NAPLES, Fla. -- From January to March, no winter golf destination rocks and rolls harder than this ritzy southwest Florida enclave on the Gulf of Mexico.
Congestion on the roads and tee sheets and in the restaurants skyrockets as the Northern snowbirds invade by the flock. The self-professed "Golf Capital of the World" boasts more golf holes per capita than anywhere in the country. Many of the 70-plus golf courses in Collier County are private, but there are still some excellent public offerings.
There's much debate about which are the best public and resort golf courses in Naples. These are my five favorites to date:
Old Corkscrew Golf Club, Estero
The Jack Nicklaus design hidden in the middle of nowhere halfway between Fort Myers and Naples might be the most scenic -- and difficult -- track in southwest Florida. Old Corkscrew Golf Club is 275 acres of pure Florida outback where scrub trees, wetlands and waste bunkers, not houses, accompany players throughout their round.
Environmental restrictions helped the 7,393-yard course, which is managed by KemperSports, earn status as a Certified Audubon International Silver Signature Sanctuary from Audubon International. Old Corkscrew resists scoring with, quite possibly, the highest slope rating from the white tees in the country (144). Heroic shots to greens hanging precariously into ponds and lakes define the day.
TPC Treviso Bay, Naples
This former private club bordering the 110,000-acre Rookery Bay National Estuarine Reserve opened to the public in 2011 after new owner Lennar Homes took over. The 7,367-yard layout, an Arthur Hills and Hal Sutton collaboration, hosted the Champions Tour's 2009 ACE Group Classic.
The first impression at TPC Treviso Bay sets the tone for the day. Fountains, bridges and Mediterranean architecture of the surrounding real estate development line the two-mile drive to the course. Water steals the show throughout the round, especially on the cape hole at no. 11 and the long par 5s at no. 12 and no. 18. Finishing the round with the same ball is quite an accomplishment.
Tiburon Golf Club's Gold Course, Naples
The Franklin Templeton Shark Shootout, held every December, makes the Gold Course at Tiburon more popular than its sibling Black Course. Public and member play rotates daily between the two, so call ahead for the schedule.
Both layouts feature similar characteristics, playing firm-and-fast with wall-to-wall short grass and no rough. Those conditions add distance off the tee, although shots offline tend to find trouble. More waste bunkers, filled with crushed coquina shells, line the 7,271-yard Gold Course. Slightly elevated greens surrounded by tricky collection areas defend the aerial assaults of the pros.
Demanding par 4s finish each nine, providing views of the Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort and clubhouse.
Tiburon Golf Club, Black Course, Naples
The more open Gold Course wins popularity contests. The 6,949-yard Black Course at Tiburon is revered as the tougher and more strategic layout.
Tee shots on the Black must be carved through narrow chutes in the trees, like on no. 2 and no. 17, or find fairways guarded by water on either side, such as at no. 16. The water-logged, bunker-laden par 5 at no. 9 starts a fun stretch of holes added in 2002 when the complex expanded from 27 to 36 holes.
The par-3 10th hole demands a long carry over water, followed by a short, 359-yard par 4 where birdie is possible.
Naples Grande Golf Club, Naples
This private Rees Jones design, accessible only with a stay at the Waldorf Astoria Naples, roams uninterrupted through natural pines and cypress trees without a condo or home in sight. Naples Grande G.C., which hosted the EMC Golf Skills Challenge from 2001 to 2003, is so popular during the high season from January to April that players tee off on both nines to keep up with demand.
The first five holes serve as a warm-up for a course that grows more sinister as the day progresses. A low number of bunkers (43) and wide fairways allow players the chance to slap it around and still shoot a decent score. Five major water hazards raise the stakes mid-round. The par-5 ninth hole boomerangs around water, tempting players with a how-far-can-you-carry tee shot.
The par-5 16th hole runs along a 30-acre lake and a narrow ribbon of waste bunker, ending at a green perched atop rock pilings. The final challenge requires a blind tee shot over a ridge, setting up a daunting approach to that final green snug against the lake.