Ah, to the Good Life.
Or, better yet, the Golf Life.
In interest of full disclosure, I played The Concession, Ritz-Carlton Members Club and Founders Club only as a personal favor to the editors at SARASOTA Magazine.
I didn't want to do it, as I recall. Hesitated. Wavered. Asked to renegotiate. Polled family, friends, neighbors and anybody who happened to say hi to me at Mattison's Bar and Grille on Wednesday nights. Consulted tarot cards and Googled "metaphysical decisions made easy," before going to a higher source--my guru, Don ("Make Me a Deal") Guercio, general manager of Blab Television.
"What are you, an idiot?" he shouted into the phone at world headquarters on Palm Avenue.
Tee times set, Guercio and I led a foursome into the lap of golf luxury, the stratified exclusivity of the six-figure memberships of Sarasota-Bradenton's latest jewels in the crown. It'll set you back $125,000 to join The Concession and $100,000 each for The Ritz-Carlton and Founders (the only equity deal of the three).
Other than that, about the only thing these perfectly coiffed courses have in common is their east-of-I-75 location. Caddies are provided at both The Concession and The Ritz. Founders has the only clubhouse open, although similar Taj Mahals are scheduled to be finished at the other two clubs sometime next year.
"It's all been very impressive," says Brian Henderson, Ritz-Carlton Members Club director of golf. "Assuming my neighbors are having the same success, there's room for more."
"We're not to the point Naples is at, with all their high-end clubs," adds Founders head professional Bob Irving. "But what's happening is other courses in the area are taking notice and making changes to their facilities. It's great for the area to have all these upgrades."
Those upgrades are snowballing as clubs and courses around the area compete for members and guests amid a growth boom. Laurel Oak Country Club brought in architect Rees Jones last year for a major renovation of its West Course. In April, venerable Sara Bay Country Club began digging up and reshaping its fairways and adding distance to the storied Donald Ross-designed layout. And Longboat Key Club-the only true resort golf destination in the Sarasota area for decades until The Ritz opened-recently brought in Ron Garl to renovate its Blue and Red nines at Harbourside. Plans are in the works to do the same on the White nine and Islandside course. And what's a resort experience without a new spa, which Longboat Key Club also unveiled earlier this year?
"Our members and guests have discriminating tastes and high expectations, and we take pride in exceeding their expectations," says Longboat Key Club general manager Michael Welly. "We're here to provide the best of everything Florida has to offer, and what we're doing in 2006 allows us to fulfill that promise to our maximum ability."
Sort of like me in fulfilling my vow to SARASOTA Magazine.
As guests at these three luxury courses, we had to behave ourselves. There was nothing about us that said, "Hey, look, we're prospective members!" But the great thing about these three championship tracts is they're so new, there wasn't enough daily play yet to clog up our round.
Maybe I'll be invited back. Or maybe, dear editors, I'll get another assignment. (Hint, hint.) If not, I can at least say I was on the cutting edge of the area's breakthrough into the ultra-luxe Golf Life.
Back in 1969 Englishman Tony Jacklin faced a two-foot putt on the final hole of his Ryder Cup match against America's Jack Nicklaus at Royal Birkdale, England. Make it, and Jacklin would halve with Nicklaus and account for the first tie in Ryder Cup history. Miss, and Jacklin would lose his match and the Europeans would fall short in the final score. Either way, the United States would still keep the Ryder Cup, but Jacklin could suffer what surely would have been a haunting indignity of gagging a gimme in front of his home fans.
Pick it up, Nicklaus told him, conceding the tie.
"I don't think you would have missed the putt, but under the circumstances, I'd never give you the opportunity," Nicklaus said at the time.
"I think it was the greatest single sporting gesture in golf," Jacklin said afterward.
Flash-forward 37 years to the cattle pastures of eastern Manatee County. The two meet again to collaborate on a world-class layout. Indeed, no concession has been made in creating what is perhaps Nicklaus' finest signature design, right up there with his course in Dublin, Ohio, site of the PGA Tour's Memorial Tournament.
Fittingly, The Concession is an ode to that famous moment and takes you on a storyboard tour of Ryder Cup history. At the practice range, 40 individual bag stands list the date, year, captains and results from each biennial match between the United States and Europe. A plaque on each tee box on the course commemorates historic Ryder Cup events.
The layout lives up to every ounce of the names behind it. It sports an astounding course and slope rating, a universal system used to determine degree of difficulty (77.6/155 from the 7,470-yard black tees; 72.7/146 from the 6,600-yard blue tees). Power doglegs, blind spots, subtle illusions, treacherous angles, steep slopes and dramatic greens-Nicklaus flexes all his muscles from start to finish.
"It's a very doable test, but it doesn't let up for a second," says director of golf Jimmy Wright. "If you let your guard down, it buries you."
Such a challenge befits a major tournament, and Nicklaus and Jacklin-both former Ryder Cup captains-have endorsed the idea of landing a Ryder Cup. Also behind the effort: Bradenton resident Paul Azinger, a possible future U.S. captain. "We're in the process of pursuing that and getting our hat in the ring with the PGA [of America]," says Wright. "That's our ultimate goal."
My group's ultimate test was containing our awe. If we hit a good shot, our adrenaline pumped a little harder, satisfaction became a little greater. Heck, even shots we never found just left us shaking our heads in wonderment because we knew we were facing something untameable.
"This is unbelievable," was a common refrain. "Look at this hole," we seemed to say at every tee box.
Amazingly, the shortest par four on the course struck an intricate chord among Concession's plethora of great holes. Only 238 yards (292 from the tips), No. 8 resembles a walk through Augusta National's cathedral of pines. It's a dogleg right, but only for the last 80 yards or so, where a creek runs in front of a tricky, smallish green that falls off toward the back.
It's just another example of the accuracy needed to avoid shooting 20 shots higher than your handicap. Ditto for another characteristic: steep dropoffs from elevated greens, particularly on the par-fives, which thus brought a significant skill factor into our short games.
Just as Nicklaus did better than anyone, you'd better think your way around Concession.
"Great golf courses," Wright says later, "can do that to you."
THE RITZ-CARLTON MEMBERS CLUB
"Hey, Spousta. What's your room number?"
It was sort of a clever quip from one of my buddies, but I'd never disclose it to any of these golf-crazed knuckleheads. I wouldn't tell them my floor number, much less room; they'd charge the entire contents of the food and beverage cart, plus a huge tip.
But I would readily admit that Tom Fazio's course design delivers the same resort friendliness as the Sarasota hotel. There are very few forced carries, intimidating shots over water or environmentally sensitive wetland or large sand traps. He's mapped out tougher courses, but Fazio is true here to his reputation for mixing things up, working in short and long par fours, doglegs left and right and sleek lines that make it look as though the course has been there for years.
You won't get beat up here. Wide fairways lead to large bowl-shaped greens as plush as a Ritz-Carlton lobby, giving the option of hitting run-up shots or flying the ball to the putting surface. Consider it a spa for the ego, a massage for your game. Sure, trouble lurks for those wayward shots we amateurs can hit at any moment. But there's a comfortable give-and-take you notice immediately across the rolling layout and elevated tees and greens.
At 400 yards, No. 10 appears ready to take its toll on you, what with a ridge cutting across the fairway and the illusion of having to hit up and through a hill. Driver, of course, was the play off the tee, and I busted it pretty good, but as the ball disappeared over the ledge, I was stunned to learn the result.
Thanks to a generous assist from gravity, I had knocked one 309 yards. "Walk it off, baby!" I yelled to anyone who'd listen. "Did you see all that roll I got?"
If Fazio gives you a favor there, he dares you to tempt the fates at No. 5, a 291-yard par four that's reachable with your tee shot. Bunkers dot the landing area, and water lurks to the right of the fairway, fronting the green. To make it to the green, you have to land on a narrow runway and hope for a big bounce.
"Are you going for it?" one of my partners asked.
"Are you kidding me? I didn't come all this way to lay up. C'mon, let's do it!"
We all looked at each other and grabbed our drivers. Our caddie gave us a skeptical look, and we quickly proved him right. None of us reached the green, two of us found the water-we blamed it all on the slight breeze in our faces-but we were energized simply by the fun of trying to pull off such a great shot.
THE FOUNDERS CLUB
The latest upscale trend truly started here, about two miles east of I-75 on Fruitville Road, where Founders last year became the first of these three luxury golf clubs to open. Designer Robert Trent Jones Jr. turned an old cattle ranch into a vista of sweeping fairways and greens while keeping the pure Florida charm of the land.
He kept the members in mind, too, giving you ample room to visualize how and where you want to play shots. "Nothing tricky about it," one of my partners said.
"It's a fairly generous course," head pro Bob Irving says. "There's a couple forced carries off the tee, but for the average person, it can set up as hard or as easy as you want it to."
Naturally, we made it extra difficult on ourselves. (First off, I'd like to apologize for the large divots we left-it was just one of those days.) Gusting winds can turn Founders into an especially unnerving test, and it was as though we hoisted a sail on our Titleists and sent them aloft like kites.
Of course, wind works in all directions. At No. 7, a 604-yard par five that gently turns left and slides back right toward the green, a pond sits at the end of the fairway, about 270 yards away. "Can you hit all you want here?" I asked. "I don't see why not," another in our group said. Irving cautioned us not to hit a driver, so, like stubborn teen-agers, we casually ignored him.
We didn't even bother to notice the steady wind at our backs, either. Ever notice that at such moments you also tend to hit the ball exactly in the middle of the clubface? Two of us bombed tee shots that hit in the middle of the fairway, took two huge bounces and might still be rolling to Jupiter-Florida, not the planet-if not for the water about which we were just warned.
"Boy, I got all of that one!" I said.
"Yeah, nice one," my buddy chimed. "Right in the drink."
There were no such worries at No. 12, where about a dozen bunkers force you suddenly to make accuracy a priority. With water and wetlands on the right, the sand doubles as a safe haven on Founders' most scenic par four.
By No. 18 we needed some kind of sanctuary, only to be faced with a par five that required two important shots over water-the tee ball and the approach to the green. The S-shaped hole really challenges your alignment, and even the slightest wobble can send you into the lake off the tee or into a creek or wetland that winds in front of a large green that slopes every which way. Our route? Let's just say we played every yard of it.
About 40 years ago Irving was a young assistant pro learning the ropes at a club in Modesto, Calif. He made his first and only double eagle one day, knocking in his second shot on a par five at his course. Recently he boomed a drive at Founders' No. 18 and was left with 190 yards to the hole. Irving took a five-iron, hit one of the purest shots he ever made, and watched the ball skip in for double eagle.
"That was pretty good. It was a long time coming, too," he says with a laugh.
Thanks, Bob. I guess it's not that hard to live the luxury golf life after all, is it?