Lely Resort in Naples stands out in the crowd
NAPLES, Fla. - It's only fitting that the infamous "Alligator Alley" is one exit south.
You see, the route from Interstate-75 to Lely Resort could easily earn the nickname "Golf Course Alley" or "Hacker's Row." From the time, you leave I-75 on exit 101 (a.k.a. Collier Boulevard) -- the last exit on one of the nation's longest highways before it turns into a desolate road through the Everglades National Park -- all you see are semi-private golf communities.
First, there's Forest Glen of Naples on the left, then Cedar Hammock, Naples Heritage and Naples Lakes on the right. After a slight interruption of a shopping center with a Publix grocery store and a Blockbuster video rental, there's the grand finale of the strip.
It might be tempting to stop to check out what those other golf courses have to offer, but don't let those signs suck you in. There's a reward for waiting patiently - the 54-hole, 2,900-acre Lely Resort.
The ride in is just a reminder that you aren't in God's Country, it's Golf Country around here. Naples hosts more golf courses per square mile than anywhere in the world. That's the blessing that comes with boasting one of the warmest, most golf-friendly climates in the United States.
Lely Resort, run by American Golf, may not have the best golf in Naples -- that honor probably belongs to Tiburon's two courses, designed by Greg Norman, and the Naples Grande Golf Club, But its two semi-private courses, Flamingo Island and the Mustang, are still two of the area's best.
The word resort conjures up images of a huge hotel, complete with a large pool or an ocean view. Lely Resort is a bit different in that regard. There's no hotel at this resort, just a ton of neighborhoods filled with vacation homes and 50 condos available for rent from guests. But more on that later.
Lely Resort's Mustang course
The Mustang is longer (7,217 yards to 7,171) and tougher slope-wise (141 slope) than its sister course. Designed by Lee Trevino, it also doesn't wind through as many houses, giving it more of a natural feel. The only downside to the course, which opened in December, 1997, is its balance from the tees. The green tees are a brutal test for a mid- to high-handicapper at 6,691 yards (five par 4s are 423 yards or longer), yet the white tees are too short at 6,033 yards.
The 424-yard sixth hole, called "Marsh," requires a tee shot that avoids two bunkers in the middle of an island fairway. The 547-yard, par-5 seventh hole is another stunner, with six fairway bunkers within reach. Five more bunkers and water right of the green demand a controlled approach shot.
The finishing stretch from No. 15 on is classic target golf.
The 466-yard 15th, called "Scenic View," bottlenecks at the 180-yard mark as water awaits a stray shot right or left. No. 16, a 166-yard par 3, can be a testy approach over water with the wind in your face. No. 18, a 395-yard par 4, features a peninsular green.
Despite the hazards, Head Professional David Witt says the course is very forgiving, unlike many modern designs.
"Lee Trevino designed the Mustang with the idea to be able to recover from a poor shot," he said. "If you miss-hit one, the driving areas are generous and there are big greens. It won't beat you up."
Lely Resort's Flamingo Island course
Robert Trent Jones Sr. created Lely's oldest design, the 7,171-yard Flamingo Island golf course, in 1991. It is a traditional Florida course with flat fairways and strategically placed bunkers and water hazards. Jones moved nearly one million cubic yards of dirt to create some mounding and elevated greens that demand precision irons.
"The Flamingo's layout is just a typical Robert Trent Jones Sr. golf course with the greens being divided in sections," Witt said. "It has three different parts to every green. He did a great job of making it fair. What you see is what you get."
Golfweek has designated the course one of "America's Best" and Golf Digest awards it four stars.
No. 2, a 501-yard par 5, doglegs right and climaxes with an elevated green. The scenic highlight, though, is the fifth hole, a 159-yard shot over water to a large green. The tips demand a 213-bomb from the back tees.
Many players consider No. 17 one of best holes in all southwest Florida. Nicknamed "The Gambler," the 422-yard par 4 demands a well-positioned tee shot or a "Florida snowman" could come calling. The approach shot is all carry over water to a tricky two-tiered green.
The finish is a 411-yard par 4, which shares a double green and a treacherous water hazard, with the 422-yard ninth hole.
The new 20,000-square-foot, Mediterranean-style public clubhouse was completed in 2001, with the Flamingo Island Grille inside. Besides the usual golf grub - sandwiches and hot dogs - dinner specials like the grilled New York strip, baby back ribs and the mustang shrimp tempura will tempt any appetite.
Don't bother trying to play the Classics course, designed by Gary Player. It's a members-only club, complete with its own clubhouse, just down the street from the public facility. Witt says the three courses complement each other well.
"They are so completely different because of the three different designers," he said.
Because there is no hotel at Lely, visitors have to be creative in finding a place to stay. But that's not a problem in Naples, which is a snow-bird getaway for thousands every winter. More than 100 resorts, hotels, motels and inns hold the area's many tourists.
"For Rent" signs line the fairways of Lely's courses, enticing guests to sample the 50 two- to three-bedroom guest condos. "They are really nice and you can walk right to the clubhouse," Witt said.
If guests aren't into golf, they have 57 lakes to fish in and more than 15 miles of sidewalks to bike, jog, walk or roller-blade at Lely.
Lely also has stay-and-play packages with the Inn on Fifth Avenue in Naples and the Hilton Hotel on Marco Island, but other ritzy options include the Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club and the Ritz Carleton Golf Resort because both boast their own outstanding courses. But like anything in Naples, nothing comes cheap. So bring your credit card, your clubs and some suntan oil, and that way, you're well prepared for the good times ahead in one of the sunniest places in America.
January 16, 2003