Credit: Scott McIntyre
Barbara Spiegel, of Boynton Beach, hits toward the green while playing a round of golf with Kent Blair, right, Gordon Broom, second from right, and Joyce Schmidt at La Playa Golf Club on Wednesday, October 28, 2015. The club recently upgraded their 18-hole course, which includes resurfacing all 18 greens, reshaping of putting greens, landscaping enhancements and restyling of the clubhouse. Overall, LaPlaya Golf Club has 120,000 total sq. ft. of new putting surfaces, including all 18 holes, practice areas and The David Leadbetter Academy. (Scott McIntyre/Staff)
LaPlaya Golf Club is ready for its close up.
After a nearly $1 million face-lift that took six months, the 69-year old course in North Naples is open for play with a redecorated clubhouse, restored putting surfaces and rebuilt greens, and spruced up landscaping.
Since the course's last major makeover was 14 years ago, it was long overdue, said club general manager Alan Findlay.
"The grass was dying and the drainage was starting to fail," he said. "We were struggling to be as perfect as we needed to be."
Golf courses have a life-cycle, Findlay explained, and if they aren't periodically redone, the roots of the closely-cropped grass can drown in soggy soil.
As LaPlaya started to develop dead patches, it became clear in February that an overhaul was in order so the par-72 club could continue to compete in a golf-mad community where there are more holes per capita than anywhere else in the country.
Consequently, on April 19, the club was closed down and a Canadian firm, TDI Golf, brought in to begin renovations under the supervision of superintendent Patrick Lewins.
"There were a lot of moving pieces," said Lewins, adding that the course had to be built to U.S. Golf Association's exacting specifications while not destroying the habitat of the course's many wild visitors, which include wading birds, fish, turtles, frogs, deer and even alligators.
To start, the five-inch deep limestone gravel base, which had been dissolving over time, was replaced with harder granite, which was then topped with 18 inches of sand.
Finally, the 18-hole course was sprigged with Tif-Eagle grass on the greens and Tif-Grande on the collars. Tees got Celebration grass, while fairways were planted with 419 Bermuda.
But the course's refurbishment wasn't just about maintenance. It also gave designer Bob Cupp, who had created the original course, a chance to upgrade many of its features.
For instance, lake banks were planted with canna lilies and littoral grasses to prevent erosion, and 25 mature trees and palms, and 1,200 bushes and other plants, were brought in to enhance the existing landscaping.
Overall, greens were made about 20 percent bigger, which brought them back in line with their original boundaries. These boundaries had been laid out with string, which was rediscovered during renovations.
"Greens shrink over time," said Findlay, explaining that constant edging by greenskeepers tends to reduce their size.
Because today's golfers tend to want challenging — but not frustrating — courses, some modifications were made to make them a little easier to play, Findlay said. In some cases, that involved adding more red tees — sometimes known as ladies' tees — closer to the hole, as well as pink tees, which are even closer, for beginners and duffers.
Two holes, numbers 8 and 11, were given sloping banks that help keep balls in play where before they tended to bounce away.
The idea for the banks was the brainchild of one of the club's members, Neal Gelfand, 70, who had been riding around the course in a cart with the club's owner, Stephen Lockwood, during the renovations.
"He said, that's a great idea, let's talk to the guys doing the work," said Gelfand, a retired human resources director. "I love the idea that you can talk to the owner and have something happen, and not have to go through committees. It's pretty unusual."
Because the non-equity club is privately owned by Lockwood and Halstatt LLC, an affiliate of the Barron Collier Cos., it does not have a board of directors. The owners fund all operating expenses and members pay no capital assessments.
The club has a long-term agreement with LaPlaya Beach Resort on Gulf Shore Drive, which was sold in May to Pebblebrook Hotel Trust, that allows resort guests to use the golf club, and golf members to use the beach club.
Full golf and beach memberships currently are $80,000, fully refundable, with $10,530 annual dues, though the membership cost will go up to $95,000 with only 80 percent refundable, in January, Findlay said.
The club currently has 275 members, and is close to full membership limit of 300, he said.
Although the renovated club only reopened in mid-October, LaPlaya's new golf pro, Ben Bryant, likes the new greens because they are "healthy and quick" and provide a variety of challenges, from "short par fours to reachable par fives."
Longtime member Bill Heck, 95, is out on the course nearly every day in good weather.
He remembers the club in its early days, before it became LaPlaya, when it was a public course known as Palm River — one of the first golf courses to be built in the Naples area.
"It was nearly flat, and the doglegs were nearly 90 degrees," he recalled. "It's so much more beautiful now."