Marco Island Marriott renovates course and renames it the Rookery

By Cynthia Boal Janssens, Contributor

MARCO ISLAND, Fla. -- Most everyone who lives on Marco Island has an explanation as to how the Marco Island Marriott Resort, Golf Club and Spa snagged the choicest location on the beach.

There it sits in all its glory, occupying a couple of miles smack dab in the middle of one of the prettiest stretches of sand on the Gulf of Mexico. Some describe it as a castle, what with its spectacular glass lobby.

The prevailing theory is that umpteen years ago the island developers ran out of bucks. Marriott or its predecessor stepped in and bailed them out, and in return asked for a chunck of prime beachfront. Now, I have no idea if any of this is true but it sounds plausible.

Anyway, this resort leads a charmed life on a charmed island, which has seen its property values soar in recent years. Marco Island is located off the tip of southwest Florida and is connected to the mainland by two causeways. Its southerly location almost guarantees good weather year around. It can be chilly in Tampa and downright balmy on Marco. But Marco is small and so this golf course is actually located a few miles off the island. A Joe Lee-design, it was built 11 years ago and called The Golf Club at Marco. The developer was Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance, which also owns the hotel (both are managed by Marriott).

Building it had to be quite a challenge because it was cut through swampland that was filled with trees and dense foliage. "There were 30-foot Brazilian pepper trees and lots of palmettos. For years it has a rather rough feel and it was easy to lose balls," explains Chris Major, director of golf. "And there was the bug issue." he adds, wryly. Then Gulf Bay corporation bought up 4,000 acres around the golf course and began building Fiddler's Creek, an upscale residential community, with its own golf courses. The now-elegant setting seemed to dictate that the older course be upgraded.

So a year ago, MassMutual decided on a new concept for its golf course, explains Major. They would make it into a top-level resort course, give it a new name, rebuild the clubhouse and eventually become a private club shared with the resort. The course was closed last April and Robert Cupp Jr., designed and directed the overhaul.

On January 6, 2003, the course reopened with a new name, The Rookery at Marco, and a new look. Gone is all the dense foliage, replaced with native grasses, clusters of yellow daisies and pine straw. There are new carts and new signage throughout. Everything about the place has a fresh, upscale feel about it, and that's even before the clubhouse expansion, which will begin soon.

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And the course is a real pleasure to play. It has five sets of tees so anyone can feel comfortable. Ahead of us were four gentlemen who explained, as they politely allowed us to play through: "We're all over 70. We play from the senior tees now." No explanation needed, eh?

Then my 70+ husband whomped one from the middle tees. Show-off.

The course plays 7,180 yards from the tips (75.1/143); 6,430 from the middle tees (71.1/128) and a friendly 5,029 from the forward tees (69.6/123).

We discovered the name is appropriate, too. As we teed off at the first hole, a cluster of storks bobbed for insects in the adjacent pond. There were lots of other birds in the many water hazards as we moved around the course. "Rookery" means a breeding place or colony of gregarious birds and we saw herons, ibis, anhingas and egrets in abundance. As a private club, the Rookery at Marco plans to operate with about 400 members. Currently, memberships cost $38,500 and include all Marco Marriott amenities, including the beach. Many of these members will probably come from within Fiddler's Creek itself because its golf equity package is somewhat more costly. In the meantime, the public is welcome to play. In season, tee times are $140 per round, including cart, but you can knock $10 off that with a coupon from the Naples Daily News. Rates are slightly lower for Marriott guests. Major says that for now play is down somewhat, which he attributes to the economy, fears of war and a general downtown in area tourism. This is a plus for golfers because the pace of play is downright speedy. There are also excellent practice facilities right next to the clubhouse.

Also adding prestige to the Rookery is that one of four Faldo Golf Schools by Marriott is located here. Major says the golf school is popular because participants can use their Marriott Rewards points to exchange for sessions.

Back on Marco Island, the hotel is also getting a facelift that will be completed at the end of this year. A Balinese spa is being added, with exotic features like open-air massage pavilions, and all guest rooms are being renovated. There's little doubt that this resort intends to compete with the other high end properties in the area, notably the Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort at Tiburon, the Registry Resort and the new Hyatt Regency Coconut Point, all located just a bit further north in Naples.

Ed Stone of Nashville, Tenn., had just shot an 89 on his first round on the Rookery. He was impressed. "This is more than a typical resort course. It has some tough holes on it and the greens are well-trapped," he explained. "I like that they have speeded up play by taking out the palmettos and stuff so you can find your ball easily.And it's a really pretty course."

On this sunny day with all the daisies abloom, we could only agree.

Just the facts: Marco Island Marriott Resort, Golf Club and Spa 400 South Collier Blvd. Marco Island, Fl 34145 (239) 394-2511 (800) 438-4373 www.marriotthotels.com

Directions from Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers: Take I-75 south 34 miles to exit 15. Take state road 951 south for 16 miles to the Marco Island bridge. The resort is on the right, three miles from the bridge.

The Rookery at Marco Golf Club 3433 Club Center Blvd. Naples, FL 34114 (239) 793-6060 www.rookeryatmarco.com Directions: Inside the Fiddler's Creek residential community, on state route 951, about six miles north of the Marriott Resort.

Faldo Golf Institute (888) GO.FALDO www.gofaldo.com

Cynthia Boal Janssens is a former newspaper writer and editor turned freelance writer. She is the former travel editor and Sunday magazine editor of The Detroit News. In addition, she has worked for newspapers in California, Georgia, New York and Pennsylvania. She is a graduate of Ohio University.


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