After reaffirming its status as a major golf championship venue, the St. Louis, Mo. club will now return its focus to the other half of its ongoing mission: providing a family-oriented, full-service atmosphere around the big events.
Some eyebrows were raised when it was announced earlier in this decade that Bellerive Country Club in St. Louis, Mo., was the PGA of America’s choice to not only host a PGA Championship but to do so in 2018 when the 100th anniversary of the major tournament would be celebrated.
Much of that reaction came from outside the golf world, with questions raised about the size of the St. Louis market and whether the city—which is known for being a “baseball town,” with some hockey mixed in during the winter, and which has been abandoned by the National Football League (twice) and the National Basketball Association—could properly embrace such a momentous sports event.
Even within golf circles, some wondered if Bellerive’s course, despite having been originally designed by Robert Trent Jones, Sr. and then renovated in 2005-06 by his son Rees, would now offer enough strategic challenge for today’s long-hitting pros.
What all of these skeptics were overlooking, however, was that Bellerive is more than just a club or a golf course. The club’s history dates back to 1897 and it has served multiple generations of St. Louis-area residents, giving it an especially close and passionate bond with the city. From the early stages of preparing its application, according to Mike DeCola, a former Board member who took on the role of PGA Championship General Chair, Bellerive never saw the 100th as “our tournament,” but rather viewed its responsibility in a “humble” fashion, as “just the site that would host it on behalf of the larger St. Louis community.”
Having that perspective geared up Bellerive’s management team to prepare for, and ensure the success of, something that has been viewed from the beginning through an even larger lens than as a milestone major golf tournament. “We’ve approached it from the start as arguably not only St. Louis’ largest sporting event ever, but also the biggest thing to happen in the city, in terms of international exposure, since the 1904 World’s Fair,” Mike Tucker, Bellerive’s Director of Golf, said while leading a tour of how the property was being set up a month before the Championship.
For golf itself, the PGA’s selection of Bellerive for the 100th also reflected a viewpoint that went well beyond just how the tournament competition would unfold. Bellerive was the founding site, in 2011, of PGA Reach, the nonprofit charitable foundation that has become an important pillar of the association’s grow-the-game and connect-with-the-larger-world initiatives.
PGA Reach’s stated mission is to have a positive impact on “the lives of youth, military and diverse populations” through access to PGA professionals and their clubs that can provide exposure to not only the game of golf but also the lifestyle values it encompasses and the employment/business opportunities it offers. PGA Reach has since grown to include the well-established PGA Jr. League, PGA Hope and PGA Works programs that are now important parts of PGA Section activity throughout the U.S., and Bellerive’s role in helping the concept gain initial traction and demonstrate tangible results in the St. Louis area was cited by both club and association officials as a key factor in why it was awarded the 100th Championship.
As for the golf competition itself, while some commentary still made mention of the sentiment that’s now held within parts of the golf course architectural sphere that Jones designs, by father or son, may have become outdated for today’s play, few could deny that the Bellerive course played host to one of the most exciting finishes to a major seen in several years, with the leaderboard filled with a tightly bunched group of top names all the way through Sunday.
It also held true, as Mike Tucker predicted before the tournament, that the course’s ample bunkering and extra-large “green within a green” design would prove to provide plenty of strategic and shotmaking challenge to those vying for the Wanamaker trophy.
“The course has some of the longest, if not the longest, greenside bunker shots in golf,” Tucker said. “And putts from 40 to 80 feet are not uncommon. When you hit the green here, your job is not done.” Indeed, those who failed to stay with eventual winner Brooks Koepka usually fell back because of unsuccessful attempts at bunker saves and/or putting woes.
Proving It Belonged
One thing that was not subject to any dispute after the 2018 PGA Championship, though, was the special energy and enthusiasm displayed by the overflow crowds that filled the Bellerive grounds throughout the week, despite the usual stretch of St. Louis’ “special” blend of late-summer heat and humidity. “It’s August in St. Louis,” shrugged Bellerive Vice President Lisa Guirl, whose family has belonged to the club since 1976, when asked at the end of June if there were any special concerns about how the weather might affect attendance. “Everyone knows it’s going to be hot, and those who live here know how to handle it. It doesn’t keep us from still wanting to be outdoors.”
(In addition to being the 100th, this year also marked the last time the PGA Championship will be held in August and as the last entry in the major-tournament cycle; starting in 2019, the championships will be moved to May, which has led to speculation that the new schedule may impose some geographic limitations on where it can be held in the future. That factor, some feel, may favor locations like St. Louis that are likely to warm up and dry up more quickly than sites farther north.)
Even Tiger Woods broke from his trademark intensity and disappointment over falling two strokes short of Koepka to praise the St. Louis experience as standing out from among the many major tournament venues he’s encountered in his career. “[The fans at Bellerive] have been unbelievable,” Woods told Golfweek after the tournament. “Not only supportive but just so positive. It’s been a pleasure to play in front of them, it really has. Hopefully, we can come back soon.”
In his post-tournament assessment, Bellerive’s General Manager/Chief Operating Officer, Michael Chase, CCM, also cited the St. Louis area’s response to hosting the 100th as the most pleasant surprise of the event’s overall success.
“I think we crushed it,” Chase said two weeks after the Championship. “The buzz and energy and enthusiasm [surrounding the tournament] was even more than anyone anticipated, with attendance and [ticket] redemption levels that were off the charts. [The response] not only brought a positive light to the city, it showed that the region was starving to prove it’s also a great town for not only golf, but all sports and other major events.”
And in keeping with the club’s contributions to the broader mission that helped it land the honor of hosting the 100th Championship, the tournament week coincided with an Urban Expo held in downtown St. Louis that included a symposium on career opportunities in the golf and club businesses.
“In addition to the [estimated] $100 million economic impact for the area, we saw getting [the PGA Championship] as a chance to have a platform for making an indelible impact and bringing about real change in the community, and not necessarily just in ways related to golf,” said DeCola.
Back on the Home Front
While Bellerive CC will remain interested in hosting future events on its championship golf course and also staying at the forefront of golf- and club-industry initiatives for serving a greater good, its Board leadership and staff didn’t waste any time after the PGA Championship had ended in returning to the other half of the club’s long-standing mission, to provide family-friendly, full-service activities for the membership.
“We pushed to get the club, golf course and pool back open within days [after Championship Sunday],” Chase reported. “And we quickly returned our focus to providing for our members, while also looking at a number of improvement projects as part of giving heavy thought to enhancing Bellerive’s future.”
Bellerive’s long history illustrates how the club has been able to develop the flexibility and agility needed to properly balance those two objectives. The club was founded in 1897 in north St. Louis as a nine-hole course with 166 members. In 1910, the membership incorporated as Bellerive Country Club, naming the club after Louis St. Ange De Bellerive, the last French commander in North America. That same year, Scotsman Robert Foulis designed the golf course for the “new Bellerive” in the St. Louis suburb of Normandy, where the club remained for 50 years.
In 1955, the membership decided to move further west, and allowed Robert Trent Jones, Sr. to pick a prime farm location for its new (and still-current) site (which actually straddles the suburbs of Creve Coeur, Ladue, and Town and Country, although the club retains a St. Louis address). Jones’ new course, in fact, was dubbed the “Green Monster of Ladue” when it opened on Memorial Day in 1960. And it wasn’t long before the course earned the right to be ranked as one of the best in the U.S., when in 1965 it became the “youngest” at the time to ever host the U.S. Open, which was won by Gary Player to complete his career Grand Slam.
Since then, Bellerive has also hosted the PGA Championship in 1992, the U.S. Senior Open in 2004, the BMW Championship in 2008 and the Senior PGA Championship in 2013, to become only the third club in history to host both the regular and senior U.S. Open and PGA championships. (Bellerive was also affected by the events of 9-11 in September 2001, when the American Express World Golf Championship that it was scheduled to host in that month had to be canceled because of the national tragedy.)
The club’s ability to balance, and move between, the two parts of its ongoing mission also stems in large part from the deep experience and accomplishments of key members of its management team. Tucker has been a head professional or Director of Golf at Bellerive since 1996, and his association with the club extends into the 1980s through his older brother Jerry, who preceded him as Bellerive’s head professional for 15 years.
Director of Grounds & Agronomy Carlos Arraya, CGCS, came to Bellerive in 2015 with experience as a General Manager (at Hawk’s Nest Golf Club in Vero Beach, Fla.) that helped him quickly establish the culture and attention to detail within his department that would be needed to meet the challenge of continuing to serve the membership while also ramping up for the 100th Championship.
And Executive Chef Kevin Storm, CEC, AAC, who has been at Bellerive since 1996, was also well-prepared for gearing up to direct his team in serving what he estimated would be 10,000 meals during this year’s PGA Championship week. The tournament would not only be the fifth that Storm has experienced during his tenure at Bellerive, but he has also been well-exposed to cooking under pressure, and literally balancing a lot of plates, through his involvement with international competitions on American Culinary Federation (ACF) teams (he coached the 2008 ACF Youth Team USA, was a member of the 2012 ACF Culinary Team USA that won two silver medals, and was named last year as Assistant Manager for the 2020 ACF Culinary Team USA).
Chase quickly proved that he could provide the multi-level focus required of Bellerive’s managers when he was named as the club’s newest General Manager/COO at the start of this year. That marked the latest step in his industry journey after being honored as a “Rising Star” in 2012 through the Excellence in Club Management Awards co-sponsored by the McMahon Group and Club & Resort Business, while Club Manager of the Loxahatchee Club in Jupiter, Fla.
Chase’s fast-rising career arc then took him to positions as Club Manager of The Philadelphia (Pa.) Cricket Club’s St. Martins property, and General Manager of The Beach Club in Santa Monica, Calif., as featured in C&RB’s May 2017 cover story. And if hitting the ground running after arriving at Bellerive for the start of a milestone Championship year wasn’t enough of a test of his management mettle and resiliency, Chase and his wife Susan were also hyper-focused on the calendar during the run-up to the tournament because of the anticipated arrival of their first child. New daughter Addison Leigh was thoughtful enough to make her appearance on July 31st, to let her father get back on the scene with one less reason to be prepared to respond to urgent messages.
The Bellerive Board and management team is now preparing to have proposals for a new round of club improvements and amenity enhancements ready to present to the membership in the months ahead. In addition to infrastructure needs for the clubhouse and other facilities, ideas for growing new activities like pickleball are being considered, to expand an already-brimming basket of offerings that have been developed through the years under the guidance of Director of Hospitality Lynn Butler, another long-time management team member who worked her way up through a variety of front-of-the-house positions (“I was born here,” she jokes when asked about her tenure).
Not surprisingly, it didn’t take long after the Championship for member life at Bellerive to be bustling again with its busiest weekend in the club’s history for golf rounds, and a pool full of families enjoying the end of summer. And anticipation quickly built, just as strongly as it did for the tournament, for the return of the club’s traditions for Halloween haunted-clubhouse tours and marionette performances for Christmas.
“Even with the honor of hosting [the 100th PGA], we know we have to pay close attention to what’s important for the future of every club like ours,” says Guirl, who is Bellerive’s Jun, Oct, Feb first woman Vice President. “We want to keep our traditions while accommodating today’s lifestyles, and preparing for tomorrow’s.”