As I laid out my twelve-month schedule for playing the top 100 courses in the United States as ranked by Golf Digest for 2017-18, I put the three Florida course on the calendar for January when it would be cold in most of the country but warm there. The first course in my Florida swing was Calusa Pines located in Naples. I flew into Miami on the day before, and since it was Florida, I rented a Mustang convertible rather than my customary Jeep Grand Cherokee to make the drive across the everglades to Naples. It was the most extensive time that I’d spent in the everglades. We have at three names for the low country wet lands that boarder the ocean in the Southern US. In Florida we call them the everglades. In Louisiana we call them the swamp, and in South Carolina we them the marsh. All are beautiful in their own way. I prefer the beauty of the marsh.
My round at Calusa Pines was made possible by a long string of introductions starting with a fellow member at Cherokee Town & Country, my home club in Atlanta. Bob and I had played golf together several times at the club. Bob asked me to talk to a young man who he and some other investors were supporting to identify, buy, and run a company. This young man, Keegan had worked for the company that I spent almost 35 years with and had attended and received an MBA from the business school where my wife is dean. Bob thought this created a unique opportunity for some mentorship for Keegan.
During my discussion with Keegan, he mentioned that Bob had told him about my quest and that he had a very close friend that had played on the tour but was now working in the golf industry. He mentioned that he wanted to introduce me to this friend Jeff, since he might be able to assist me with access to some of the courses.
Jeff and I met for breakfast one morning at the OK Café in Buckhead. This is a place where lots of deals get done. It is also named after the restaurant in Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” During our meeting Jeff said that he would introduce me to a friend that was a member at Calusa Pines. A couple of months letter, I received an email from Jeff introducing me John F. Kennedy. No not the former US President of Camelot lore, but one from Massachusetts none-the-less. JFK agreed to host me sometime in January. It was January and here I was at Calusa Pines thanks to Bob, Keegan, Jeff and JFK.
JFK met me upon my arrival at Calusa Pines and introduced me to the Mike Balliet, the Head Golf Professional and one of the Assistant Pros, Chris Bunge. As we talked about my quest, Chris was specifically interested in Canyata. Canyata is the private course I played in Illinois that has no members and only allows around 80 to 100 people to play per year. I provided Chris with the information on how I gained access to the course. He is hoping to play it later in the year.
After my discussions in the Pro Shop, JFK and I headed out to the practice range to warm up. Our caddie Eddie was waiting for us. Like John, Eddie was from the Northeast. He was in his fifth year as a caddie at Calusa Pines. He had previously caddied at TPC Boston and several courses in the New York area.
Following our warm up, John and I made our way to the first tee. Under the overcast Florida skies with rain looking imminent, John and I decided that we would make it easy on ourselves and play the blue tee. The course measures just over 6100 yards from the blue tees. But don’t let that fool you. The slope is still an above average 138 with a rating of 70.9.
The first hole is a 355 yard par four with a fairway that bends slightly to the left. There is a long bunker on the left at about 180 yards from the tee box and a smaller one with trees in it on the right at about 100 yards from the green. I hit a three wood off the tee to 150 yards out.
The green on the first hole has two bunkers on the left. One about midway and one off the back. I pulled my approach shot left. The ball missed the first bunker and landed in the rough to the left of it.
The green was running away from me. I needed a delicate pitch shot to get over the bunker and get the ball to stop on the green. My pitch was anything but delicate. The ball cleared the bunker and landed on the green but ran off on the other side. I chipped back onto the green and two putted for a double bogey to open my round.
The second hole is a 515 yard par five. There is a sandy waste area that runs along the left side of the hole from tee to green. The trees that line the right side of the fairway are right off the edge. The fairway starts out narrow, widens slightly in the landing zone, and then narrows slightly as it approaches the green. I hit my drive 270 yards down the middle of the fairway, but it landed in the left side of the narrowest part of the fairway.
I hit my second shot to an area that was “ground under repair” just off the right side of the fairway. Eddie said I need to drop on the edge of the fairway.
I had 90 yards to a green with a pin position in middle front just beyond a false front. To ensure the ball on my approach shot wouldn’t roll off the front of the green, I took one extra club. The ball flew over the flag and landed about 25 feet past. I missed my birdie putt but made the second putt for my first par of the round.
The third hole is a 135 yard par three with a carry over a waste area to a green that looks like it has five sides. The waste area continues along the left side of the green. Eddie said this was a hole with no safe place to miss. Balls hit to the left leave a tough up and down from the waste area and balls to the right and ball long roll down slopes that leave pitch shots that are hard to stop on a turtle back green.
With all that information and middle pin, there was just one thing to do. Both John and I hit the ball to the middle of the green. My ball was 18 feet to the right and just below the flag. I missed my birdie putt by six inches to the right and tapped in for par.
The fourth hole is a 355 yard par four with danger lurking at every turn. There is a short carry over a narrow strip of rough sandwiched between a waste area on the left and trees and water on the right to reach the fairway. Both the water on the right and the waste area on the left run through the green albeit with bunkers serving as buffers off both sides of the green. The fairway starts fairly wide but narrows significantly at about a hundred yards from the green as it makes a left to right turn.
There is a large bunker on the right at about 160 from green and a smaller one at about 95 yards from the green. I sliced my ball into the large bunker.
My second shot was a thing of beauty. We had been waved through on the hole. I was somewhat embarrassed at hitting my tee shot into the sand. With the group who let us play through watching and with my nerves on edge, I focused, picked the ball clean, hit it from the sand over water and trees to just off the right side of the green and to the left of the water. I had redeemed myself. My butt cheeks loosened, and I stepped out of the sand to make my way to just short of the green.
I chipped onto the green. The ball rolled past the flag. I failed to make the par putt and recorded a bogey on the hole.
The 380 yard par four fifth hole looks wide open from the tee box. The fairway is quite generous with areas as wide as 60 yards across. There is sand along the left and trees that start about 120 yards from the green. The trees on the right start at the tee box and impinge along the edge of the fairway. I hit my drive to the left part of the fairway, leaving 160 yards to the middle of the green
The green has a bail out area to the left, bunkers and water to the right, and a downwards sloping front. I hit my approach shot to the front left portion of the green. The ball rolled down the slope and off the front of the green.
I chipped back onto the green to three feet and made the putt for par.
The fairway on the par five six hole starts out very narrow but widens at about 210 yards from the tee box as it approaches bunkers on the left and right. The first one on the right is very large. The one on the left, not so much. There is also a large bunker on the right about 170 yards from the green and three clustered together on the left at 90 yards short of the green. I hit my drive to the first large bunker on the right.
I laid up from the bunker to the left fairway, 110 yards from the green.
The sixth green has water on the right and no bunkers. The flag was positioned on the right front portion of the green which sloped toward the water. I favored the left side on my approach shot but pulled the ball and missed green to the left. I pitched on and two-putted for a bogey.
The par three seventh hole has very little trouble between the tee box and green. There is just light rough and a fairway. There are a couple of sand areas with trees that frame the opening to the green about 90 yards in front of it. Otherwise there is just air and opportunity.
Eddie told me that one of the members of the Walker Cup team made a hole-in-one on the hole during a practice session held here a couple of months ago. He said the player went on drive the eighth hole.
While the seventh green is open in the front there are bunkers midway on left and toward the back on the right. I hit my tee shot to just off the front edge of the green.
I went on to three putt from there for a disappointing bogey.
The eighth hole is the shortest par four on the course and is rated as one of the two easiest holes on the course. The fairway run straight from the tee box to the green, although the green is at a 45 degree angle to the left. There is sand all along the left and trees along the right. There is very little width to fairway until 150 yards from green. There is a small bunker a few yards in front of green, one off the right front and the sand from along the fairway continues along left side of green.
I was going to approach this short hole in the same way I approach most other short holes and that is to hit a club that leaves 100 yards to the pin. The eighth hole measures just 255 yards from the blue tees. A seven iron would have been my choice off the tee. Eddie looked at me and said “you didn’t come all the way to Florida to lay up on this hole. Hit your driver.” I followed his instructions and striped my ball down the middle of the fairway. The ball rolled to the right after it landed and stopped 15 yards from the front of the green. I pitched on 35 feet from the flag. My birdie putt missed the hole by three feet. I made the putt for par.
There is a nice little walk from the eighth green to the ninth tee box. The front nine on Calusa Pines closes with a 395 yard par four. The fairway is shaped like an orange slice with bunkers on the left around the outside curvature between the edge of fairway and water. Water wraps around and bisects the fairway at 120 yards from the green. There are trees along the right. My drive hit a pine tree off the right side of the fairway and kicked all the way over to the adjacent 10th fairway.
I hit my second shot over the trees and over the water that bisects the fairway. The ball barely cleared the water leaving 75 yards to a back left pin. I pitched to 25 yards left of the pin.
My par putt looked good all the way to the hole. Well almost all the way. It stopped four inches from the cup. I tapped in for a bogey to finish the front nine with a 42.
The back nine opens with a short par four. The 10th hole measures just 340 yards. There is water off the left side of the fairway until about 90 yards from the front of the green. There are trees along the right side and a cluster of bunkers adjacent to where the water ends, and trees begin on the left side. My drive landed on the left side of the fairway, kicked farther left and rolled down the slope into the water.
I took a drop and hit my third shot to the left side of the green. Unfortunately, I hit it to a spot on the left side of the green that slopes left. The ball rolled off the green.
I chipped back on and two-putted for a double bogey to start the back nine.
The 150 yard par three eleventh hole has a clear path from the tee box to the green. There are trees off to the left and the right of the path to the green, but they shouldn’t be in play. The green has bunkers on the left and right, but the front of the green is open. I hit my tee shot to just left of the flag. The ball hit and then rolled down a slope to 50 feet past the flag.
This had to be the slowest putt on the course. I thought I hit the ball pretty hard with my putter, but the uphill putt stopped 10 feet from the cup. My par putt tracked toward the hole until just before the cup where it kicked left. I tapped in for another three-putt bogey.
At my home club of Cherokee, we will sometime play this game called snake. If you three putt you get the snake. We start with twenty cents on the first three-putt and then double it on each subsequent three-putt. We cap it at five dollars. It’s a tough bet because in a foursome the most you can win is five dollars, but you can lose up to $15 dollars. Whoever has the snake at the end of the round pays. I have never had the snake at the end of the round and have only had it a few times during the round. Today I would have been wearing the snake as a belt.
The 12th hole is the longest par four on the course. It measures 395 yards and is rated as the second hardest hole. The fairway is fairly straight but narrows significantly during the last 180 yards. There is water along the left side of the fairway and a bunker on the right side at about 220 yards from the middle of the green. I hit my drive to the left side of the fairway. The ball rolled off the fairway onto the slope toward the water.
Fortunately, it stayed up, but I had an awkward stance. I didn’t feel comfortable enough to hit a club with enough distance to reach the green. I decided to lay up with my second shot. I laid up to 80 yards out.
My third shot missed the green to the right. My pitch shot landed on the green but rolled off on the other side. I pitched back on but missed my bogey putt and recorded my second double bogey on the back nine.
The thirteenth hole is the longest of the par fives on the course. It measures 555 yards. The fairway looks very wide from the tee, but this is probably because there is a lot of room between the trees, but its not all fairway. The fairway is only 25 yards wide until it makes a left to right turn around a waste area on the right that starts at around 210 yards from the tee. There are a few bunkers sprinkled along the left side of the fairway from about 300 from the green in. A fade on this hole would have been perfect, but this was a day when I couldn’t buy a fade. My drive hit on the left side of the fairway and rolled off, stopping in the rough just short of the pine straw, leaving another very awkward stance and 330 yards to the middle of the green.
I fell back during my swing and advanced the ball just 120 yards leaving 220 yards to the flag. The ball was still in the rough, but on a flat lie. I hit my driver out of the rough. It was another thing of beauty. Yes, a second thing of beauty in the same round. A few more yard of roll and it would have been perfect. The ball stopped just short of the front of the green.
I left my putter face open and pushed my putt eight feet to the right. I missed the par putt and made a bogey on the hole.
The fourteenth hole is the last of the short par fours. It measures just 265 yards, but there is a lot going on with this hole. There is water to the left and trees and waste areas to the right. I topped my three hybrid off the tee and laid up to 60 yards with my second shot when I hit the ball farther than I expected. I wanted to leave 80 yards and hit a lob wedge to the pin. From sixty yards out, I hit into the bunker. I hit out of the bunker and two putted for my third double bogey on the back nine.
JFK and Eddie both remarked that they thought the fifteenth hole is the most beautiful hole at Calusa Pines. I agree that it’s a beautiful hole. It’s a par four that measures 375 yards. There are sand and tall pines on the right and tall and short pines on the left. There is a bunker on the right, but it is only 140 yards from the tee, so it isn’t in play on the drive. The contour of the terrain also adds to the beauty of the hole. I hit a 280 yard drive down the middle of the fairway leaving 115 yards to a back right pin.
I hit my sand wedge to 25 feet below the flag and to the left.
I two putted for my only par on the back nine.
The sixteenth hole is a 160 yard par three. The green is on a peninsula that sticks out into the water. The green is narrow on the front with bunkers off the left and right. It widens past the bunkers. I made good contact on my tee shot but started the ball too far to the right. The ball landed pin high in the right bunker.
My sand shot landed in the rough. I chipped on to the green and made the putt for a bogey.
The seventeenth hole is a 375 yard par four. It has a sweeping right to left then left to right fairway. The fairway starts off very narrow then widens at the turn before narrowing again after the turn. There is water on the right and a bunker on the inside of the turn. There are trees on the left. I missed the fairway and made a double bogey on the hole. It was my fourth double bogey on the back nine.
Calusa Pines finishes with a short but challenging par five. The first 160 yards of the hole is a thin strip of land sandwiched between the water on the right and trees on the left. The beginning of the fairway is a 20 yard wide piece of land between a waste area and the water. The fairway does get very generous past the waste area. But by then you’ve likely fallen victim to the sand, the water or the trees between the water and the fairway opposite the waste area. I missed the fairway on my drive and made a bogey on the hole to finish the back nine with a very disappointing 48 for a total score of 90.
Calusa Pines is the most un-Florida like Florida course I’ve played. Most of the ones I’ve played are flat with water and palm trees on every hole. The elevation changes on the course are all man-made, but they add to the beauty and the challenge of the course. Florida’s highest elevation is probably on Calusa Pines. There is water on the course, but it doesn’t dominate it.
I’d like to thank Bob for the introduction to Keegan, Keegan for the introduction to Jeff, Jeff for the introduction to John and John for hosting me at Calusa Pines. I enjoyed spending an afternoon with him of the golf course. He and I hope to tee it up again sometime in Kiawah or Charleston.