New Florida Courses by Michigan-Based Architect Underway

C.W. Golf Architecture is enjoying plenty of activity in a soft golf course-development market as it completes work on a new 18-hole course at the Esplanade of Lakewood Ranch in Sarasota, Fla.

"I feel like I won a lottery for golf course architects," said Chris Wilczynski, the lead designer and owner of C.W. Golf Architecture. "My company is only three years old, yet I've been fortunate enough to have two new course projects in a hot area for golf."

C.W. Golf Architecture also designed the Esplanade Golf & Country Club of Naples, Fla., which is under construction. The Ann Arbor, Mich.-based firm is engaged in the two Florida Gulf Coast projects - both commissioned by homebuilder Taylor-Morrison - at a time when fewer than 20 new courses have opened annually nationwide since 2010. Every year since 2006 more courses have closed than opened in the United States as the golf industry recalibrates its facilities inventory.

Nine villages comprise the 18-year-old planned community of Lakewood Ranch. The Esplanade is its newest and only "active lifestyle" village. The club will feature the fifth golf course in the Lakewood Ranch community, and it's the first private golf facility to be built in the Sarasota area since 2008. Taylor-Morrison will offer 800 new homesites on the property - located just north of State Road 70, on the east side of I-75, which will also feature a 12,000-square-foot clubhouse, tennis courts, a restaurant and a 6,000-square-foot wellness center.

Lakewood Ranch is located on a former timber ranch. Fittingly, the most distinguishing feature of Esplanade Golf & Country Club is the stands of mature oak trees through which Wilczynski has routed the course. "These wonderful old wooded areas will frame seven holes on the course," he said. "It's a really pretty feature. Some of the trees are massive, hundreds of years old."

As a result, Wilczynski said, the course appears more mature than it really is. "It does provide a different palette and a different experience for the golfer," he said, adding that while some trees will dictate strategy most have been used to frame holes.

Wilczynski also noted "there's a little bit of a ridge running through the property, which is rare for that area. The ridge gives us the ability to cut some of the golf features into the natural topography versus using fill to create the holes. Golf holes that are cut into the earth always look more natural than holes created from fill."

Wilczynski said the ridge enabled him to fashion a variety of elevation changes throughout the layout. "We have about 20 feet of elevation relief across the entire property," he said.

Fifteen holes at the Esplanade Golf & Country Club of Lakewood Ranch have been shaped and rough-graded, and the course is on schedule to open later this fall.

Wilczynski believes the difficulty of courses designed during a 20-year golf boom that began in the mid-1980s is a contributing factor to the decline in participation over the last decade. The era of architectural one-upsmanship is dead, said Wilczynski, who instead makes aesthetics, enjoyment and playability by all skill levels the top priorities in his design philosophy.

"Chris takes a fresh approach to the game, and it's perfectly suited to the lifestyle we're offering at the Esplanade," said Tony Squitieri, Taylor Morrison's vice president of Land Resources in Southwest Florida. "He has a ton of energy, and he's very passionate about his work. He understands real estate in relation to golf, and vice versa."

The Esplanade Golf & Country Club at Lakewood Ranch will feature large greens averaging 7,000 square feet, with open fronts that allow golfers to run the ball onto the putting surfaces. "You always have to be mindful of aging Baby Boomers," said Wilczynski, referring to a growing segment of golfers attracted to Florida's Gulf Coast.

All the par-4s and par-5s have generous fairways, with 350-foot corridors. "Width is a very important element for playability and fun," said Wilczynski. "There's ample space to play the game."

The bunkering is challenging, but not overly penal. "They're grass-faced bunkers, but not especially deep," Wilczynski said. "They're relatively easy to get out of."

The Esplanade course will play between 4,636 and 6,716 yards, and have five sets of tees. The layout features three short, strategic par-4s - the fourth, sixth and 16th holes - none longer than 330 yards from the members' tees.

"Those holes are a great example of membership-friendly golf," said Squitieri. "People are attracted to Southwest Florida in general and Lakewood Ranch in particular, by the lifestyle and amenities. C.W. Golf Architecture's design approach is an allure to them."

The closing stretch will be memorable as hole Nos. 14-16 play amid the oak trees. The three-shot, "S"-shaped, 568-yard, par-5 17th and the 391-yard, par-4 18th - which plays across a wetland pocket - make for a strong finish.

C.W. Golf Architecture is also completing the 18-hole layout at Taylor-Morrison's planned community at the Esplanade Golf & Country Club in Naples. "That's been a slower process because we've had to blast through so much rock," said Wilczynski. That course is expected to open in early 2014.