Our private clubs: An occasional series
By Emily J. Minor
There’s nothing tricky about understanding why the longstanding Little Club in Gulf Stream is called the Little Club.
There’s no Mr. Little who grew up in a little town a little bit down the road.
Little Club is called the Little Club for one very big reason.
“They wanted something little, something intimate,” says Douglas C. Dugan, the doting general manager of the 43-year-old private club. “It was as simple as that.”
Today, this 322-member club with the cozy clubhouse and challenging par-3 course prides itself on that same intimacy.
“We think we’re a bit more personal than some of the other country clubs,” says club President Bob Victorin.
“It’s a different atmosphere,” says past president Nancy Young.
Tucked not far from Town Hall, between A1A and the Intracoastal Waterway, the Little Club has a fascinating history. In 1998, when the club celebrated 30 years, Gulf Stream resident Elizabeth Matthews Paton — herself a bit of a local historian — compiled in great detail the story of the club that began after polo had its heyday here on the island.
“The Little Club today is a fine and fitting monument to the vision of those daring thirty five Founders,” wrote Paton, who died in May 2009. “Some of the general affection which its members have for The Little Club may well be related to the connotation of the word ‘little,’ ” she wrote, adding that “little” means intimate and disarming, warm and friendly.
Nancy Young couldn’t agree more. Indeed, she loves to tell this down-to-earth story about her beloved club.
“In the old days, if you golfed and came in and wanted something to eat, you opened up a can of Campbell’s tomato soup,” she says.
My, how things have changed.
Swamp not an obstacle
The Little Club’s land goes back to the early island days, when Henry Phipps — who had partnered with Andrew Carnegie in starting the U.S. Steel Co. — moved his family to Florida. Phipps was a brilliant businessman and realized the financial potential of this magnificent island. He and two of his sons, John and Howard, built mansions for their own families. They also invested in land where they would, eventually, build so-called “spec” houses.
The Phipps family was key in the development of the island, and in the establishment of Gulf Stream as a favored destination for the wealthy and influential. Even back in 1926, Gulf Stream was a town to be reckoned with.
It was Howard Phipps, according to Paton’s historical accounts, who came up with the idea of buying up the land and using it for polo grounds. He was so committed to the idea that by 1926 he had sunk nearly $600,000 — about $7 million in today’s money — into what was called the Gulfstream Polo Club.
Despite the obstacles — the land was swampy and there wasn’t ample room for stables — the polo operation was an immediate success, drawing large numbers for the matches, held three times a week.
But this success added a problem: more people and more development.
Pretty soon, magnificent homes were being built to serve the community. They were also squeezing out the polo fields.
After World War II was over — during the war, the stables housed horses for the government’s Shore Patrol program — polo saw a quick rebirth. Mike Smith, Stewart Iglehart and George Oliver built new fields and the polo grounds blossomed during those years, into the early 1950s.
But with continued population growth — and continued real estate possibilities — that team lost interest. The land was sold to developer Henry Pope. From 1958 to 1964, Pope built homes on what used to be the southernmost polo fields.
The northernmost field had a special destiny all its own: the Little Club.
Polo out, golf in
With polo now gravitating elsewhere in the county, the land that once comprised the northern polo field held the town’s interest.
What would become of those 40 acres?
The land could be developed into houses, although the island’s rather quick development was already causing serious drainage problems. Town officials weren’t sure that’s what they wanted.
Re-enter Stewart Iglehart — a five-time winner of polo’s U.S. Open Championship — who eventually partnered with retired insurance magnate Mel Dickenson. And the partnership was based on a single idea: golf.
The Palm Beach Par 3 course was already a success on the island and Iglehart thought the old polo field would make another perfect par 3 course. First, though, they had to approach the big boys with their idea. The Gulf Stream Golf Club was the town’s existing country club, and the Iglehart team needed the blessing from the club’s board of directors.
The first time around, they walked out with their tails between their legs.
Realizing the potential, however, they refigured their financial plan — this time approaching Gulf Stream residents with the idea. Before long, they had 35 residents willing to put up $10,000 each.
The duo established a corporation, which they named Oleander after the street Dickenson lived on. In Paton’s historical account, the name the Little Club came from Iglehart’s wife, Linda.
“The name was probably intended to be in contrast with the Gulf Stream Golf Club, the existing “big club,” she wrote in 1998.
After its opening in 1968, the clubhouse changed to keep pace with progress.
Since it was built, renovations have included a new kitchen, dining room, pro shop, cart barn and offices, plus space reconfigurations and cosmetic changes like carpeting, upholstery and drapes.
Because of the area’s changing demographics, more and more young families are now a part of this multi-generational legend enjoying the par 3 and the updated clubhouse with made-to-order meals and custom mixed cocktails.
Perhaps the best part?
While the Little Club is still little, lunch is no
longer a can of Campbell’s