Southern Florida has become synonymous with golf vacations for most Canadians, but the area on the Gulf Coast known as "The Last Paradise in Florida" isn't as well known as other destinations in the Sunshine State. The city of Bonita Springs is just a few minutes north of Naples and offers visitors a bucolic lifestyle and some excellent golf courses.
Pelican's Nest can be found in the Pelican Landing residential development just off Highway 41 in Bonita Springs. Bordered by Spring Creek and Estero Bay, the club is sheltered from any commotion. "The Nest" offers 36 holes of Tom Fazio-designed golf between its two sister courses, The Gator and The Hurricane.
Of the two, The Gator is the more challenging track, featuring numerous water hazards and five par 5s on a rare par 73 that reaches over 7,000 yards from the tips. It boasts two terrific finishing holes: the lovely par-3 17th at which two osprey became our gallery from their perch high above the tee, and the par 4 eighteenth which requires an accurate drive between OB on the left and hazards on the right followed by an even tougher approach shot to a well-protected green bordered by more water and bunkers.
Our host, Director of Membership A.J. Szymanski recalled seeing the resident family of bobcats lounging on the fairway earlier in the week.
The Hurricane is par 72, 6,800 yards from the back tees. It begins with a benign par 3 and ends with a scenic par 5 that features water up the both sides of the fairway and a dog leg right pin that can be reached in two with a long iron by only the bravest of souls. The Championship Bermuda greens are generous but very fast, so putting requires a delicate but true stroke.
The club embarked on a mangrove trimming program two years ago that has greatly enhanced the sightlines for the holes and allows players to truly appreciate why Pelican's Nest has achieved its certification as an Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary. The club was actually Fazio's first Golf Digest ranked design when it opened back in 1985 and it embraces its environment while still providing for a true golfer's experience to this day.
The recently renovated 45,000 square foot clubhouse welcomes visitors with its magnificent entrance and elegant façade. Inside, members can enjoy some respite in the spacious lounge and view beautiful sunsets over Spring Creek or images of canoes paddling by.
We were impressed by the hospitality of everyone we met at Pelican's Nest, especially for Canadian visitors. From Director of Golf Chris Sheehan and Course Superintendent Jason Zimmerman to the members who went out of their way to tell us about the camaraderie and varied activities at the club, it was a welcoming place.
Pelican's Nest is developing a unique "Players Club" that will provide members with specialized training and services such as physiotherapy, chiropractic and diet counselling to offer a more holistic approach to golf training. It was apparent from the absence of tennis courts or swimming pools that the emphasis at the club is on its members and the golf experience rather than a country club atmosphere.
Further inland, we found the full country-club experience alive and well at Shadow Wood, a magnificent golf community only minutes from either Highway 41 to the west or I-75 to the east. As you pass the gated entrance, you're struck by the lushness of the properties and beautiful homes lining Oakwilde Boulevard.
We visited just days before the completion of a major renovation to what can only be described as a palatial clubhouse. Besides significant upgrades to existing areas inside the building, an emphasis has been placed on expanding outside space that includes a new covered terrace and a firepit area, both serviced by two new exterior bars.
We played the challenging North course, one of three eighteens at Shadow Wood. The North and the South were both designed by Bob Cupp, famous for building Liberty National (host of the 2009 Barclays) and Pumpkin Ridge (site of the U.S. Women's Open in 1997 and 2003). Our carts came equipped with state-of-the-art GPS. Make no mistake, a cart is a must here as the distances between some holes can be as much as several hundred yards or more.
The hole layouts feature a number of common characteristics: risk/reward shots, large lightning-fast greens and extensive water hazards but each has its own unique flavour. For instance, the short No. 2 - a dogleg right par 4 -allows you to cut off as much of the imposing water hazard as you choose and can leave you with a wedge into the green if your drive is long and straight.
The sixth hole is a par 5, ranked as the third hardest on the course and offers a number of landing areas on the way to the well protected green.
Besides the beauty of the landscape, one of the more enjoyable features of this course is the emphasis on using all the clubs in your bag. On No. 11, a 453-yard, par-4 dogleg demands a big drive over water to a generous fairway but then a solid 3-iron to the green from there.
The par threes require as much as a rescue club (better not let it fade right into the pond on the 221 yard #13) or a wedge (it's all carry over water on the 138 yard #16) and even if you're on in regulation, a three-putt is always a possibility with the diabolically fast greens.
If the wind is blowing here, which is almost always in Southwest Florida, it's just another impediment to a low score for those without Tiger's stinger 4-iron in our bag. The black tees measure over 7,000 yards in length with an imposing slope of 139; however the other four sets of tees offer a reasonable choice for any handicap to play the course.
Shadow Wood too has achieved an Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary designation, one of only 816 courses in the world and the attention to detail is apparent in the maintenance. This is one of the prettiest clubs we have visited in the 35 years we have been coming to Florida.
For more information on these two clubs, contact:
A.J. Szymanski, Director of Membership, Pelican's Nest (239) 992-7782
Danita Osborn, Director of Membership, Shadow Wood Country Club (239)992-6000 ext. 4504