Many private golf courses brag about their expensive renovations, but often the reaction by the membership and general public is, “Huh? What did you do? What did I pay for? It looks the same to me!”
The truth is that golf courses slowly deteriorate over the years, sort of like your house or your car. You can buy a brand-new Jaguar, sure, but that would be prohibitively expensive. Golf-course owners do what used-car owners often do: They change the tires, buy new belts, maybe fix a ding here or there … nothing too fancy and nothing anyone is likely to notice on first glance. Golf course owners fix drainage, irrigation, maybe level the tees and redo the greens with the latest super-turf, but that’s about it. You replay the course and it looks, and plays, pretty much the same.
Laurel Oak Country Club took it one better. Opened with much fanfare in 1990, the West Course was one of Sarasota County’s winners—well-manicured, nice layout, playable (designed by nine-time-major-champion Gary Player) and an all-around good course. Located off Bee Ridge Road across from Bent Tree Country Club, Laurel Oak was another gem in the crown of Sarasota County’s burgeoning golf scene.
Then the East Course was built, a duller, flatter, easier and more boring accompaniment to the West. But the Club now sported 36 holes, which was a higher bar for local country clubs.
By 2005, something needed to be done to return Laurel Oak West to its star status. Enter top-notch designer Rees Jones. Gary Player didn’t get the nod, which was probably fortuitous, since in my opinion, Gary can’t hold a candle to Rees, the son of famed course designer Robert Trent Jones. Rees is known for his redesigns, which include Torrey Pines, Cog Hill, The Country Club and East Lake Country Club in Atlanta, the home course of Bobby Jones (no relation).
I hadn’t played the West Course in a few years, and I was amazed by the changes. Formerly flat, the West Course now sports elevated, well-bunkered two-and three-tired greens with nasty slopes. I asked golf director Matt Auen what the course rating differential was between the old and new courses, and he said it was a couple of shots. My guess is that the members would vote for something along the lines of three to four.
The routings are much the same, but the looks are far different. Instead of their original flat appearance, the fairways are canted and most greens are elevated. The fall-off areas, which modern designers like to keep closely cropped, are shaggier, meaning that you can’t just elect a putter to bump the ball to the hole. A wedge or similarly lofted club might be your best bet, bringing more mis-hits into play.
What Rees has done is make Laurel West into more of a target-style course. You need to miss the greens in certain spots to increase your chances of an up-and-down. Aggressive play can be rewarded, but a slightly off-line shot can spell bogey or worse. You need to play this course a couple of times to find your comfort zone.
Hole No. 1, which used to be a cupcake par four that allowed you to unlimber a little bit, is no longer the pushover it once was. Rees brought a bunker into play on the right side and concocted a three-tiered green featuring diabolical pin positions. A water hazard behind the green that seldom came into play before now drowns overly aggressive approach shots. An easy four-par is now a good test.
It doesn’t get any easier after that. Greens on the West are all now Tiff-Eagle, a fast surface that doesn’t have to be overseeded in the winter, according to Auen. (By the way, don’t let Auen drive you around the course unless you’ve bolstered your life insurance. The man is like speed skier Jean-Claude Killy on amphetamines. I hope my screams didn’t disturb any of the golfers, but if they did, I apologize.)
Rees likes to give you a mixture of reachable par fives and par fives that you have to play conservatively. Risk/reward factors come into play often; if you’re on your game, the West course will give up some birdies. If your game is a little off, you’re in for a long day.
All courses have their signature holes, and the West’s Amen corner holds Nos. 9, 10 and 11. No. 9, which plays 441 yards from the backmost tees, is basically a dogleg right around a water hazard. The more you chew off, the shorter your second shot, but your angle to the scary green is better from the left side of the fairway. Wind and bunkers add to the fun of this visually terrifying hole.
Hole 10 is another long par four at 442 yards. Swamp and water make you want to aim down the left side, but the shorter, more dangerous angle is right. Rees, who should know, lays up to the left portion of the fairway in front of the elevated green. If you chip and putt like he does, your chances of par are good.
Eleven is a beast of a par three—a semi-island green that looks, from the tee, to be all water and sand. The green is big, and if you get in the big bunker to the left, you face a knee-knocking downhill blast toward the water. It’s rated the 16th easiest hole, but don’t believe it.
The 17th, possibly the prettiest hole on the West Course, is a pure par five with jungle down the right side and a fairway that demands you play down the left side. The layup is not easy; long is better than short. At 582 yards, it’s the No. 2 handicap hole.
After touring the West Course, the East Course was a bit of a disappointment. It’s flattish and clearly in need of sprucing. That being said, the conditioning was top-notch; and if you don’t feel like beating your head against a wall like you may on the West Course, this is a good choice. z
Sarasota humorist David Grimes, the author of several books, is also an avid golfer.
Laurel Oak Country Club
Where: 2700 Gary Player Blvd., Sarasota Phone: (941) 377-2527 Website: www.laureloak.com Course conditions (reviewed in July): Excellent; tiered greens on West Course very challenging Dining facilities: Expanded dining areas offer fine, glass-walled views of the course. Clubby bars and locker rooms offer big-screen TVs, card table and, of course, Gary Player’s locker. Best drink after good round: $250 bottle of ’98 Dom Perignon Best reads after bad round: Blood and Honor by W.E.B. Griffin, Gone But Not Forgotten by Phillip Margolin. Cool thing: Members can donate golf balls to Sarasota Junior Golf programs.