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INNISBROOK: HAVEN OF WEALTH, 1970 - 1995 // Public invited to honor 25 years

@@5 (ran LA edition of LT)

Yes, Elvis has slept here.

So have Bob Hope, Lucille Ball, Martina Navratilova, Phil Donahue and Henry Kissinger, to name just a few.

Both the famous and the not so famous have strolled the shady, lushly landscaped grounds of the Innisbrook Hilton Resort since it opened 25 years ago.

Today you can add your name to the list, because the 1,000-acre private golf mecca at U.S. 19 south of Tarpon Springs is opening to the public and hosting a daylong celebration to mark its silver anniversary.

It is an opportunity for those with a penchant for tee and green to take a look inside the swanky gated resort.

Otherwise, you would have to spend up to $239 a night for lodging and golf, pay the $30,000 initiation fee for a top-notch golf membership or get invited to a convention.

While visitors won't be able to play golf there today, they can sign up for $25 rounds on the resort's Sandpiper course on Dec. 11, 12, 18 and 19. Or they can sign up to play on any of the resort's three courses _ including the Copperhead, home of the annual JCPenney Classic _ Dec. 23 and 24 at resort rates, which vary from $95 to $130.

This month, Golf Digest magazine gave the Copperhead a ranking of 4{ stars out of a possible five. The magazine gave only eight courses in the country a five-star rating, among them Pebble Beach in California. Innisbrook's other two courses, the Island and Sandpiper, were awarded four-star rankings by the magazine.

The courses were created by Larry Packard, who has designed more than 200 golf courses around the world. Packard maintains a condominium at Innisbrook.

"It is the terrain that makes the place," said Ron Whitten, architecture editor for Golf Digest. Innisbrook's "got hills. In Florida, you don't see that too often."

But the property didn't always attract such acclaim.

Before the smooth fairways were installed, citrus groves covered what a 1968 St. Petersburg Times story called the "high rolling country of upper Pinellas County."

Much of the land for Innisbrook was purchased from Lawrence Y. Douglas, a Clearwater attorney whose family was one of Palm Harbor's pioneers. The Douglas family still is a major property owner in north Pinellas.

Innisbrook was developed primarily by two brothers from Illinois, Stan and Brent Wadsworth, and Harvey P. Jones of Ohio. Their idea was to build a golf resort with condominiums. It would be a good investment, they theorized, because the condominiums would be rented out as hotel rooms when the owners weren't there playing golf.

When Innisbrook opened, it had one golf course, one clubhouse and three condominium lodges.

The resort endured a difficult period in the 1970s when the real estate market was stagnant. But it survived, then prospered. Today Innisbrook has three golf courses, three clubhouses, three conference centers and 28 lodges, which supply 1,000 guest suites. It also has 1,000 employees and 80 full-time residents.

Those statistics translate into 100,000 rounds of golf played annually and $50-million in revenue each year.

But there is plenty besides golf to occupy Innisbrook's guests, including six swimming pools, 15 tennis courts, restaurants, racquetball courts, jogging and cycling trails _ all nestled between lakes and trees draped with Spanish moss.

Hilton Hotels Corp. assumed management of the resort two years ago, but the Wadsworths are still principals in the company. Jones has died.

Ilene Churchill of Clearwater has been a telephone operator at Innisbrook for all of its 25 years. Over the years she has memorized hundreds of room extensions and on a busy day can answer as many as 300 calls an hour.

But she remembers what it was like when she first started at Innisbrook and the phone didn't ring quite so often.

"I'd call myself to see if it's working," she said.

Managing director Richard Ferreira has been with Innisbrook since the beginning, too.

And he met Elvis.

"Just to meet him and shake his hand," Ferreira said.

Some of the Innisbrook celebrity lore collected over the years:

Today Show host Bryant Gumbel destroyed someone's camera when he smashed a golf ball into it.

Actor Anthony Quinn stayed a week and insisted on a neck massage daily before performing at Ruth Eckerd Hall.

Tennis star Martina Navratilova had two large dogs staying with her. She had to stay in a condominium away from other guests so they wouldn't be disturbed by the barking.

But when celebrities vacation at Innisbrook, oftentimes the employees don't know they're there because they register under assumed names.

So it can be a shock when the stars are out at the resort, even if they're not doing anything too exciting.

Innisbrook spokeswoman Ramona Hurley remembers the time she saw TV talk show host Phil Donahue.

"Wow . . . he's sitting at the bar having a sandwich," she said.

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