The member-owned Naples National Golf Club is located a couple of miles to the east of downtown Naples and some draw a parallel between Naples and Pine Valley, Pinehurst No.2 and August National. Rugged, blow-out sand scrub waste areas border meticulously manicured fairways and the design philosophy of Dr Michael Hurdzan and Dana Fry, who first designed Naples National in 1992, is that “the best golf is played in the most natural surroundings and on golf courses that are sustainable in the environment of which they are a part.” Hurdzan and Fry’s vision for Naples National was to achieve perfection.
It’s hard to understand how a parallel between Naples and Augusta can be drawn as the Naples National site is topographically flat, whereas the elevation changes at Augusta are dramatic. Nevertheless, similarities have been drawn and from a conditioning perspective there is a real parallel. Naples National is polished to perfection and the immaculate playing surfaces blend nicely with waste areas and native terrain, which includes mature stands of pine and cypress trees.
The overall design at Naples National is based on the tradition of golf’s “golden age” so do not expect to find any gimmicks here at Naples. Some earth moving was required to create varied but gentle elevation changes of the tees and greens, which invariably depict a clear view of each hole when standing on the tee. Fairway mounding creates further shape and definition with light but strategic bunkering focusing the mind.
Prior to the arrival of Calusa Pines, Naples National was considered by many to be the best course in southwest Florida.
The courses were designed by the team of Michael Hurdzan and Dana Fry. Perhaps due to using the same architects, the two courses share several similarities, yet have three distinct differences.
Both courses begin with a par four that doglegs to the left. The second hole on both courses is a par 5. The third hole is a par 3. Both courses have a long par 3 and a visually delightful short par 3. The fourteenth hole on both courses is a short par 4 where the green sits next to the water with no relief for going long or left. Both courses end on a par 5. The two courses have excellent greens that have interesting contouring and are kept in perfect shape resulting in fast green speeds. At both courses, it serves one well to minimize the downhill putts. Finally, both courses do offer a reward on many holes for finding the correct side of the fairway. At Calusa Pines, this is due to the green complexes whereas at Naples National this is due to the usage of waste bunkers and angled greens.
The main difference is that Mr. Hurdzan and Mr. Fry were given guidance and a budget to move a lot of dirt at Calusa Pines in order to manufacture hills for teeing locations and several green sites. Naples National is essentially flat. The hills at Calusa Pines lead to much more difficulty in one’s approach shots and recovery shots. At Calusa Pines, if one misses the greens or comes too close to some of the edges, they will fall off a greenside swale or land in a deep bunker.
Whereas both courses incorporate long waste bunkers, due to moving dirt the waste bunkers at Calusa Pines are deeper such as on the par 5 thirteenth. At Naples National, one can choose to putt out of some of them if they are so inclined because many do not have much of a lip. This leads to Naples National being more playable and offering more options for recovery.
Because of the height of several of the greens at Calusa Pines, one has to be able to get height on a recovery shot from a greenside bunker. At Naples National, this is only the case if one is pressed up against one of the edges. The height of the greenside bunkers hit you immediately on the first hole at Calusa Pines, with the highest bunkers likely on the second and third holes at Calusa Pines. They might be as deep as ten feet. At Naples National, I do not recall a bunker that is deeper than three feet.
The third difference is that the fairways are more generous at Calusa Pines resulting in being more of a second shot golf course. At Naples National, more of the fairways are narrower and there are more trees on both sides of the fairways. Naples National is the more difficult course for the non-par 3 tee shots.
The reason I am comparing the two courses is because Naples National is nearly as good. If one were to raise several of the greens at Naples National to five-seven feet in height, the course would play more difficult, but perhaps not be as much fun. Naples National could easily add some raised tees or do more contouring of the fairways, but again those changes would lessen its playability although it would add to its visual appeal and strategy. While changes such as this might not close the gap completely, the debate would become more about the benefits from hitting good tee shots versus good approach shots.
Unlike Calusa Pines, where everyone remembers 3-4 holes such as the downhill par 3 sixteenth hole with falloffs on three sides to water, at Naples National I am unsure if any of the holes stand out above the others. Certainly there are holes that I favored, but I am certain other players favor other holes. In my case, many of the holes I liked the most are the ones that I played the poorest, with my rationalization being “I was caught up in looking at the hole rather than trying to play it.” For examples, of the par 5’s, I felt the fourth hole to be the most difficult and strategic, but I could see where others could point to any of the other three. Of the par 3’s, I appreciated the sixth hole, the shortest on the course due to the slight elevation of the green and its surrounding sand creating almost an island green. I can see where others would favor the third or twelfth, both over water and beautiful from the tee. For the par 4’s, I liked the fifth, ninth, fourteenth, and sixteenth but the seventh, eighth, tenth and thirteenth are equally good.
That sums up what I like the most about the course. One could choose almost any set of holes to be their favorites. It is a very playable golf course despite all of the visual distractions with the acres of sand. Indeed, I was told there are 52 acres of grass and 52 acres of sand/water/rough. The green contours and green speeds are excellent. The conditioning is at a very high level. The greenside bunkers are sharp-edged creating doubt in one’s mind.
From the Championship tees, the course measures 7115 yards, par 72 rated 74.2/147. The Back tees are 6730 yards, rated 72.7/144. The Member tees are 6235 yards rated 70.5/138. There are two sets of lesser tees. We played a set of combo tees that likely measured 6500 yards.
1. Par 4 - 373/363. A relatively gentle starting hole as a dogleg left with trees down both sides but seemingly closer down the left. The left side of the fairway has a waste area from tee to greenside. There is a lengthy waste area just off the tee although it should not be in play. A right side bunker at the turn of the fairway is placed to take driver out of the hands of the longer players. In addition to the waste area down the left side of the green, there is a single bunker right middle. The green has a slope back to front with some inner twists. Like many holes at Naples National, if one goes long over the back of the green there is a tricky recovery shot using either a wedge or a putter, but at least one has options. The “miss” to this green is to be short of it and use a putter.
2. Par 5 – 586/544. The longest par 5 on the course has a somewhat lengthy carry from the championship tees for the longer hitters over a waste area although even that could be lengthened by 25 yards. A second waste area bisects the fairway with a length of perhaps 30 yards. The waste area continues down the entirety of the left side, There are two bunkers spaced down the right side that serve as guide points for shorter players. The green site is placed off to the left with the waste area coming into the green like five fingers with a depth of three feet. It is a long but narrow green with fall-offs to the right side. I like the hole.
3. Par 3 – 205/171/148. This hole plays over water but there is ample grass prior to the large green with has a back half plateau. Down the left side of the green is sand once again going in and out like waves. I got unlucky and found the final bunker on the left leaving me with a shot with one foot in and one out and the ball well below my normal swing plane. I felt lucky to walk away with a bogey.
4. Par 5 – 566/529. The number one index hole offers a generous fairway. Due to a long pond and waste area bunker down the right side, the tee shot gives the appearance of a slight dogleg left. The waste area bunker comes into the fairway along with a center-line bunker that I found with my second after a poor tee shot. Another waste area bisects the fairway this time about 80-100 yards from the green. There is some clever mounding down the left side nearer the green which is where more sand appears. A small bunker is on the front right and more sand is at the back left of the green. I really like this hole because longer players will have a go at a somewhat hidden green with their second, whereas average length players need to stay as far left as possible for the best angle to the green because it is not very receptive. Balls landing on the middle left of the green have a good chance of rolling off the rear.
5. Par 4 – 413/407. The tee shot provides the appearance of a smaller fairway due to a pond and substantial waste area down the right side. For the third time in four holes, the architects use a wide waste area to bisect the fairway. The green sits behind the waste area with it continuing down the right side. It is a charming golf hole.
6. Par 3 – 149/122. This is my favorite par 3 on the course as this green is slightly raised, surrounded by sand on three sides with a front right circular bunker. The green has a back left shelf to it. Adding to the visual appeal of the hole is a waste area fronting the tee that links into the waste area and bunkers that surrounds the green.
7. Par 4 – 417/409. This hole doglegs to the right with a waste area going up the right side before ending. There is another large bunker coming into the fairway from the right that bisects half of the fairway with an opposing bunker on the left. Longer hitters will need to stay short of these two sand areas as they are perhaps the deepest fairway bunkers on the course. The green is narrow and angled left to right consistent with the shape of the hole with a single bunker left middle and the waste area pinching in from the right. The green has a higher back half with subtle interior movement.
8. Par 4 – 486/439/387. Water is down the left off the tee with eleven bunkers scattered down the left side after the water. These bunkers are shared with the ninth hole. A large waste bunker comes in from the right side narrowing the fairway by a third and creating a dogleg right. Although I did not list this holes among my favorite par 4’s, it is one of the better par 4’s on the golf course with a green angled to the right with offsetting bunkers. I went long over this green and paid a price.
9. Par 4 – 389/380. This is the second hardest rated hole on the outward nine. You tee off over a short waste area with those eleven bunkers down the left side. The fairway is reduced to less than half its size by a pond that also fronts the green and continues down the left. There is not much room to miss to the right due to trees. There are two bunkers on the right side of the green which makes a miss to the right side a compelling problem if one is trying to loft a chip over it without it continuing off the side of the green into the water. The green has a significant front slope to it. It is a difficult but fair hole.
10. Par 4 – 407/398. At first glance, this shorter par 4 feels like it should be a gentle hole. Yet the hole bends to the left and due to the usage of long waste bunkers on either side of the fairway that pinch the fairway to make it a channel, the longer hitters need to lay up while the shorter hitters need to favor the right side. This leaves a longer approach shot than one might want into a green where the waste area continues relatively close to the right front of the green. There is additional defense in opposing bunkers at the front. This is another green which appears to be flat from a distance but has a fair amount of slope once on it.
11. Par 4 – 402/387. This hole goes back to the clubhouse beginning with a tee shot that must stay left of the long waste area on the right. There is a small opposing bunker on the left corner of this dogleg right more in play for longer players. Hurdzan and Fry employ a favorite defense for this course with a waste area bisecting the fairway prior to the green with the left side beginning sooner and continuing up the left side of the green. I did find this with my second shot and putted from there onto the green which is slightly raised with a higher knob on the right.
12. Par 3 – 211/197/157. From the championship tees this is a daunting tee shot over water but with ample room to land short of the green and run onto it. There are bunkers to either side of this thinner green which is two-tiered. This is a visually appealing hole and in a right-to-left strong wind would be daunting.
13. Par 4 – 407/400. This is another hole likely recognized as one of the better par 4’s. This dogleg right plays over a pond to a fairway with long waste areas on both sides. The left side of the fairway is preferred as the green is placed off to the right and angled that way. Prior to the green beginning about 70 yards out is a waste area that ends the fairway and must be cleared to reach the green. The waste area then becomes bunkers on either side of a slightly raised green.
14. Par 4 – 305/295. I cannot imagine even the longer players trying to drive this green given it is both angled right to left and is nearly on its own island with water hard against the green on three sides. For those trying to get close there is a collection of six bunkers off to the right about 50 yards short of the green. The smart play is to hit a 200-220 yard shot. We had a back left pin the day we played which is the toughest spot on the green. Any pin location at the front not only results in a 15 yard shorter approach but if one remains short of the green it is an easy putt. Anything on the back half of the green is very challenging. The bunkers on the side of the green are some of the deepest and sharpest edged. This hole is a delight.
15. Par 5 – 557/545. This is rated the hardest hole on the back nine as it should be due to the curvature of the hole and the way the water is incorporated to create both a slight dogleg right then sharp left as well as the water substantially narrows the fairway. Longer hitters might have an attempt at the green or easily play over the water for an approach shot of 100 yards. Fronting the green is a long waste bunker covering the entirety of the fairway. The green is placed hard against the water on the left side and rear and has a bunker at both of the front corners. It is a hole that has both strategy while offering both a severe penalty and a reward for both smart play and well executed shots.
16. Par 4 – 460/434/400. Playing over the water which is only there for visual purposes, this is a slightly wider fairway for the average length player but for longer hitters the waste areas on both sides again shrink the fairway. The longest hitters will try to carry the waste area on the right but risk getting behind thicker trees or going into the waste bunkers on the left. The green is set off to the right and angled left to right so a fade is required into the green for most players. There is a long bunker on the left of the green. It is another challenging hole.
17. Par 3 – 213/186. This is perhaps the least distinctive par 3 on the course but it is also the one I felt would play the most difficult on most days. The green is angled a bit to the left with a front bunker left and one on the middle of either side. There is some decent mounding near the green particularly on the right side which can throw a ball another fifteen yards off to the right.
18. Par 5 – 569/521. The finishing hole requires a tee shot over a waste area to a generous fairway but one where the left side is favored as the fairway moves more to the left. There is another long waste area that bisects the fairway at its narrowest point and the bigger hitters can reach this off the tee. The second shot can either be an attempt at the green for the longer hitters while the shorter players need to stay right of waste area bunkers that creep in from the left like fingers. The green is fronted by water with a bunker left middle and two on the right. Therefore the longer hitters trying to reach the green in two need to clear all of the water. Balls landing just onto the front of the green can spin back onto the rocks that support the green after the water. It is a fine finishing hole that requires decision-making. The clubhouse sits right behind this green and is magnificent. You see the clubhouse from several vantage points on the course, with the best views from the seventh tee and coming into eighteen.
Naples National is a fine golf course that could be more, but does not need to be more. It is a course that one would enjoy playing every day both for its visual attractiveness, nice green surfaces, and a worthy combination of holes that are either true doglegs or favor one side of the fairway.