Riverwood Golf Club: Bring some extra balls and a sense of humor

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. - In an area considered one of the top metro areas in the country for golf, River wood Golf Club is almost certainly the best course in the Punta Gorda area.

Riverwood is a Gene Bates design that is thoughtfully laid out, consistently demanding throughout with a handful of spectacular holes. The conditioning is first-class and - get this - it's cheaper than a roadside corn dog. Green fees range from $30-$50 for the public and $21-$25 for member guests. Get a summer card and it will set you back only $24, any time of day.

For this, you get a course green as Ireland that will slap you silly if you aren't having a good day. Play it from the back tees for a treat; most architects design courses from the back, no matter what they say in public, and way back yonder is where you'll see all the elements Bates and God intended.

Of course, the club pro will caution you to play from your appropriate tee, and that's probably a wise choice. There are a number of blind shots and marsh obstructions from the tips that can get you in more trouble than Gulf of Mexico riptides. Sometimes, you can't resist it, though.

"This is a great track," said member Alex Carnahan, a mid-handicapper from Minneapolis. "This is really about the only course I play when I come down here. I figure, why play the others?"

The front side is tough enough, and plays through heavily-wooded terrain with nice stands of pine. But, the course really rears up its salty head on the back nine, and in particular on No. 13, where the marsh and wetlands really start to dominate the landscape, so close to the wide, wide Gulf.

No. 16 has to be one of the toughest par 3s in southwest Florida. It's 212 yards and when you stand on the tee, all you see is a sea of marsh, running most of the way up to the green, on both sides and in back. The green is a lonesome speck in the far distance.

The two closing holes are just as disturbing. The fairway on No. 17 is partially obscured by marsh and you need to hit a long draw to have any chance of reaching the 551-yard par 5 in two. The fairway bends to the left twice, with the green set at a nearly 90-degree angle to the fairway. Marsh all around, and in your face. Your approach shot is again nearly blind, just the tip of the flag showing; the hole made me dizzy.

No. 18 - "this is the toughest hole on the course," Carnahan said - plays from the marsh back into the pines and, again, your tee shot is semi-blind. Watch out for the long waste area right.

The Verdict

This is a course you need to get psyched up for, with its slope rating of 131, especially when playing it for the first time.

"It's visually intimidating, there's more room than you think," said Assistant Professional John Moody. "It appears a little tighter than it is. Still, you get wild here, you really get in trouble."

Bring extra balls and a sense of humor.

Stay and Play

Palm Island Resort is one of those resorts that almost meets that marketing slogan all resorts insist on using - the word "unique." First of all, you can only get to it by boat or car ferry, though it does cost a whopping $50 to take the ferry about 75 yards over the waterway - you get a pass if you're staying at the resort.

It's a small, cozy barrier island with sweeping views of the Gulf of Mexico right outside your front window. No asphalt here at the resort, and precious few cars: most island residents and guests scoot around the island by golf cart.

At the resort, the roads are made of shell, and you can hitch a ride with a passing cart if you don't want to rent one. You rarely see people wearing shoes, and there's a slow, relaxing feel to the place.

The villas are privately-owned and furnished impeccably, with screened-in porches overlooking the beach, grass-topped dunes and Gulf. Sunsets can be spectacular. You can pretty much do anything concerned with water - kayaks and canoes for the hardy, beach umbrellas and lounges for the melanoma worshippers.

Dining Out

The resort has a little breakfast café that serves continental breakfast and for lunch there's the pizzeria. The Rum Bay Restaurant is open for lunch and dinner daily, and has terrific baby back ribs, along with seafood and the kind of wacky drinks you expect from a beach resort.

Since the villas have refrigerator and cooking facilities, there's also the Rum Bay Store next to the restaurant.

If you want to go to the mainland, Johnny Leverock's Seafood House is just a ferry ride away, and overlooks the marina and yacht basin.

Fast Fact

Riverwood re-did its greens this past summer, replacing the old ones with Champions, and though they haven't matured quite yet, they still roll true, though a bit slow.

Tim McDonaldTim McDonald, Contributor

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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