Bonita Bay Beauty
Every private golf club community in Florida (and beyond) believes it is a model for being the best and brightest the industry has to offer. Only a few, however, walk the walk. For the past five decades, Bonita Bay Club has been among those clubs. With a total of five golf courses (three by Arthur Hills and two by Tom Fazio), Bonita Bay Club – spread across two campuses between Naples, FL., and Fort Myers – is the epitome of a Florida luxury golf community.
Bonita Bay Club has something for everyone and for nearly every age, beginning with its golf courses and including a Sports Center with 18 Har-Tru tennis courts, 10 new pickleball courts, a resort-style pool, and 60,000 square-foot Lifestyle Center. Simply stated, if you can’t find an amenity to your liking at Bonita Bay Club, you’re not looking hard enough.
Perhaps nowhere is that evident at Bonita Bay Club than its golf courses. The trio of layouts – Marsh, Creekside, and Bay Island – on the Club’s West Campus (2,400 acres) show Hills’ ability to work with Southwest Florida’s fragile ecosystem. And it was those courses, particularly the original Marsh Course (1985), which established Hills as the “Mayor’’ of Naples because of the more-than 20 courses he created in Southwest Florida.
In 1996, another architect of note – Fazio – began creating the Cypress and Sabal courses on 1,000 acres of preserved cypress wetlands and pine flats (with no residential development) of what’s known as the East Campus of Bonita Bay Club. The Cypress opened in 1998, followed by the Sabal.
Twenty-five years is a long time in the life of a golf course to go without a makeover. So, in 2021, Fazio’s Senior Design Associate, Tom Marzolf, began a 14-month renovation project on the 400-acre layout that sits against the Everglades and other protected wetlands.
That part of the project came after he and Bonita Bay Club officers spent nearly two years working with lawyers, environmental consultants, and engineers to obtain the proper permits from the South Florida Water Management District (rarely an easy task).
“Trying to build this course from scratch today could not have been done environmentally,’’ said Paul Nussbaum, chairman of Bonita Bay Club board of directors.
Finally armed with an amended permit, Marzolf raised the entire Cypress course by 12 to 18 inches to improve drainage: created six new lakes, and expanded four existing lakes, resulting in 200,000 cubic yards of earth spread across the property.
Marzolf also widened the fairways and added 450 new catch basins. Underneath the soil, perforated pipe was laid underground to move water away from playable areas. The wooden bulkhead walls around the lakes are firsts for a Fazio-designed course anywhere in the world.
“We walked every hole to decide what we liked about each, what we didn’t like, and what we could do better,’’ Marzolf said.
In addition to the drainage improvements and wider fairways, the most significant (and visible) changes and improvements were the additions of two tees – one shorter and one longer – so there are now seven teeing platforms on each hole, each set at 500-yard intervals. According to Marzolf, the course plays from 4,500 to 7,500 yards, making Cypress the first Fazio design with a 3,000-yard spread.
The square teeing platforms give each fairway a different playing look. They’re also much cleaner and more identifiable than traditional tee boxes.
The square tee boxes, however, are just the beginning of the Cypress’ new aesthetics. The “low mow’’ areas of each greens complex give the course a “Royal Melbourne’’ look and feel rarely seen in Florida.
The same grass is used in the collection areas as the greens, so instead of having rough, the areas give players more options to get the ball to the pin – either by putting or chipping from the collection areas yards short of each green.
White sand flashed up on bunker faces, and the surrounding “low mow’’ turf adds to the flavor and playability of Cypress.
Overall, Marzolf said, Cypress was “quite a large scope of work.’’
“But Bonita Bay Club wanted a great golf course. I think you can hold up this Club as a model of how to do that – and commit to it. You don’t see that often.’’
Photos by Evan Schiller