As the pre-season comes to an end, and the rainy days in Chicago delay the start of the peak season, I find myself reflecting on the year-to-date, which has already been filled with great golf adventures. My favorite experience thus far was my visit to Calusa Pines. The course at Calusa Pines, created by the design team of Hurdzan & Fry, is a marvel of architecture, engineering and natural beauty – my photos from the day are below. The Calusa Pines Golf Club is much more than the course though, and that is what makes it so special.
What makes a golf club great? Certainly, in order to be great, a club must have an outstanding golf course. A top-notch course is not enough to make a club truly great though, especially for the discerning golf geek. Great clubs resonate at a deeper level – they evoke the spirit of the game.
Over the past few years, I have had the privilege of visiting several modern golf clubs in addition to Calusa Pines that have stood out to me for their all-around greatness – The Kingsley Club, Boston Golf Club, and Ballyneal Golf & Hunt Club. They have common characteristics, which can be linked back to the progenitors of the modern golf club.
Exploring the lineage and elements of greatness begins in the early-1990s at two clubs with the dreams of two men – Dick Youngscap and Mike Keiser. At Sand Hills Golf Club and The Dunes Club, respectively, each man realized his vision of being able to get away from the demands of the workaday world to play the kind of golf they wanted to play, among kindred spirits.
Architecturally, Sand Hills and The Dunes Club were rejections of the chest-thumping “championship” golf of the Fazio-Nicklaus-Jones era that was prevalent at that time. The courses were built on sandy land and inspired by the best of the architecture of the British Isles, as well as the American golden age. These courses were the spark that lit the fire of modern minimalism.
Culturally, the clubs are a reflection of their benevolent dictator founders. They are exclusive, but not exclusionary. Those members and guests who “get it” are welcomed and encouraged to get lost on fields of play that delight the senses, challenge the skills, and fill the heart with golf geeky joy. Days of play are complemented with relaxed times of camaraderie around patio tables and fire pits. Ego and pretense have no place, and those seeking opulence are happily pointed in other directions.
Sand Hills and The Dunes Club feel both polished and personal at the same time. The love that has been poured into them by their founders, architects, and staff is palpable. It is that love of the game and fellow players that inspired the follow-on generation of club founders and members.
THE KINGSLEY CLUB
On my first visit to Kingsley, a long-time member named John joined our group as a fifth for four holes. He shared stories of the club’s founding by Ed Walker and Art Preston, and its connections to Crystal Downs. John’s pride in the course and its history enriched my experience that day, and it wasn’t long before I joined.
On my first visit to Kingsley this season, I was reminded of this pride when Mr. Walker took close to an hour to walk me through his plans for our new clubhouse. He is a busy man, and I am newish member. He didn’t need to do that, but he did because he has poured his heart and resources into the club and he knows that I share his love for it.
BOSTON GOLF CLUB
My first time at Boston GC, I was on a buddies trip to Boston, and I fell in love with the course. On my second visit to BGC, I was hosted by a member, John C. Walking the fairways with John was like being at Kingsley. His depth of feeling for his club was infectious. Knowing the story of founder John Mineck’s labor of love, and his tragic death on site, it is no surprise that members feel a special connection to this place.
As we sat and relaxed in the dining room after sunset, we shared the joy that permeates the memberships of these great clubs. Part of fitting in to these cultures is realizing how lucky we are to get to spend our hours playing this game, among friends, on such wonderful courses. That off-putting sense of entitlement is absent, and in its place, gratitude.
Ballyneal is the golfiest place I have ever been. The members there love the game and they love their club, which now includes 18 holes by Tom Doak, the Mulligan short course, and The Commons putting course. It is a golf geek’s fantasyland, a decade’s long dream in the making for founder Jim O’Neal, now come to fruition in the Chop Hills.
My buddies and I arrived the evening before we were scheduled to play with our host, Stephen. We met another member while hanging out on the driving range and after chatting us up for a bit, he insisted that we go play. His love of the game and welcoming spirit is the norm at Ballyneal, and I am counting the days until I can head back to enjoy it again.
CALUSA PINES GOLF CLUB
My day at Calusa Pines was generously set up by a member, Eric. In our correspondence prior to that day, Eric expressed a sentiment that I have experienced at every one of these clubs. The members love hosting for two reasons: they are proud of their clubs and like to share them with others who can appreciate them, and they prefer not to play anywhere else when they are in town. Before Eric said it, I had never heard it put that way, but I know exactly how he feels.
I was joined by the General Manager Walt Kozlowsky, Head Professional Mike Balliet, and a member, Rob. They are good players and people, and tremendously knowledgeable about the club. As a bonus, I cannot recall ever laughing more during 18 holes of golf. They embody the culture of Calusa Pines – a love of the game coupled with a commitment to keeping it fun.
Dr. Michael Hurzdan & Dana Fry wrote a Vision piece that is on the club’s website. This statement stood out for me in summing up the experience of playing the course:
“Calusa Pines will be a golfer’s golf course meaning that you will never tire of playing it, there are an endless variety of golf shots required each time you play it, and every hole will be distinct and memorable.”
Several months later and I am still amazed at the description of the construction process that Walt, who has been at Calusa since ground was broken, shared with me as we walked. The land started as basically flat. The top layer of sand was removed from the entire property and stored. The bedrock beneath was then dynamited. After blasting through the rock, the system of lakes was excavated and that material along with the rock was used to build hills, rough contours and some features. Smaller rock was then used for additional form shaping. The original top layer of sand was then brought back to sandcap the land and do finished shaping. The result is a course that seems natural, even though it is entirely engineered.
Calusa Pines impresses with its broad strokes, but it is even more impressive at the detail level. Obviously, great care was taken with the bunkering and greens. They are both visually striking and a blast to play. The naturalization of the site is also outstanding. As we walked along Rob and Walt explained to me that the founder Gary Chensoff insisted that the system of lakes be designed such that a player can never see all shores at once – they disappear around corners and out of view, giving the player a feel of wandering around in a river valley. Large trees were preserved or planted to create a sense of maturity, and a wide variety of vegetation creates interest in color and texture throughout.
Throw in one of the cooler clubhouses you’ll ever see – beautiful with just the right level of comfort and amenity – and Calusa Pines qualifies as the total package. On to the course…
(click on circle images to enlarge)
Hole 1 – Par 4 – 389 Yards
The opening hole is a slight dogleg left that plays to an elevated green. It introduces the player to Calusa’s stunning bunkering that makes the player feel as though they have been transported to the Melbourne Sandbelt.
Hole 2 – Par 5 – 551 yards
The first of Calusa’s three-shotters gently bends right and demands precise positioning of the second. Leave yourself short-sided, and you’re in trouble.
Hole 3 – Par 3 – 135 yards
A great little three par with an all-or-nothing character to it. Hit the green and birdie putts are makable. There is no bailout on this hole though. Miss the green, and kiss your par goodbye.
Hole 4 – Par 4 – 379 yards
The fourth is the first hole to encounter the course’s system of lakes. The cape design allows the player to be as aggressive as the wind and their nerves will allow.
Hole 5 – Par 4 – 378 yards
The fifth doglegs right with a tee shot up over a rise. The green is elevated and guarded by deep bunkers right and a steep runoff left.
Hole 6 – Par 5 – 513 yards
The challenge of the sixth is a function of width. There isn’t that much to begin with, and the hole feels even narrower as it winds along the lake. Blocking out the borders and confidently focusing on the target for each shot is a requirement.
Hole 7 – Par 3 – 186 yards
A terrific and tough par three, the seventh plays through the goal posts created by the trees to a green guarded left by a massive bunker.
Hole 8 – Par 4 – 280 yards
The eighth is a wonderfully creative short four with sand along the entire left side and a green benched into a hillside. Longer hitters can drive the green, but failed attempts can find all manner of nasty fates.
Hole 9 – Par 4 – 421 yards
The ninth plays from an elevated tee, with an approach over the lake to a green set just below the clubhouse. A visually stunning hole that provides one last stiff test on the outward nine.
Hole 10 – Par 4 – 376 yards
The par four tenth features artful bunkering up the right and a sculpted sandy hillside that creates one of the coolest looks on the whole property.
Hole 11 – Par 3 – 171 yards
Another stellar three par, the eleventh green is set at a slight angle. With the swirling wind, judging the line and distance is no simple matter.
Hole 12 – Par 4 – 419 yards
Climbing the hill to the twelfth tee provides one of Calusa’s best reveals. This beauty is a beast though that demands two well struck shots to find a subtly contoured green surrounded by runoffs.
Hole 13 – Par 5 – 554 yards
The thirteenth turns hard right and allows for a daring attempt to carry the large bunkers on the inside of the dogleg. Success gives the player a chance at reaching the small elevated green in two.
Hole 14 – Par 4 – 293 yards
The fourteenth is the second of Calusa’s risk-reward par fours. The deep fronting bunker and firm elevated green add plenty of challenge to this shortie.
Hole 15 – Par 4 – 374 yards
Otherworldly bunkers line the right side of the fifteenth, all the way up to the bunkerless green. A brilliantly imbalanced and contrasting design.
Hole 16 – Par 3 – 161 yards
The final one-shotter is the most visually intimidating, playing downhill to a peninsula green. A breathtaking spot on the beautiful property.
Hole 17 – Par 4 – 390 yards
The seventeenth works around the lake from left to right with the main challenge on the approach. The large greens is one of the most creative on the course.
Hole 18 – Par 5 – 487 yards
The closer turns hard left off the tee, giving the player a chance to cut the corner and get home in two. The green sits up above one last large bunker, in the shadow of the clubhouse. A thrilling finish that is perfect for dramatic conclusions to matches.
Whether it is in golf architecture, or the experience of a golf club, greatness will always be subjective to some degree. From my personal perspective, there are two final elements of the greatness of Calusa Pines and the other great modern clubs.
First, a key difference between these places and others for me is that I walked off the 18th green wanting to go right back to the 1st tee. There is a depth of strategy and thoughtfulness to the design that makes repeat play exciting and enjoyable. Beyond wanting a replay, I also wanted to ask for an application. The combination of course and culture is that appealing.
Second, these clubs are deeply about love of the shared experience of this wonderful game. It is built into their DNA, but it is not necessarily a love that takes itself too seriously. There is a heavy dose of fun, and that is why I love the game of golf. For some it is the challenge or the competition. For me, it is the fun of experiencing those aspects in the company of my fellow geeks.
What do you think makes a club great? Feel free to brag on your club or share your personal experiences in the comments here.