Riverwood Country Club a true hidden gem
PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. - The Riverwood Country Club truly can be described as one of those "hidden gems."
Its location is way off-the-beaten path in this tiny community that for most is just a couple of stoplights on Highway 41 between Sarasota and Fort Myers along the busy southwest coastline of the state.
But Riverwood, located at the north end of Charlotte Harbor, along the Myakka River, hopes to let its secret out. Billboards leading to the course pronounce - "The word is out!" about the course's uniqueness among a crowded Florida golf landscape. Golfers should no longer pass Riverwood by driving to golfing havens like the Naples-Fort Myers area. They should stop to give this 6,938-yard semiprivate design a chance.
It's worth the stop. Just make sure to call ahead to get a tee time, because members are first priority.
After years of earning a four-star recognition from Golf Digest, Riverwood, owned by Centex Homes, one of nation's top home builders, took a big step recently, earning a 41-star rating from the publication, one of just 31 courses in all of Florida with that status.
"It is well laid out and it's got mature trees," Gary said. "It's not your typical Florida course with houses everywhere. It's got a country-ish feeling. It's always green and challenging."
Sue enjoys that she has two different sets of tees to chose from - the 5,376-yard gold tees or the 4,695-yard reds. "I like the variety," she said. "There are some tough holes and some forgiving ones. It's beautiful."
When Riverwood's owners approached architect Gene Bates with their plans, standing in their way were thousands of trees and acres of wetlands. Bates, who has designed 20 courses in the United States, including six in Florida, salvaged the natural feel of the land, incorporating many of the specimen trees into the design of the course. For example, a large tree sits smack-dab in front of the green on the 424-yard sixth hole, forcing players to shoot at the pin, which is always right or left of the obstacle.
Unfortunately, a disease swept through the course in 1996, killing thousands of pines, but there are enough left for the course to keep its North Carolina feel.
To minimize the impact on the wetlands, hundreds of feet of wood bulkhead wall were added to preserve the natural habitat. As an added bonus, many of the houses and condos were built well off the course on just one side of a hole, adding aesthetic beauty and playability. Because of the efforts of Bates and course superintendent Stuart Taylor, Riverwood has been granted Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary status.
Want more proof that the environment has been restored? Don't get too close to the water hazard on No. 14, a 416-yard par 4. A large gator calls it home. Signs throughout the course warn players to be wary of other scaly beasts.
Head pro Mike Burton remembers when the course was just a driving range cut out of the trees and the pro shop a tent. The front nine opened in 1992, with the back nine to follow in 1993.
"There was nothing but pine trees and scrub brush out here," Burton said. "It's unbelievable what (management has) done over the past 10 years. Now there are lakes on both sides (of the property). It's quite unique."
Burton said the course is laid out in two figure eights, meaning there are no parallel fairways. The layout also challenges players to pay close attention to the wind, which will change angles and directions depending on which hole you're playing.
While the course has plenty of bunkers, Burton said the original plans actually called for many more, but Bates scaled back, knowing the course would already play tough enough.
The real key to scoring is knowing your way around. Bates plays the role of the master of deception, hiding what are really wide fairways behind doglegs, around bunkers and beyond tall reeds. Bail out areas are available, so play smart, away from the water and wetlands.
Variety gives the course true charisma. The par fours are filled with scoring chances - like the 343-yard second hole and the 307-yard 15th - and brutal tests - like the 412-yard eighth hole and the 427-yard finishing hole - where bogey is a good score.
The par 5s are also scorecard friendly, with the exception of No. 17, a 514-yard hole with a fairway that slithers left. Most players will lay up to the 100-yard mark short of the wetland, which guards a blind green.
Burton said holes seven through nine - a long par 3, par 4 and par 5 - are where players make or break their rounds.
"If you can play even par, or one over, on that stretch, the back nine lets up a little bit," he said.
Burton is also an interesting story himself. He graduated from Fresno State as one of the school's all-time leaders in home runs and RBIs, while playing third base for the Bulldogs from 1988-89. After being drafted by the Texas Rangers, he bounced around in the minor leagues until starting his coaching career in 1996. In 2001, he retired from baseball and began working as the head pro at Riverwood.
"I used to work here part time and played only three or four times a year," he said. "Once I started playing regularly, I went from an 18 handicap to a 4. I got some people to help me understand how to transfer what I knew about the baseball swing to golf. Now I love teaching."
Burton leads a staff that has been blessed with one of the best practice centers around. Bates, who has recently aligned with legend Fred Couples to form Couples Bates Golf Design, created a range that's nearly 100 yards long, an 18-hole turf putting course, and a large chipping and putting area.
Surprisingly, the clubhouse isn't nearly as grand as the practice area or the course. The pro shop is small, but the facility is still spacious enough for a restaurant and locker rooms for its 307 memberships. But for most visitors, they're time won't be spent inside. Their memories will be made on the course.
Course Name: Riverwood Country Club
Phone Number: (941) 764-6661
Course Stats (From the tips): Yardage: 6,938. Slope: 133. Rating: 73.8. Address: 4100 Riverwood Dr., Port Charlotte, Fl., Rates: $25 to $90.
Miles to nearest airport: The Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers (52 miles)
Best local restaurant: Jo Romano's, right down the street.
Best place to stay, then play: The Days Inn (Port Charlotte), Holiday Inn Harborside (Charlotte Harbor) and Holiday Inn (Venice) all have stay and play packages.
Par 3's: 3.3
Par 4's: 3.8
Par 5's: 3.1
Practice Facilities: 4.1
Club House/Pro Shop: 2.8
Pace of Play: 3.9
Overall Rating: 3.6
January 16, 2003