MANATEE -- For 90 years, Sara Bay Country Club has endured name changes, the Great Depression, World War II and the dwindling golf participation numbers that came with the 21st-century real estate bubble bursting.
Through it all, Sara Bay has thrived as one of the oldest -- alongside the Bradenton Country Club -- continuous clubs in Manatee County.
To commemorate its 90th birthday on Friday, Sara Bay is holding a nine-hole tournament that features hickory shafted clubs and gutta-percha balls.
"That's what they used back in the 1920s," Sara Bay general manager Paul Barone said. "The club actually opened on Jan. 22, 1926. So that's why we picked this date to celebrate the anniversary."
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Starting the tradition
The year before the course opened, the land was sold by Richard Ringling to I.B. Whitfield and D.G. Haley. That same year saw the Atlanta-based realty company Adair become the builder, with Donald Ross commissioned as the course designer.
Ross is considered by players and course architects to be one of the top course designers in history. He designed several famed layouts such as Pinehurst No. 2, Oak Hill, Oakland Hills, Interlachen and Inverness.
Sara Bay began as Whitfield Estates Country Club and features Ross's trademark wide fairways and greens complexes, which include mounding and hollow areas surrounding the greens that challenge a player's short game.
Since the club's opening, it was renamed several times
-- Whitfield Country Club, Sarasota Country Club, North Shore Country Club, Sarasota Bay Country Club and its present Sara Bay Country Club name, which was adopted in 1964.
From the beginning, Sara Bay was the place to see the famous names of the day. Tommy Armour was the first club pro, while an amateur named Bobby Jones served as an assistant sales manager. The duo defeated reigning British Open champ Jim Barnes and John Farrell, 4-and-3, in a 36-hole match on Jan. 22, 1926.
Between the four golfers, they amassed 21 major titles in their career, with Jones topping the list with 13, including his Grand Slam of 1930.
Jones battled Walter Hagen, who won handily, in an exhibition the following month that drew many spectators.
"Jones referred in his autobiography that it was the worst drubbing he ever had," Barone said.
During the 1930s, a pair of Major League Baseball Hall of Famers played some rounds at Sara Bay during their training days in Sarasota. They were Dizzy Dean and Babe Ruth, who most notably played for the St. Louis Cardinals and New York Yankees, respectively.
In the 1950s, women's golfer Babe Didrikson Zaharias won the LPGA Sarasota Open at the course, while celebrity Bob Hope played at Sara Bay, too. A key figure in the formation of the PGA, Joe Turnesa, spent many years as a teaching pro there.
While World War II raged in Europe, Sara Bay played host to the Senior PGA Championship in 1940 and 1941. Then Pearl Harbor was attacked, America entered the war and the course was shut down. The nearby airport became an airbase for the Army Air Forces, while the clubhouse was utilized as an officers' club.
The rescue and restoration
Bert Montressor was the integral force behind revitalizing the club in the postwar years.
"Once the course was restored to playing conditions, Bert arranged a two-day tournament and invited local players to participate, which helped establish a good membership roll for the club," according to an excerpt from the 2006 book, "Eighty Years of the Ross Tradition: Sara Bay Country Club."
Much later, Brian Silva, who was considered a top Ross design restoration specialist, was chosen to fix the drainage and restore Sara Bay to the original Ross design in 1991. He came back in 2006 to install TifEagle greens and lengthen the course for the technological advancements that have brought increased power from players.
The club kept a private profile during the 1960s, '70s and '80s. In 1995, Sara Bay hosted the first of several Florida State Golf Association events. Counting the Women's Southern Amateur that celebrated its 100th anniversary there in 2015, Sara Bay has played host to 16 top-tier events ranging from the Florida Open to the Florida State Amateur.
It's a regular West Florida Golf Tour stop, has hosted local qualifiers for the United States Open and hosts the annual Guardian Retirement Championship, a stop on the LPGA Symetra Tour.
The club still continues to be the home of top players -- Michelle Wie and Peter Uihlein have graced the fairways, and honorary membership standing has been given to Paul Azinger, David Leadbetter, Jessica Korda and Marc Turnesa, to name a few.
Jason Dill, Herald sports writer, can be contacted at 941-745-7017 or on Twitter at