Ritz-Carlton Resort Naples is a true resort, complete with tennis, pool and good golf

By Derek Duncan, Contributor

NAPLES, Fla. -- In the saturated world that is Florida golf resorts, the longstanding trend toward diversity and expansion has become overwhelming. Rather than being a relaxing experience, negotiating one's way around the sprawling campuses of the modern resort - often with five golf courses located at five different locations and clubhouses, shuttles, and infrastructure galore - now requires an extra half hour and a Sherpa.

If these southern climate golf resorts currently mirror runaway suburban sprawl, perhaps a counter-trend toward efficiency is the remedy. Among the first signs of such simplification in Florida is the stately new Ritz-Carlton Resort in Naples and its adjacent golf facility, Tiburón Golf Club.

The 295-room Ritz-Carlton Resort opened in the spring of 2002, regaled in all the elegance and taste expected from such a name, but with a sporty twist. What instantaneously separates it from the competition is a singular purpose. As sophisticated as the accommodations are, this Ritz-Carlton is a pureblooded golf resort.

Numerous activities beyond golf abound - you may feel the urge to hold a meeting here, play tennis or swim, or grab a bite at one of two restaurants followed by the indulgence of fine spirits and cigars at The Bar or the Card and Billiard Rooms - the total experience cannot be separated from the game.

The resort and golf club are set in a location several miles inland, sequestered from the hullabaloo that defines Naples shoreline living. The isolation adds to the sense of purpose. The five-story, tri-winged hotel calmly looks out over the expansive property where the Greg Norman designed courses swirl out over the resort's 800 acres, with no homes in sight. Next to it is the Tiburón clubhouse, a smaller version of the hotel yet grand in its own right.

This may be the only golf place in southwest Florida where flat earth actually serves the setting. Despite the lack of elevation change - the majority of the site was once a tomato farm, the remainder covered in pine, flatwoods, and saw palmettos - Tiburón possesses a rare visual power. The 36-hole golf track is cut wall-to-wall at fairway height and bordered by crushed coquina-shell waste areas and indigenous wetlands. Greg Norman's Southwest Florida version of the stacked sod-wall bunker creates shallow pools of shadow and light, eerie eclipses next to the bald, low-profile greens.

"(Greg's) mandate was that he wanted to bring a little of the style and flair of Australian golf and the bump and run around the greens," says Jason McCoy, Vice President of Greg Norman Golf Course Design. "His approach is saying, 'Why would you want to [automatically] pull out your sand wedge and your putter every time you pull up to the edge of a green?' He says, 'Before that guy pulls up I want him to think, 'I might need a 7-iron, I might need a 4-iron, or I can putt it. Just give him the option and at least make him think around the edges of the green.'"

McCoy says another part of the design philosophy was to try to build a desert-style golf course in West Florida, and like most desert courses, water issues were a defining factor. Before any construction could begin at Tiburón the entire site needed to be covered with three feet of fill to prevent drainage water and chemical runoff from infecting the high water table.

The first 27 holes opened in 1998 but perhaps not until this year, with the opening of both the Ritz-Carlton and a new nine holes (in the fall of 2002), could Tiburón truly be considered among the South's A list resorts. Now it may be hard to find one better.

Tiburón plays as two 18-hole layouts: the Black Course combines the old South nine with the new nine, and the Gold Course, which hosts the Franklin Templeton Shootout, an off-season PGA tournament featuring two-man teams of touring pros. Together they illustrate how two similarly styled courses can pose a different set of challenges to golfers of different levels.

Rated at a hefty 74.7, the Gold Course plays half a stroke higher than the Black does from the Championship tees. The Gold can better test the low-handicap/professional game with its length (7,288 yards from the tips to the Black's 7,005) especially considering that three of the four par-5 holes are not realistically reachable in two shots. From the forward sets of tees, however, there exists less black-and-white trouble for the average player than at the Black.

Just as the Gold Course sets up to be a stern test for the professional, the Black Course, boasting a whopping 147 slope rating, can be more troublesome to the bogey golfer. The reason is due to both the tighter playing corridors, particularly on the older nine, and the increased presence of water hazards in play on the new holes, particularly the stretch from 8 through 12.

The Black is literally a tale of two courses. The new holes have been injected, across an old road, between the South course's seventh and eighth holes on a rather youthful piece of property. When it matures (when the landscaping and vegetation grows in) it will not appear so raw as it now does; much of the current barrenness is accounted for in the design with bolder contouring and more water features.

Because the two sections are so physically divided the Black lacks the completeness, and the rhythm, of the Gold Course. Yet the strongest holes are arguably from the old South Course, notably the chic starter hole and the daunting second, a 436-yard par four that plays through a corridor of pines to a green flanked closely right by water and left by one of a sheer walled bunker. The 465-yard 17th (formerly the South's eighth) is another powerful two-shotter, this one bending sharply right with the approach constricted on either side by pines and wetlands.

"We wanted something that was totally different, something that hadn't been done in the Naples area before," says McCoy of the Tiburón ideology. "The ideas started flowing (with) the yellow coquina, all fairway and no rough, the bump and run approaches around the green. There are five or six unique things [at Tiburón], though not anymore because we soon got copied, which is flattering to us, actually. But that's the concept we started with, something new and innovative to that part of Florida.

Where To Stay

A better, more convenient arrangement of golf holes and lodging could hardly be imagined. Condé Nast Traveler has named the Ritz-Carlton Resort of Naples the 10th best resort in North America for 2002 (one place behind it's cross town sister Ritz-Carlton property). Most of the deluxe and sparkling new rooms at the Ritz-Carlton, including 38 suites, overlook the 18th hole of the Gold Course. Tiburón's two-story clubhouse is just a short walk across the lawn.

Rates for the Ritz-Carlton Resort range from $269 for a resort view room to $2,500 for the Presidential Suite. Golf rates range from $100 to $140. Golf packages are also available.

Where To Eat

Onsite options include Limonia in the Ritz-Carlton, a bright, airy restaurant serving Tuscan inspired cuisine, and the Poolside Bar. Sidney's, in the Tiburón clubhouse, offers an appropriate array of quaffs in a clubby, tavern-like atmosphere.

Naples is a wonderful city for dining and many more upscale restaurants and bars can be found several miles south in downtown Naples on Fifth Avenue South.

Directions

From I-75 (North & South), take exit 111 and turn west onto Immokalee Road. Turn south (left) onto Airport road - the Tiburón/Ritz-Carlton entrance will be on your left, approximately three miles.

Derek DuncanDerek Duncan, Contributor

Derek Duncan's writing has appeared in TravelGolf.com, FloridaGolf.com, OrlandoGolf.com, GulfCoastGolf.com, LINKS Magazine and more. He lives in Atlanta with his wife Cynthia and is a graduate of the University of Colorado with interests in wine, literary fiction, and golf course architecture.


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