Floridians can't blame me for the travel slump last winter and spring. I made four golf trips during this period and loved every minute of it. I mean, who can't like escaping from the Russian-like Michigan winters, with all of its dark and dreary undertow, for warmth and sunshine on some well-manicured Florida golf course? With that understood, let me fill you in on where I enjoyed myself.
After being impressed with Gary Koch's work at The Tribute in Gaylord last year, I was anxious to play his newest Florida course, Mystic Dunes GC, conveniently located only two miles from Disney World. There's much to admire about Mystic Dunes. The conditioning and the overall appearance of the course are first-rate. Attention is paid to detail here, with lots of painstakingly done waste areas and handsomely maintained sand dunes, home to the pleasantly squawking sand cranes. With five sets of tees, the design team of Koch and Rick Robbins presents options for desired length of play. Our group found the blue tees at 6,574 yards offering just the right amount of challenge. Some stout par-4s, however, are confronted early in the card, namely the 468-yard (!) par-4 second hole, the number-one handicap hole, and the 414-yard third hole, the third toughest hole. In a nice routing touch, Koch/Robbins do follow up these brutes with a strategic short four par at the fourth. Here local knowledge or blind luck will dictate how one plays this treacherous hole which has a yawning cross-bunker faced with planks intimidating the driver. And for added terror or delight, the hole is marked by one of the smallest greens on the course. All in all, it's a nifty short hole that is even more pleasing the second time around.
One hole that didn't work for our group was the overly contrived par-4 ninth hole. At 379 yards and a tight dogleg with little landing area, it seemed like the designers really shoe-horned in a golf hole resulting in one that is too tricked up. In particular, the green is simply too severe.
The backside has a slightly different feel and appearance. The brochure promises more of a low-country style Carolina look and there's some truth to that. But there are still the signature waste areas throughout the back nine. For drama, the par-3 11th is a good hole. It's the scorecard "photo" hole with the multi-tier green virtually encircled by water-whether it is the pond or the little brook
off to the player's right. Our group really liked the big par-4 14th hole. The number-two handicap hole, it's a dogleg right that demands two strong and accurate strikes. In a theme carried throughout most of the course, there's ample run-up and open approach to the putting surface.
The only quibbles voiced on Mystic Dunes were a few greens needed less slope and more reasonable pin positions. (Suggestion: please use a flag color that is more visible than red.) But it's a smart and fair design at a well-managed facility with friendly, energetic service. Other pluses include a very good practice range, nice clubhouse and pro shop, and a handy GPS system on the carts. All in all, Mystic Dunes will command a return visit. (Call (866) 311-1234 or visit http:// www.mysticdunesgolf.com)
An added note about Mystic Dunes: it's part of the adjacent Palms Resort and CC and is owned by Tempus Resorts, one of the leaders in vacation ownership (i.e. time share) in the state. Travelers or time share mavens would be hard-pressed to find a better value and more convenient location for accommodations. There are one-, two-, and three-bedroom villas, all expertly appointed with amenities. Most impressive was the attention given and resources allocated to landscaping, cleanliness, and overall maintenance. There's a steady beehive of activity by the developers to maintain high standards throughout the 633-acre property. (Call (877) 747-4747)
This area is the private course version of Myrtle Beach with an amazing array of development courses. Still there is some very good resort golf here as well. Defining old-time elegance is the Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club. Owned and operated by the Watkins family for over 55 years, this is Naples' oldest golf course. But throughout the decades, the course has been renovated and updated several times, the last being in 1998 by Ron Garl. The result is a straightforward, walker-friendly (more on that in a moment) layout with plenty of snares to foil wayward shots. If you keep the ball in play off the tee, the layout is quite manageable; stray and you'll pay dearly. Head golf pro Larry Gantzer's favorite holes are the risk-reward 518-yard par-5 fifth hole that demands accurate second and third shots to a green protected by water. It's the number-one index hole. Befitting a strong collection of three-pars is the 166-yard seventh hole. A good back side score will depend on how well one negotiates the finishing holes with its lurking water and OB stakes. The par-4 398 yard 18th hole is annually ranked as one of the best closers in the area. And for good reason, as an accurate tee ball and second shot must skirt around and over lateral water hazards.
The Naples Beach Hotel & GC is a sporty layout with moderate-shaped bunkers and greens. If I were looking for an apt adjective to describe the course, I would opt for "comfortable." On top of superb, attentive service (long a hallmark for this storied resort), golfers will feel quite at home. And the conditioning is commendable considering over 60,000 rounds are registered. My one suggestion, considering the gentle topography, is to allow more walkers even in the high tourist season. Many snow birds would be attracted to a course that affords them the option to get some exercise and eschew a golf cart. I know financials are involved but this is a layout that was founded on walkers and caddies. I'd say experiment with the walking concept even on certain days and give it a try. It could be a niche opportunity.
The resort itself is a charmer with its 318 rooms, 1,000 feet of powdery sand beach on the Gulf of Mexico, and a full-service Spa & Fitness Center. You can see why Midwesterners have been loyal patrons here for several generations. In a business dominated by huge publicly traded companies, it's refreshing to see the Watkins family maintain its philosophy of "continuously improving" itself in a fiercely competitive sector. Two years ago, the resort christened a new building which offered 22,000 square feet of meeting space. So whether you're a couple looking for a short respite from the Michigan winters or a meeting planner seeking a first-class facility for one's conference, the Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club is ready to serve. (Call (800) 237-7600 or visit http://www.naplebeachhotel.com.)
On the top end of the resort food chain is the stunning Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort and Spa in nearby Bonita Springs. Hyatt has spared no expense nor amenity here-there's a palatial pool, private beach, tennis courts, a youth camp, fly fishing, and world-class restaurants. Oh yes, the golf course is top drawer as well. It's the Raptor Bay Golf Club, designed by Ray Floyd. Opened in 2001, I'd have to say the greens at Raptor Bay are some of the finest and fastest new putting surfaces ever encountered. The stimpmeter registered at least an 11 on the day we played. So if you're looking for ultra quick greens, then the Raptor is your beast of prey. The course is pristine, cleanly designed and maintained, and teeming with wildlife. In fact, the yardage books and GPS system spend more time describing the fauna and fowl than they do telling one how to play the golf hole. But when you're home to such endangered species as the bald eagle and the gopher tortoise, such slights are justified. Golfers surely won't be slighted at the Raptor. There's hardly any rough, wide fairways abound, there's playable pine needles and straw off many fairways, and all the green aprons are shaved so close a putter is the smart chipping club of choice. There are five sets of tees, ranging from 6,702 to 5,217 yards so there's plenty of options for one's game. To cap one's round off, there's a terrific clubhouse dining spot called Braxton's. Sitting outside overlooking the putting green, the wait server neatly summed up his recommendation of white wine as being "eminently drinkable." With that thought in mind, let me just say Raptor Bay is eminently playable. (For more information, call (941) 390-4600.) MG
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