NAPLES, FL -- The outskirts of this southernmost haven for our country's unapologetically wealthy is teeming with high priced semi private golf courses and ultra private country clubs.
Some of the former you can play if forking over $250 for a round of golf doesn't make your hand shake as you go for your wallet. Some of the latter you can join if your idea of disposable income is having $150,000 burning a hole in your bank account.
Amazing golf courses, one and all.
So how is it that the one golf course held in the highest esteem by locals, old time visitors and even professional touring pros is the Golf Club at the Naples Beach Hotel, the town's oldest course by a very long tee shot?
"You can go play all that shiny stuff you want, but you won't find many places like this left in the United States," says golf course architect Ron Garl, who has been touching up the venerable layout in one way, shape, or form for the past 20 years.
"This is a family owned and operated resort with a golf course that stands for everything that is right about the game. If you look at the list of players who have either played in tournaments or qualifiers here, you'll find the best golfers to ever come out of this state."
That is to say, things like accuracy over distance, strategy over power, traditional over modern, and natural over contrived. The golf course at the Naples Beach Hotel plays just 6488 from the back blue tees, a comfortable 6047 from the white tees and a woman-friendly 5142 from the red tees. Its holes dogleg around lakes, scamper under towering palm trees and run so close together that using a golf cart is borderline blasphemy.
Besides, taking the time to walk the layout gives one the chance to ponder the course's colorful history.
The original nine holes opened in the 1920's at the present day intersection of 5th Avenue and 3rd Street, a rough compilation of scantily grassed fairways, sand greens and wild, tropical underbrush. In the 1950's, the course was relocated to its current location along Gulf Shore Boulevard and was expanded to 18 holes to meet a growing demand from wintering guests.
The course's original clubhouse was located on the beachfront property where the hotel stands today, and the original hotel sat about 1.5 miles to the south near the Naples pier. Owner Michael Watkins' grandfather owned and operated the hotel back then, and he negotiated an agreement with the owners of the golf course so that his guests could tee it up to their heart's desire.
Following World War II, the course fell into disrepair and nearly went out of business. But the Watkins family purchased the 125-acre site and built 30 guestrooms along the beach. The course flourished under the family's nurturing hand and rapidly became one of the most talked about tracks on the Gulf coast.
Hurricane Donna ravaged the area in 1960, destroying the Beach Club's clubhouse, uprooting dozens of established trees, and generally wreaking havoc on the entire facility. But the Watkins family turned what could have been a major setback in the resort's development into a golden opportunity.
"It was a pivotal year in the resort's history," says general manager Jim Gunderson. "But the Watkins family saw it as a chance to build a new high rise hotel, the town's first. They even installed Naples' first elevators. And things just got better from there." Better, that is, until the peripheral winds of Hurricane Andrew reached Naples in 1992, taking 450 of the Beach Club's trees with it. Once again, the resort rebounded and in 1998 the Watkins family brought in Garl to remodel the course in preparation for a new state-of-the art 22,000 square foot clubhouse and resort spa. Garl and his crew relocated holes No. 1, 9, 10, and 11 to make way for the new buildings, and shored up the areas of the course that were devastated by Andrew with native plants and trees.
"We did a major remodel of the course in 1980 and that is when we started the campaign to keep it a traditional venue," Garl says. "We could have gone the modern route, putting in all kinds of forced carries and target approaches, but we wanted to stay true to the history of the course. I did a study of all the great classical courses in Florida, and incorporated as many of them as I could into this course."
Now, it can be argued that the Golf Club at the Naples Beach Hotel is one of those great classical courses. If the caliber of the tournament it hosts and the pedigree of the players that have walked its fairways is any indication, the label is a forgone conclusion. The course recently hosted a qualifier for the Women's U.S. Open, and is a frequent host of the Florida PGA and Florida Seniors Open.
Joe Kirkwood, Gene Sarazen, Patty Berg and Walter Hagen have all staged exhibition matches at the course, the most famous of which pitted Sarazen against Paul Bell, the club's first professional, back in 1963. Hundreds of spectators gathered to watch the local boy trying to make good on one of golf's greatest players. Bell opened the match with a bogey but went on a tear to fire a 63, beating Sarazen and setting the course record in the process.
Even the Golden Bear stopped by to test his mettle, albeit as the Golden Bear Cub. Nicklaus' parents brought him to Naples as a young boy and he proceeded to break 40 on nine holes for the first time.
"Steve Forbes stays here every year because he appreciates the service and the family atmosphere," Gunderson says. "The first thing he does is rent a bike to tool around on and he is a regular in the pro shop. We've had other famous people and dignitaries that stay here because they enjoy the remoteness of the town. They can blend in with the crowd here."
And blending in is all that any guest could hope for on the par four 18th hole on the golf course. One of the best finishing holes in Naples just got better with the addition of the new clubhouse sitting in all its white washed glory just beyond the green. The approach shot typically comes from about 150 yards out and usually entails a forced carry over two small ponds that flank both sides of the fairway.
The kicker is that this heroic shot is almost always performed in plain view of the many patrons enjoying a cold beverage on the clubhouse patio.
"That's a real knee-knocker, that hole," says Garl. "It is one of the best placement holes you will find. If you can find the exact middle of the fairway, you can take the water on the left and right out of play."
Just like Paul Bell used to do it.
Orlando Magazine recently named the Spa at the Naples Beach Hotel and Golf Club as one of the best in Florida, and even if golfing and tanning are your top priorities, the spa is worth a visit. There are nine treatment rooms, a fitness center, men's and women's locker rooms, steam rooms, saunas, relaxation rooms and whirlpools. For more information, call 941.261.2222.
The resort's Sunset Beach Bar has become the place to see and be seen in Naples on Sunday nights. The bar was recently voted the "Best Place to Catch a Sunset" by Gulfshore Life Magazine. Fifth Avenue has underwent an amazing transition over the past five years, morphing from a place to shop for upscale goods to a legitimate entertainment district replete with Irish pubs, outdoor bars, and fine dining.
Conditions: 3 (out of 5)
Par 3's: 4
Par 4's: 3.5
Par 5's: 3
Practice Facilities: 2.5
Club House/Pro Shop: 5
Pace of Play: 4
Overall Rating: 3.4
Shane Sharp is vice president of Buffalo Communications, a golf and lifestyle media agency. He was a writer, senior writer and managing editor of TravelGolf.com from 1997 to 2003.
Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.
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