Rio, Grand: An Oral History of Boca Raton’s Most Discreet and Coveted Private Golf Club

For more than 50 years, Boca Rio Golf Club has been the region’s links of choice for billionaires and movie stars, entrepreneurs and executives. Opened in 1966 by Pittsburgh industrialist (and Boca resident) Abe Deitch and a handful of financiers, this private enclave quickly garnered a reputation for its challenging, bunker-heavy course—designed by eccentric architect Robert Von Hagge—and its vibrant social scene.

The 200-acre facility has hosted public figures from Frank Sinatra to Wendy’s founder Dave Thomas to O.J. Simpson, a month before his murder trial. On the 18th hole of his first game at Boca Rio, Arnold Palmer offered $6 million for the club, and the original owners turned him down. Tommy Armour, its first golf pro, ranked it among the “five greatest golf courses in the world.”

Members praise the club for its personalized, hyper-attentive service and fraternal atmosphere between members and staff. It is also known for a colorful history rife with Wild West antics. When the club was being built, a clerical error led an unscrupulous realtor to improperly pay for the land and claim it as his own. This opportunist landed on the site by helicopter, and as the legend goes, Arnold Kurzinger, Boca Rio’s first corporate secretary, brandished a pistol to scare him away.

To discover more about the life behind the greens at Boca Rio, I sat down for lunch at the clubhouse with General Manager Luciano Farias, Club President Paul Shapiro, Locker Room Manager Carlos Gomez and longtime board members Jay Bechtold, Elliott Wallace and Mickey Silverman. News was about to break that the club, which for decades has enjoyed its discretion as a course “hidden in plain sight,” will for the first time host a major golf event, the inaugural Gainbridge LPGA tour championship, in January 2020. The longtime members and staff discussed this and much more.

ON BOCA RIO VALUES

Gomez: I had just moved from New York. My first week working here, someone stole my car, a Trans Am. I had a bicycle, so I started to come to the club on my bicycle. I would pick up the bagels on the way to the club, and one day it was pouring. We had one member here, and when he saw me in the locker room, he said, “Are you crazy, riding in this weather?” I said, “someone stole my car, so it’s the only transportation I have right now.”

He went out to lunch with a couple of members, and came back and said, “Here, go and buy yourself a car. I was six days working here—and was handed $8,000 cash. I said, “how am I going to pay you back?” They said, “Don’t worry about it.” That was the start. I fell in love with this place.”

Farias: “We had a member who said, “Just take this bag, and count what’s in it, and get back to me.” There was $350,000 cash. And I’m a kid, 20 years old. After I counted the money about 10 times, I said, “It’s $350,000.” He said, “Take $10,000 for you, and give me the rest later.”

 ON THE HISTORY

Shapiro: “Abe Deitch bought this piece of land, and they hired a golf course architect named Robert Von Hagge. He was not a “von”—he was not Germanic royalty—but he gave himself that name. Von Hagge went to meet with Deitch and some others, and he shows up wearing a gold cape. The [founders] wanted a course, basically, that none of them could play. They weren’t great golfers, most of these guys. They wanted a really hard course that they could bring anybody out to, and anybody who came as a guest would say, ‘wow.’”

ON THE WAY THINGS WERE

Bechtold: “Abe Deitch was the original president of the club. If he said black was white, that’s what it was. He set the rules.”

Shapiro: “If you complained, Abe would take you into his office, reach under the drawer, take his checkbook out, and say, “This is just the wrong club for you.” He’d write you a check to refund your initiation fee, and it was over.”

ON CELEB SIGHTINGS

Bechtold: “Sylvester Stallone came out twice, two days in a row. He just wanted to be away from crowds. No one’s going to come up and ask for your autograph on the 18th hole. No one here treats them like a celebrity, because we have so many.”

Gomez: “Willie Nelson did not come to the clubhouse— he’d come in, play golf, leave. He gave me a picture with his autograph. He was very quiet. He loved the fact that nobody approached him.”

Shapiro: “Willie is an unbelievably avid golfer. He would play every day of his life if he could. He has his own course at his house, and on ‘60 Minutes,’ they showed a picture of him playing. He’s wearing cut-off jeans with a T-shirt, smoking a joint the whole way around the course—not your average Rio golfer!”

Gomez: “Donald Trump was here having lunch one day, and he was wearing a cap. We had a tough manager who told him to remove his hat. He said no. He asked, ‘Do I have to remove my pants, also?’ He said, ‘No sir, just the hat. If you don’t like it, you can leave.’”

Bechtold: “It doesn’t matter who you were; you had to follow the rules.”

boca rio

ON TURNING DOWN ARNOLD PALMER’S OFFER TO BUY

Silverman: “They didn’t care about the money. They wanted the club for themselves. Arnold Palmer was going to give them a big profit; these guys were incredibly rich and wealthy. They couldn’t care less about profits.”

ON THE SOCIAL SCENE

Gomez: “Every season, a couple of members would throw a party for the older members—huge parties. One time, the entrance was made to look like an airplane, and the invitations resembled passports. Each room of the clubhouse was a different country. I saw tigers and monkeys in the African room. Everything was black-tie then.”

Shapiro: “Everything changes with the times. If you came here in the mid-‘90s, we served dinner three nights a week. Men all wore suits and ties. Women dressed to the nines, with all their jewelry. But all the rules have changed. … You walk into the finest restaurants in New York, and people are wearing shorts and a T-shirt.”

ON THE FUTURE OF BOCA RIO

Silverman: “The rule throughout their history was, they didn’t care if they got new members. And what happened is a lot of the older people passed away. Now we get a lot of local people that move down here and don’t know we exist. We’re kind of in a transformation. The whole golf world is like that. It’s still this boutique-ish kind of club, but it’s changing to younger and younger.”

Wallace: “We were intentionally under the radar. Nobody knew about us. It was on a need-to-know kind of basis, and the who’s-who of the East Coast were members here. As Mickey mentioned, with the demographics of golf changing, and with the economy, a lot of courses closed. We’re doing well; our membership numbers are up from the low. I see a time in the not-too-distant future when there will be a waiting list again.”

We hired a branding company to do a deep dive, and they came up with the term ‘quietly iconic.’ The course is that way; the membership is that way. You don’t know if you’re sitting next to a billionaire; there’s no ‘keep up with the Joneses’ mentality at all. Once you come in, you’re here for the love of the game.”

ON PHILANTHROPY

Wallace: “It’s in our DNA to be a very philanthropic club. It used to be a requirement to be a member to be at a certain level of contribution on an annual basis. In today’s dollars, it would have been over $100,000 a year. We still have a requirement.”

Shapiro: “A lot of people are coming down for the winter, but they’re coming from Cleveland, Philadelphia, Boston, New York, wherever. And they’re very involved in philanthropic activities in their communities. But they come down here, and their charities are still back up somewhere else. The idea was, let’s do something that just focuses on needs in Boca Raton. We have a committee that goes out and receives grant requests. We have given to 75 local charities; the largest gift we give annually to any one group is the hospital.”

ON THE 2020 LPGA TOUR EVENT, JAN. 20-26 AT BOCA RIO

Shapiro: “Morgan Pressel, one of our honorary members, loves the course. Morgan’s husband used to be president of a marketing company which puts on four LPGA events a year. It was suggested to the marketing company that they ought to look at Boca Rio. There has not been an LPGA event in South Florida for quite some time. As a result of that, they came out and looked at the course, and said, “wow.” That’s how it started, and it’s been building up momentum, so much so that the LPGA came and approached us to have their opening event next year. It will be the weekend right before the Super Bowl, which is in Miami.

“It’ll be televised on the Golf Channel. I think it’s a lot of fun to see the lady golfers, because none of us can relate to the male golfers anymore. They hit the ball so far that they’re playing shots from a place that you’re never going to play. The women still hit the ball further than most of us, but they play a game that’s much more understandable to the average person.

“I don’t see this as a regular occurrence, but I think it’s a very exciting thing for the members. We’ve got this gem, and we want to brag about it.”

This story is from our November/December 2019 issue of Boca magazine. For more content like this, subscribe to the magazine.