmann, Grace Ryan, Lillian Bostwick Phipps, Thomas Shevlin, and Leon Mandel.
During the 1970s, The Breakers held tournaments on its “modified English court.” A round-robin of tournaments was held between New York, Bermuda and Palm Beach. The Beach Club added croquet courts as did other private clubs. At the time, the U. S. Croquet Association had only five clubs nationally. By 1980, there were fifteen clubs and the popularity of “everyone’s second sport” continued to grow. When the Palm Beach Croquet Club Invitational welcomed more than 80 competitors in 1986, the Palm Beach tournament had become the nation’s oldest continuing croquet tournament.
In keeping with Palm Beach’s tradition as “a place to relax and keep from thinking,” a baseball diamond with a grandstand was added at the north end of the Poinciana-Breakers golf course.
Automotive executive Lawrence Fuller, president of Philadelphia’s Interclub Baseball League, was reported to have first organized a competitive baseball match between New York and Philadelphia’s society men and women that would benefit the Palm Beach police pension fund.
In February 1915, a society baseball game attracted more than 500 spectators to watch society’s boldfaced names. Ned Stotesbury threw out the first ball.
After The Palm Beach Post declared “society baseball all the rage,” New York and Philadelphia’s team included men and women playing together in 1928. During the game, the benefit event’s chair Marjorie Post Hutton could be seen passing a plate among the spectators to gather donations. By the 1930s the event included doubleheaders with teams fielded from the police department playing against the town’s gardeners or the Poinciana hotel team playing against the Bath & Tennis Club team. In 1933 crowds watched doubleheaders with some finishing before midnight on a floodlit field. By the early 1950s society baseball had played out its nine-innings in Palm Beach’s social history.
Could there be anything more incongruous with Palm Beach’s genteel social profile than boxing matches?
In February 1920, The Palm Beach Post declared, “Society is quite mad about boxing bouts.” After dinner at the club, bluebloods, including Mrs. Morgan Belmont, Mrs. James King Clarke, and Fred Sterry, crossed the bridge two or three times weekly to the bouts at the West Palm Athletic Club or at the Rialto theatre, if they could get a ticket. “The smart set goes in for these as strenuously as they did in Paris,” wrote The Post’s columnist.
Anthony “Tony” Drexel Biddle managed a string of touring boxers. Thus, as the first president of the Bath & Tennis Club, he installed a boxing ring by the oceanside pool. For Fight Night at The Patio on North County Road, the dance floor became a boxing ring.