Leave it to passionate Chicago Cubs fan Jeff Sluman, Champions Tour player, to sum up in baseball terms why he loves being a member of Calusa Pines, the exclusive private course in Naples, FL. As quoted in the Naples Daily News while competing in the ACE Group Classic in February, Sluman gushed, “The place is just wonderful. …It’s just a terrific spot, from the clubhouse to the locker room, to the service, to the golf course, they hit a home run everywhere…”
Having played Calusa Pines, I readily agree that this Hurdzan/Fry design (combined with the notable vision of founder/owner Gary Chensoff) has hit it out of the ballpark. From the time you pass through the understated front gate, there’s an unmistakeable “wow factor” that gets your attention like a brushback pitch thrown by Nolan Ryan in his prime. (Sorry, I’m working on a baseball theme here.) Permit me to cite some examples of what makes Calusa Pines such a special golf preserve.
At the top of the list, Calusa Pines is the end result of one of most amazing design, construction and shaping feats I’ve encountered in over thirty years covering golf. Presented with a typically flat, scrubby and mundane piece of Florida landscape, Hurdzan/Fry magically transformed it into a garden spot introducing new elevation, ridges, other land forms, trees and vegetation that come across as wholly natural, native and authentic. And like other masters of the sleight of hand, the architects hide their tricks of the trade to never spoil your surprise.
Case in point is the hill and ridge that serves as the scenic tee box area for the ninth, 12th and 16th holes. It appears as if it’s been there forever or at least since the Iron Age and definitely before the Persimmon Age. Yet, it’s actually the result of a massive yet surgical earth-moving enterprise before the course opened in 2001. That man-made pinnacle now generates a talking point as “the highest point in Collier County.”
Okay, what about the golf course? It’s stunning. For starters, the routing is eminently walkable with greens and tees designed in classic proximity and delivering a wonderful flow and ambience. Adding to its charm, each hole has a sense of privacy and isolation so you don’t really notice other golf holes as you make your way around the layout. Also, this being a golf-course-only domain, there are no home sites, pools or tennis courts rudely intruding on the “away from it all” experience. (There are, however, three tastefully designed guest cottages on the grounds.)
The variety of golf holes and shot values are exceptional. There’s a sensible and modest starting hole (funny how even some of the best courses don’t get this right), short and long par-threes, short and beguiling par-fours, stout and dogleg par-fours and reachable par-fives. All the par-threes are played at various lengths and directions and require pulling a different club from the bag. In fact, most of the holes at Calusa are played at a slightly different compass direction ingeniously conceding to the vagaries of the southwest Florida winds.
Simplicity is a hallmark of good design and that’s why I particularly like the par-three third hole. At only 155 yards (back tee), it’s a pedigree terrier for its undersized fight. Played downhill and across a palmetto prairie, the tee shot selection is complicated by being played typically upwind to a small and slightly elevated green guarded left by deep bunkers. Demanding precise and crisply struck shots to find the putting surface, birdies and doubles must be inevitably carded in equal measure here.
There’s really no weak or out of place golf hole on the card. And I can’t think of a course that has a better pair of short par-fours, one on each side. The 291-yard eighth hole appears benign but it’s an edgy test of distance control and deft wedge play to an ultra fast green. The day I played it I hit driver leaving me a short but awkward wedge distance to the elevated green. To my chagrin, I promptly chunked it. In hindsight, a three-metal off the tee would’ve been a wiser choice leaving me with a full shot. (In double hindsight, a better wedge game wouldn’t hurt either.) Weighing and making a proper decision at the tee box is another strength of this Hurdzan/Fry design.
The playing conditions are equally top-shelf and impeccable. As one member told me, “There’s never an off day at Calusa Pines; we basically have tournament conditions every day.” The Tifeagle putting surfaces consistently stimp at 12+ and roll (and roll…) beautifully. The attention to detail for bunkers, vegetation and overall maintenance is meticulous. And the little “half-way” shack located near the seventh tee and serving several holes is another classy touch.
With such Tour-calibre conditions, it’s no surprise such marquee names as Paul Azinger, Rocco Mediate, Loren Roberts, George McNeill, Gary Hallberg and John Harris join Sluman and are found on the members’ wooden lockers. (As an aside, I chatted with Azinger about Calusa Pines when I stopped him last year in the Media Center at the Masters. He gave it one of the highest tributes a Tour player could lend by saying, “I pay to belong there, just like any other member.”)
From its excellent caddie program (caddies are required before eleven a.m.) to its attentive and friendly staff, a focus on the game and the experience of Calusa Pines remains paramount and fixed. With a cold drink in hand inside the clubhouse and scanning again the day’s card, I was already imagining a different outcome on selected holes if given another chance.
With that in mind, it’s only fitting to recall the joyful directive of one of Sluman’s baseball heroes, Ernie Banks—Mr. Cub himself:
“Let’s play two!”
Images courtesy of Calusa Pines