NAPLES, Fla. -- A links course in the heart of southwest Florida?
But Tiburon's two Greg Norman designs play like links golf. They're firm and fast with sod-wall pot bunkers that pock the fairways and surround the greens. Those characteristics, and the adjacent Naples Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort and Spa, make tee times at Tiburon the most coveted at any resort in this golf-mad town. Naples boasts more golf courses per square mile than anywhere else in the world.
Tiburon is Spanish for shark, and the golf club has hosted The Shark Shootout, a silly, offseason event for PGA Tour pros held since 2001. Less than two weeks after watching PGA Tour pairs duel during the telecast of the 2009 event, Kurt Butler teed it up at Tiburon and stayed on-site. He said what he saw on TV inspired his visit.
"These two courses are a good decision for anyone to play," Butler said. "In comparison to other resorts I've played, this is at the top."
Tiburon General Manager Gary Wilcox admits that the shootout "put Tiburon on the golf map." Even so, it's a commitment to service and conditioning that keeps the club relevant in a competitive golf market.
Tiburon Golf Club's Black Course and Gold Course
The lack of rough on Tiburon's Gold and Black layouts defines this unique playground. The wall-to-wall short grass – Wilcox said every blade is kept to less than a half-inch – can be both a blessing and a curse. Golfers gain distance, but stray shots always seem to find precarious lies in hazards lining the fairway. Both tracks are certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuaries by Audubon International for their commitment to the natural surroundings.
Many players come looking to tackle the Gold Course, host of the Shootout. But often by the time they leave, they love the tougher, more strategic Black Course. The courses rotate daily for public and member play, so call ahead for the schedule.
"For the majority of people who play both courses, they think the Black is more difficult," Wilcox said. "It's tighter and with more water. The Gold Course, you have more room to drive the golf ball and the ability to run the ball up on greens more than the Black."
The Black is a shot-maker's dynamo. Tee shots must carve through trees that create narrow chutes, like on No. 2 and No. 17, or find fairways guarded by water on either side, like at No. 16.
The water-logged, bunker-laden, par-5 ninth jump starts a fun stretch of holes added in 2002, when the complex went from 27 to 36 holes. The par-3 10th demands a long carry over water, followed by a short par 4 (359 yards from the tips) that offers birdie as a reward.
Slightly elevated greens surrounded by tricky collection areas defend the Gold Course from the aerial assaults of the pros. Amateurs should copy by putting anything near the greens, Wilcox said.
"It's touchy to hit a lofted wedge off those tight lies," he said.
A round on the Gold begins in rousing style with a par 5 pinched by water and bunkers, creating a tempting, risk-reward scenario on the second shot.
The golf course features more waste bunkers, lined with crushed coquina shells, than the Black. Grounding your club is legal in these hazards, but it doesn't make the shot any easier out of their compact, sandy bottoms.
Challenging par fours to finish each nine provide views of the sprawling resort and clubhouse.
The on-site Rick Smith Golf Academy is one of just two in the country run by Phil Mickelson's former teacher. You're more likely to run into Smith here than at his other location, at Treetops Resort in scenic Gaylord, Mich.
It's tough to choose between two Ritz-Carlton properties - the 295-room, Mediterranean-themed hotel within walking distance of the club, or the 450-room Ritz-Carlton Beach Resort, a high-rise three miles from the golf club. The beachfront property boasts a much more active pool scene and three miles of beach on the Gulf of Mexico. Yet each delivers that signature service, spas and an assortment of restaurants.
Butler requested a room change on account of some noisy teenagers next door. For his troubles, he was upgraded to a larger suite. Such service encourages brand loyalty among customers.
"The hotel staff is very courteous," said Mark Cury, visiting from the east coast. "It's what you would expect from a Ritz-Carlton. It's a nice place. There are lots of things to do."
Tiburon Golf Club in Naples: The verdict
The Tiburon experience – play great golf and hang out in an opulent clubhouse – rivals any private club. Although the club's part-owner, WCI Communities, filed for bankruptcy in 2008, there were no signs of concern during my visit, roughly four months after the company was allowed to reorganize. The courses were in fine shape, and a large number of staffers offered to do everything from club cleaning to car parking.