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Naples Beach Golf Club: Few Courses are More Historic or Charming

By Derek Duncan, Contributor

Naples, FL - Larry Gantzer is one of the great stories in Naples golf.

In a city rife with courses and golfers, few people can better appreciate what it means to this area than Gantzer. He's been around golf for most of his life and began his "career" in it at age 14 when he was given his first job at the Naples Beach Golf Club. For the next four years he worked nearly every job possible at the club, developing a love for the game, as well as a relationship with the guests and the course itself.

After a brief stint in college when he was away from the Naples, Gantzer returned to the old course and picked up where he left off. He's been there ever since. Last year, after a successful tenure as the club's Assistant Pro, he reached the position he always seemed destined for when he was named Head Golf Professional at the Naples Beach Hotel and Golf Club.

"It's the only job I've ever had in golf," he says with a smile.

It can honestly be said that he grew up with the course, and as for local knowledge, it nearly comes from his pores as he shows off the venerable old course.

For that matter, the course at the Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club is also one of the great stories in Naples. As the oldest in the region, and one of the oldest in the state, it's stacked with history and influence. It was the first course in the region to have underground irrigation, and some old-timers have credited it with putting Naples on the map as a vacation destination.

Its connections run deep as shown by the course's long-standing relationships (25 years plus) with two of the state's most important tournaments: the South Florida PGA Open and the Florida State Senior's Open. Over the years many of the best players to come out of Florida have had to compete on these grounds.

One of the club's legendary moments (and one of which they are most proud) happened in 1963 and involved Gene Sarazin. In a match against The Squire and witnessed by owner Henry B. Watkins, head pro and Naples golf legend Paul Bell carded a 63, a course record that still stands (Gantzer's best on the course, incidentally, is a 64).

Ironically, for all the club's history, no one is sure who originally designed it or exactly what year the current 18 holes opened. A sandy nine-hole track existed on the land sometime in the mid-1920's, and then expanded to its current 18 plan in the 1930's, most believe. The course condition had become rather ill suited for golf by the 1940's, and in 1946, wanting to offer the guests of his hotel a recreational outlet (and anticipating the golf boom of the 1950's), Watkins purchased the course along with the accompanying land for the Naples Beach Hotel.

Mark Mahanna came in to renovate the course in the early 1950's, shaping it to the resort-level playing conditions of the time, but by the 1970's, the course had become worn out again and was in need of another face-lift. This time the Watkins called on Florida-based architect Ron Garl to do the renovation, and his work on the course began in 1979.

Garl had done a study of the great historical courses of Florida and approached the project with restoration, rather than renovation, in mind. To what period or condition it would be restored, however, proved difficult to determine since its origins were so obscure.

What Garl found in 1979 was that rather than having the appearance of a sculpted, classic design, "the course had a typical 1950 look-flat fairways with simple greens," he recalls. But because so little was known about the original course and much had been altered over the years, his plan was to restore the condition of the course while remodeling it back to a style reminiscent of a Florida golf course circa 1920. "I wanted this to be a true Florida course," Garl says simply.

To do that, several tees and greens were moved and rebuilt, bunkers were added, and angles adjusted, all in keeping with what Garl and the Watkins believed to be the original, traditional intent. Much of the 1979 restoration remains intact today and the partnership between Garl and the Watkins was forged.

In 1993 he was called back to execute a handful of adjustments necessitated, in large, by storm damage. Included in that face-lift was the planting of a 30 different varieties of trees, which have now matured to add a scenic dimension the course previously lacked. Most recently, in 1998, the Watkins broke ground on the 74,000 square foot clubhouse and spa facility and several golf holes had to be moved back to make room for it. Garl was summoned once again. This time he created new 10th and 11th holes, and made adjustments to 1, 9, and 18.

During each construction period, great effort has been made to preserve, foremost, the feel and aura of the old course. "The Watkins family and myself were on the same wavelength," Garl states of his continuing involvement. "The concept was [for it] to be a Florida course. We have...worked hard on the theme of the landscaping to reflect Florida vegetation and natural landscaping."

"Most golf courses built today will not stand the test of time very well," Garl explains. "Our vision is to protect and enhance the tradition of this grand old course."

The traditional feel of the course has been protected-its quiet, southern charm will never be mistaken for any of the dozens of manufactured, placeless designs that dot the county map. Garl's renovations have maintained the course's historical integrity and probably honed its challenge beyond the 1950's version. The course's 6,488-yard length is certainly old school, and the intimate routing has never been altered.

It would have been easy during any one of these revision periods to completely remodel the course to current standards. As it stands, the golf course is evidence of the Watkins family's desire to create continuity between the contemporary resort and the early days that were so important to their success.

The last 20 years of change and preservation have occurred while Gantzer has been on hand, and he can site chapter and verse where this once happened or what that used to be.

He points out between virtually every one of his shots, various characteristics of the course, speaking about them in a reverential tone that is usually reserved for when people talk about an old favorite car or pull out pictures of their children. And what is striking is that as he describes the history of the course, one cannot help but be aware that he himself is such a part of it.

He points to a strand of electrical lines crossing above the tee on the second hole, a slithery 387-yard hole with water all the way down the left, and describes how once in a tournament, his tee shot stuck them. According to rule he was allowed to re-tee, and he struck them again. On the third re-tee, understandably shaken, he pulled the ball dead left into the hazard. "What are the odds of that?" he deadpans, as if still in disbelief.

When asked how many rounds he's played here, Gantzer grows silent, as if trying to count the number of days its been since he was an adolescent, then shakes his head and says, "You know, I don't think there's any way I could figure that out."

Naples Beach Golf Club sits across Gulf Shore Boulevard from the main resort campus, a stone's throw from the Gulf of Mexico. The course is still flattish, like the rest of southern Florida, but it defends itself by utilizing the ocean breeze and an array of grained, sloping greens. Like most traditional, old Florida courses, water is a factor and it effects strategy on eleven holes. With a stern breeze and some tucked pins, Naples Beach can be more than enough test, demanding precision and a firm putting stroke.

For its location and size, the variety of vegetation and nature on the course is remarkable, and Gantzer never misses the opportunity to point out trees of curious and beautiful note: the mysteriously multi-colored eucalyptus tree left of the first green (one of several on the course); various types of mature oak; dozens of thickly woven banyan trees, a most popular variety in Naples; malalucas; a banyan encompassing a malaluca to the left of the eighteenth tee; elegant olive trees; and a wide variety of flowers.

Between casual birdies on the all-carry 166-yard seventh and the reachable 487-yard, par five eighth, Gantzer circles over to the right to examine a bizarre, impenetrable tree grown over thick with sharp thorns on its trunk. It's odd that this tree would be growing there, but it's just one of many notable items.

At another point during the round, Gantzer points skyward to an osprey that has been circling throughout the afternoon. "Watch this," he says. The author, intrigued, watches as the osprey dives toward the lake that borders the left side of the 518-yard par five fifth. The sleek bird strikes the surface of the water with its talons, picking out cleanly a small squirming fish, and soars another 200 yards to its perch-a stately tree killed by lightning some years prior and stripped of foliage. Clutching its meal nonchalantly in one claw, it watches us play our seconds shots before indulging.

Finally, as if on cue, the two "wild" parrots-yes, wild parrots-that Gantzer has been speaking about, make an appearance on the fourteenth, the first of back-to-back par fives on this nine. The parrots apparently escaped from captivity somewhere last year, and they've been content to make their home on the golf course sanctuary since then.

Though locals and visitors routinely play the course, the true experience is generally much richer for resort guests, who by the time they venture across the street to the spa, Broadwell's, and the golf course, they have been completely won over by the warmth and low-key style of the Naples Beach Hotel. The golf they experience is simply the next logical extension of the old Florida vacation atmosphere that the hotel so adeptly provides.

Though Collier County has over 70 golf courses, the permanence and tradition of the Naples Beach Golf Club cannot be matched, nor can its importance to the community be overstated. Its longstanding relationships with the tournaments it hosts (the Florida Senior Women's Open has been played on the course for 47 years), with its returning guests, and with its employees, some of whose tenures, like Gantzer's, can be measured in decades, provides an air of comfort and permanence that only time can create.

Another part of that continuity is its willingness to give back to the golf community through various junior golf programs. Gantzer has become the leading voice for junior golf in the area, and his involvement with various programs and projects is worthy of note. He is proof of how influential the game can be to young players. With the backing of the Watkins family, Gantzer and the Naples Beach Golf Club have taken the initiative to deliver the game's strong traditions down to a new generation.

If other courses are flashier, none are more historic or charming. Players who travel to Naples will not want to miss this old course. Green fees for non-guests range from a low of $47 from June to September, to $105 from December to mid-April, and there are attractive golf and lodging packages to be explored.

Click here to view the Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club packages.

Naples Beach Golf Club
851 Gulf Shore Blvd. North
Naples, FL 34102
Reservations: 800 237-7600

Derek DuncanDerek Duncan, Contributor

Derek Duncan's writing has appeared in TravelGolf.com, FloridaGolf.com, OrlandoGolf.com, GulfCoastGolf.com, LINKS Magazine and more. He lives in Atlanta with his wife Cynthia and is a graduate of the University of Colorado with interests in wine, literary fiction, and golf course architecture.

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