After finishing off with an uneventful par, we headed into the locker room which has a nice bar area to relax and share stories.  Even though this was a beautiful Florida day, I went with a Dark & Stormy, one of my favorite post-round refreshments.  We had a chance to chat with the pro, Mike Balliet, for a little bit, who couldn't have been nicer and more welcoming.  Calusa Pines really is a special place.  This is definitely not the Florida golf stereotype, but is a fun and interesting course with ample challenge to keep your attention--it's one I'd happily play every day! 

#2, Par 5, 551 Yards

While the first hole was a dogleg to the left, the second is now a bit of a dogleg to the right, heading back in the opposite direction.  The ideal angle into the green is from the right side.  There is some rough on that side that can make an approach shot trickier into the putting surface.  The small trees aren't really an obstruction.  If you come in from the middle of the fairway, you need to carry the large bunkers that front the green.  The greenside bunkers at Calusa tend to be quite large and intimidating!  They're also very well positioned to catch a shot that misses by just a little.

#17, Par 4, 390 Yards

Here we have a dogleg right that bends around a lake.  One bunker sits on the front right of the green and provides enough trouble to get in your head on the approach.  TifEagle Bermuda is the grass on all the greens and also on all the surrounds.  Rather than a distinct mower line providing an obvious cut of fringe, the greens at Calusa Pines also naturally just flow from green to fairway/collection area.  Being the same grass, it's a cool feature.

Hit it closer to pin high and the green opens up for an easier pitch

#7, Par 3, 226 Yards

This long par three will be a fairway wood for many players.  From the tips, it's 250 yards.  The bombers will still hit iron, but not me!  There is ample sand on both sides, but also room to run up a shot, which makes the hole plenty fair.  The two pines on either side make for a bit of a chute look, but it's nothing too tight--not like Prairie Dunes at least!

#18, Par 5, 487 Yards

The home hole at Calusa Pines is a fairly short and easy par five, which provides an opportunity to finish with a good score and bring a good attitude to the 19th hole.  Or, for many, it might be a way to gain some momentum for their second 18 holes that day.  The hole bends hard to the left before climbing a hill to the green, which sets right in front of the clubhouse.  When we finished, there were members and guests relaxing on chairs overlooking the green with their favorite cocktails.  A great spot to enjoy a gorgeous evening in Florida.

#5, Par 4, 414 Yards

The fifth hole is a dogleg right around the trees.  Human nature makes you want to go up the right side to try to cut off some of the dogleg and provide a shorter shot into the hole.  However, in this case, that results in a tougher shot over a bunkers into the green.  Playing out of the left is the ideal angle.  There is a large collection area to the left of the green to catch a shot misplayed a bit on that side.

#14, Par 4, 293 Yards

Like the eighth hole on the front nine, there is a short par four on the back nine as well.  To drive this one, you'd have to hit a high hook over the trees that guard the left side of the fairway.  Otherwise, it's an iron and a pitch into the green.

Not as good an angle from the middle of the fairway. 

#11, Par 3, 171 Yards

This one-shot beauty plays to the Northeast corner of the lot.  It's just a mid-iron, so it shouldn't be too hard, but a false front can make for disappointing results if you don't get your ball all the way to the middle of the putting surface.

#12, Par 4, 419 Yards

The longest par four on the back nine begins on top of the hill and looks down over a beautiful part of the property.  Water borders the hole all the way down the left side.  Aside from that water, this is one of the least defended holes at Calusa Pines.  Just done fairway bunker on the right and one greenside bunker on the left.  While it is the #2 handicap hole, it can be conquered with two good shots and some good putts. 

#8, Par 4, 280 Yards

The short par four eighth is an outstanding hole, and probably my favorite on the course.  Go ahead and flail away with driver if you wish, but make sure you avoid the pot bunker that lays in the landing area.  Getting as far down the fairway as you can will leave the best angle into the green, but doing so brings that bunker into play.  Lay back off the tee and it's an awkward pitch into the green.  A really fun and beautiful hole. 

#9, Par 4, 421 Yards

After finishing the eighth, it's a climb up to the highest point in Collier County.  This hill was built with much of the dirt that was blasted and removed to dig the lakes.  From this elevated point, you can see all of the trouble that you have to face on his longish par four.  Your ball needs to stay dry on both shots--avoid the water on the left off the tee and then carry it into the green.  It's a serious accomplishment to hit this green in regulation and pars will likely gain a stroke on the field.

Angle into the green from the layup area

#1, Par 4, 389 Yards

After loosening up on the range, I was ready to hit my first real shot of 2019.  Anything out straight was good enough for me.  A good player would probably try to draw one off of the fairway bunker in the distance and shape it over the bunkers on the left.  However, all I wanted was something in the fairway.  The fairways are quite generous at Calusa Pines, so this was a reasonable goal.  From there, it was a fairly straight-forward shot up to the green.  The greens at Calusa Pines are definitely a strong test with lots of speed and undulations.  There is no rough immediately around them--The greens are TifEagle Bermuda, and so are the surrounds.  All the surrounding areas are closely mown and it is a very subtle difference between the green and the mounds and collection areas that surround them.  If you're around the edges of the putting surfaces, there is a very real chance that you'll be rolling off into a collection area.

#10, Par 4, 376 Yards

The opening hole on the second nine plays back toward "The Hill."  The key is to avoid the cluster of bunkers on the right off the tee.  Bail out of the left and you'll have a tougher angle into the green over a bunker; pretty standard at Calusa Pines--flirt with the trouble off the tee to get an easier second shot.

Florida is one of the most popular golf destinations in America.  However, in architecture circles, it doesn't have the best reputation.  While there are over 1,200 courses in the Sunshine State, the vast majority are pancake flat and weave their way through or around residential communities.  However, while many Florida courses lack interesting land features, there are a handful that stand out as exceptions.  The relatively new Streamsong Resort was built on an abandoned phosphate mine and was built through natural looking "sand" dunes.  Innisbrook's Copperhead course has some decent elevation changes, and of course there is the architectural gem--Seminole.  

Fifteen miles from Naples, lays another exception to the bland Florida golf landscape--Calusa Pines Golf Club.  Designed by Michael Hurdzan and Dana Fry, Calusa Pines opened in 2001, as the vision of owner Gary Chensoff.  From the website of the Chensoff's development company:

"Calusa Pines is the realization of a long-held vision. Under his direction, 530 acres of piney scrubland were transformed into a beautiful project. Today, Calusa Pines is one of the most highly regarded invitation-only private golf clubs in the nation. Calusa Pines opened for play in November 2001. Since then, it has consistently been ranked among the top 100 in the country and one of the top five in Florida.

The ranking is due greatly to its extraordinary engineering and design. Along with the Hurdzen-Fry Design team, IHP's development team, led by Mr. Chensoff, turned relatively flat land into a naturally undulating property enhanced by existing and additional native vegetation all found within 15 miles of the site. A local mass excavator blasted through tons of rock to dig 72 acres of pristine lakes. Fill from the pond excavations was then used to enhance a 15-acre landmass that encompasses seven holes on the private Calusa Pines layout.

Members at Calusa Pines have come to expect the best. Membership is by invitation only and is limited to 275. Calusa Pines members understand a true golf-only facility, a world-class clubhouse and a strong caddie program. Calusa Pines has also built four gracious guest cabins for members, having completed the most recent eight-bedroom cabin in December 2015."

As the story goes, Mr. Chensoff faced some health problems partway through the project that brought his survival very much into question.  At that point, he wanted to leave a lasting legacy and removed the budget that Hurdzan and Fry had been working with to develop the greatest course they could.  The dynamite blasting alone that was referenced above to dig out the lakes is alleged to have cost over a million dollars.  If you give architects an unlimited budget, it's pretty special what they can build.  Calusa Pines is no exception.

When I arrived at the club, I parked my car and headed into the super cool locker room to change shoes.  As is typical with many of the clubs in the Top 100, the locker room at Calusa Pines has a bar in it, and it's a really cool place to hang out when it's a bit hot to sit outside in the Florida heat.  With that said, Calusa is a winter club (only open from about Halloween to about Memorial Day) so it misses some of the worst heat of the summer.  The clubhouse sits perched on the top of a hill, overlooking the 9th and 18th greens as well as the practice area on its side.  I headed down the hill to loosen up a little before the rest of my group arrived.  Today, I'd actually be playing in a fivesome with the head professional as our host.  It had rained a bit in the morning, but the weather was supposed to clear up and I was certain that this was going to be a special day.

When it was time to go, the group decided that the Black Tees would be a good test for this January round (off-season for most of us Northerners).  Calusa Pines plays to a par of 72 and the Black Tees measure 6,635 Yards with a rating and slope of 73.2 and 143.  Definitely no slouch, and plenty good enough test for this time of year.  Better players, like Calusa Pines member Rocco Mediate, probably play from the Gold Tees, which stretch the course to 7,267 yards with a rating and slope of 75.6 and 148.  I'll quote the Black Tees below:

#4, Par 4, 409 Yards

Depending on your angle of attack, driver may not be the play on this dogleg right hole.  Playing as close to the water as possible with yield the best angle into the green, or you can play out to the left off the tee and have a longer and tougher approach over a bunker.  Choose your own adventure!

#15, 414 Yards, Par 4

With four holes to go, the 15th is a really good looking hole with a landscape that flows from the high ground on the left to the low areas on the right.  Both areas sides flank the fairway with bunkers in the landing area.  From there, a short-to-mid iron to a relatively small green awaits, which lays just on the edge of the same hill that you faced earlier in the found. 

#3, Par 3, 135 Yards

The first one-shot hole at Calusa Pines is a short one.  However, it requires an extremely precise shot to hit the green.  The green runs off in all directions.  Behind the green are the club's cabins that can house visitors.  

The ideal angle into the green.

#6, Par 5, 513 Yards

The second par five on the front nine isn't horribly long, but it's fairly tight and well protected on both sides, with a lake running the length of the hole on the right.  This is a good time to make note of the lakes at Calusa Pines.  The architects used mounded and other tricks to ensure that you can never see the beginning and end of the water and the same time from any spot.  Therefore, rather than looking like a bland Florida lake, the water here looks more like a meandering river that flows throughout.  A cool visual trick.

#16, Par 3, 161 Yards

After climbing up the hill one last time, you're rewarded with a beautiful downhill shot into the final par three on the course.  The green is on a peninsula that sticks out into the lake.  Short is the only pace to miss on this one.  If you carry it all the way to the green and miss, you're probably reaching into your bag for another ball.

#13, Par 5, 586 Yards

After playing a longer par four, Calusa Pines doesn't let up, as the longest hole on the course comes next.  At 627 yards from the tips and 586 yards from the Black Tees, this is a three-shot hole for all but the longest of the long.  The hole bends almost on a 90 degree angle to the right after the tee ball.  A huge bunker guards the inside corner of the dogleg, so don't try too hard to cut the corner.  The second shot should just be played to position yourself for a comfortable yardage into the green.

My Quest to Check Off Golf's Best Experiences

Calusa Pines Golf Club

Naples, Florida

Checked off the Bucket List January 24, 2019

Golf Magazine:
#88, Top 100 Courses in the U.S. (2017-2018)   

Golf Digest:
#83, America's Greatest Golf Courses (2019-2020) 
#3, Best in the State of Florida (2017-2018)