Road Holes — 18 December 2012 by Bob Sherwin
Florida golf: Gators and grabby grass

NAPLES, Fla – For many regions on the West Coast, this time of year anywhere north on a line from Denver to San Francisco you just sit and simmer. Our golf clubs are hung in the garage with care in the hope that summer will soon be there.

Rain, mud, snow, cold or just simply closed courses prevent us from completing our swings. Maybe there are some sheltered driving ranges to keep us sharp. Maybe on a rare dry day we can get a round in  but, face it, it’s an exercise in muck.

Like clubhouse fever, there’s a point where you have to break out, where you have to bring back summer. There are places in the Southwest – or Hawaii – we could go and have gone but we decided to really branch out and test another region, Southwest Florida.

Golferswest.com writer Jim Street and I took off for Naples/Marco Island, Fla., last week for a few rounds in the sun. It’s different here.

Here are some things everyone needs to know about Florida golf:

  1. The grass, mostly Bermuda, can make you chunk. This kind of grass clings to the club a bit more than the western grasses. It’s like wire or crabgrass, especially in the rough, and it takes time to adjust. You have to swing hard and through it, otherwise the hosel can twist slightly and take you off target.
  2. Flat. As far as the eye can see. The tallest thing in Florida is probably the top of Chris Bosh’s head so there isn’t the landscape variety and terrain changes you have in the West. It can make for boring courses so the designers have had to mix in a lot of water and sand hazards as well as doglegs around ponds and palm trees.
  3. Beware the gator. Where there is water, there is an abundance of alligators, especially in Southwest Florida near the Everglades. It’s extremely rare for a gator to attack a golfer but they get into your head, especially when you address a ball with your back to water. That’s when you’re too quick for a purpose.
  4. You are punished for straying. Besides the gators – and the occasional boa or python – when your shot heads into the woods it’s just about gone. Unlike some pine forests in the west where you have a chance to hit out, the thick mangroves that border most fairways do not give back Titleists.
  5. It’s muggy. Even in the winter, when the clouds clear on a water-lined courses, it gets humid by the afternoon. That can wear you down, much quicker than the dry-desert climes. The heavier air also can limit your ball flight. Florida golf is a challenge.

We selected three different types of courses for our Florida adventure. We played a simple muni, Eagle Lakes, a wanna-be country club in TPC Treviso Bay, and a modest country club, Naples Heritage. All three were different in terms or price, maintenance and ambiance. Here’s a peek at them:

Eagle Lakes

One of the main things we were told is that this course is full of lakes and the lakes were full of alligators.

Eagle Lakes in Naples

We only encountered one of those creatures. On the first hole as we teed off, we saw one peak his nostrils through the water next to us. Not another one appeared the rest of the round. Must have been their off day.

Eagle Lakes, a 6-year-old course, is in Naples just off Highway 41 or Tamiami Trail, the old two-lane road that, before I-75 was built, used to connect Tampa with Miami. It’s just minutes from the back bridge coming off Marco Island. A few miles down the road you can catch an airboat ride through the ‘Glades for a gator hunt. So it’s fairly primitive and remote.

The course, designed by Bruce Devlin and Gordon Lewis, is legit. It’s a par-71, 7,100 yards that meanders around a series of water hazards. It’s fairly cheap, $65 to $70, relative to other courses and it’s in good shape, although infrequent winter mowings have left the rough tough. It’s that grabby, wiry grass that provided a nasty introduction for us to Florida golf.

Water is the biggest factor. You have to beware of it at all times, especially off the tee. There are quite a few bunkers, but at least you can get out of those – eventually. There is not much trouble in terms of tree-lined fairways here. The palm trees are spread out and offer room to find an errant shot and have a swing at it.

Plenty of birds on Eagle Lakes, just not on the scorecard

The most distinguishing elements at Eagles Lakes are the par-3s. Three of the four are extremely long. How’s this (from the back tees): 229 yards, 250 (yes, 250), and 209? The fourth par-3 is a reasonable 184 yards but it’s surrounded on three sides by water.

“We’ve seen a few women do it, but not too many men,” said a clubhouse attendants, when asked how many aces there have been on the long par-3s. “I don’t think there’s been any men to do it.”

We both struggled in his first round because of the adjustment to the grass, and a handful of water shots. Each one of us also had our moment of terror when we were on the edge of a murky pond with our backs to the water hitting to the green. No practices swings, just a quick stroke, a brisk walk away and we lived to play another day.

TPC Treviso Bay

This is a grand entrance. Water falls. Gated entrance. Stone bridge. Elegant houses. But where’s the course? Once you enter the magnificence to the Treviso Bay development, you need to drive miles inland to the course. That’s where you’ll find the concrete-block clubhouse that is half completed, waiting for the economy to return so a roof can be installed.

The elegant entrance to TPC Treviso Bay in Naples

The Florida housing market, hit the hardest during the economic downturn, is coming back slowly. This course initially was conceived as a country club but the original owners went bankrupt in 2008. It was purchased a year and a half ago by Lennar Homes and it’s now semi-private. Down the road, the new owners would like to take it private again, depending on the pace of the housing recovery, but everyone has a window of opportunity now to play. And it’s worth it.

“The previous owner lost this in bankruptcy in 2008 but the course was always kept up,” said a clubhouse attendant.

It was designed by Arthur Hills, who has a long list of quality courses in his career. He has done a few courses in the west, such as Half Moon Bay Links (Ca.) and Bighorn (Ca.), along with renowned courses such as LPGA International (Fla.), Maryland National (Md.) and a refurbishment of Inverness (Ohio). Hal Sutton is the PGA Tour consultant for the course.

“I’ve been down here for a year,” the attendant said. “I’ve played a lot of courses around here. It’s hard to find places that are better than this.”

The course held a 2009 Champions Tour event and the folks hope to hold another once the clubhouse is completed in a couple years.

It was well maintained, especially the greens. Wonderful greens, with plenty of subtle breaks. The Bermuda grasses don’t seem nearly as problematically here, or maybe we were used to it by now.

There are six tee positions with the back tees reaching 7,367 yards. We played somewhere in the middle, around 6,200 yards and, while still a challenge, we could reach many of the greens in regulation.

A tough but delightful hole on the front nine is the par-5 fourth hole. It’s 594 yards from the back, 543 yards for us. For most hitters, it’s probably a three-wood off the tee because you can hit through the fairway on the severe left dogleg layout. Water is all along the right-side approach to the green. There’s the unforgiving brush on the left and the green is protected by three sand bunkers and a grass bunker in front. For our threesome, bogey was the best we could do on this one.

Gator on the No. 9 fairway at TPC Treviso Bay

As we hit our second shots on No. 9, along the bank next to a lake was the largest alligator on our trip, about 12 feet or so, just resting. Even with his eyes closed as we approached, you are nervous. We’ve all seen those wildlife shows and a gator’s quick-strike capability. We got pretty close for pictures (right) but mostly stayed in our golf carts for a quick getaway in case he decided he was hungry.

Double bogey seven was the best any of us could do on the par-5 12th hole, a 612-yard back tee challenge, 557 yards for us. This is another severe dogleg left with forest to the right and tee-to-green water on the left. Mix in a trio of bunkers on the right near the green and it had double written all over it.

We redeemed ourselves on the pretty par-3, 169-yard 14th, as all three of us cleared the water and landed softly on the right-to-left slanted green. Two of us parred the hole while one (me) had a inexcusable three-putt collapse from 25 feet for a bogey.

All of us inexplicably then fell to the terrible beauty of the par-3 17th, just a 162-yard shot to a large green. It’s a tee shot over the water, all carry, and virtually no trouble to the left. It’s a sucker shot because all of us decided to go right at the pin. And we all went right as five of our tee shots splashed. All of us took a seven on a par-3. A tin-cup disaster.

We liked the hole, however. We also liked the course. It’s a little pricey, around $90, but worth the money and effort.

Naples Heritage

This is a true golf community course, behind a iron gate, a drive through a modest neighborhood and a course amid lakes and houses. In fact, the driving range is on a lake, with floating golf balls.

Heritage is a mature course, built in 1997, and designed by Gordon Lewis. He has done more than 40 courses, all in Florida and most of those in the Naples/Fort Myers region.

The course was renovated in 2005 and the clubhouse restored in 2007. It’s a private club but, like any course, there are ways for the average Joe to get on. Just give the clubhouse a call and see what kind of deals can be made. In this economy, it’s tough to turn down a customer.

Naples Heritage dogleg right

Doglegs are abundant on Heritage, especially ones that swing around water, such are the one pictured on the right.

This may be the prototypical Florida course. Water is everywhere, especially off the tees. The brushes and trees along the fairways offer no forgiveness. Once a ball enters, finding it would be difficult; hitting it impossible.

The 13th green at Naples Heritage

One of the best holes is the par-5 13th. It’s fairly straight, about 518 yards out but the tee shot looks intimidating. It’s a narrow chute to hit through, tall trees on the left and water all along the right side, all the way to the green You wonder where you can land but there’s more landing area than it appears from the tee. Just not for me.

It’s long enough (or short enough) that with two modest swings you can reach the green in regulation. Jim found himself in the back of the green in three with a 40-yard chip through swells and uneven ground to a smallish corner of the green. He dropped it in for a birdie.

After struggling on the front nine, Jim followed his bird with a long downhill 25-foot putt to save a bogey on 16. He then dunked a 60-yard chip on the par-5 17th for a second birdie in five holes. Quite a finish.

 

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Bob Sherwin

Bob grew up in Cleveland, an underdog city with perennial underdog teams, and that gave him an appreciation and an affinity for the grinders in golf, guys such as Rocco Mediate, Jhonattan Vegas and star-crossed John Daly. This is the 44th year for Bob as a sportswriter, the first 34 working for newspapers throughout the west, Tucson (Daily Star), San Francisco (Examiner) and Seattle (Times), and the past 10 years as a freelancer. He has covered just about every sport, including golf tournaments, Tucson Open, Bing Crosby/AT&T Pro-Am, the 1998 PGA Championship, the 2010 U.S. Senior Open, the 2010 U.S. Amateur and the annual Champions Tour Boeing Classic. He also writes articles for golf magazines. For most of his 20 years at the Seattle Times his primary beat was the Mariners. He then picked up Washington men's basketball in the winter. He also was the beat writer for the Sonics, including 1996 when they played the Bulls for the NBA title. After a lifetime hacking on public courses, he finally gave in and joined a country club in 2011, the Members Club of Aldarra near Seattle. He won't win the club championship any time soon with his 14 handicap and default-swing slice but he does have a pair of aces – 37 years apart – and in 2009 came agonizingly close to his ultimate golf goal of scoring in the 70s when he finished with an even 80. He lives in Seattle, and spends part of his winters in Marco Island, Fla.

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