We hear stories of people in all walks of life who chase their dreams, overcome adversity and achieve moments of triumph. These stories provide us with inspiration to tackle our own challenges. To go one large step further, what about a person who stares death in the face while simultaneously working to build something great enough to outlive them? That is the kind of example that stops us in our tracks as if to ask, “What is your excuse for not living your best life today?” Just such a story unfolded outside of Naples, FL, at Calusa Pines Golf Club, and continues today with a vibrant membership, a beautiful golf course, and a surprisingly tall hill.
Gary Chensoff was like many successful businessmen and golf nuts in that his dream was to build his own club. He set about pursuing that dream with his typical determination when circumstances intervened in a way that would have caused most people to give up. He was diagnosed with cancer and received a grim prognosis from his doctors. In remarkable fashion, Chensoff doubled down on his resolve to see his dream become a reality and to prove his doctors wrong by beating the disease. His example had a profound impact on the Calusa team. “We knew that he was having treatments, and yet he’d be right back on site checking on progress,” recounts architect Dana Fry. “Seeing that made us all want to give our very best.”
The owner’s leadership went beyond inspiration though. Chensoff was hands-on in assembling a solid team and in attending to the details of course construction. “If you put a stake in the ground, Gary was there to hammer it in,” Fry explains, only half joking. Dana stresses the collaborative aspect of this project, heaping praise on shapers Steve Coe and Jeff Karsher, construction manager Clint Taylor, and grow-in Superintendent Eric Von Hofen and his crew. The club also notched a big win by hiring General Manager Walt Kozlowsky. Walt was instrumental from day one, helping to recruit key early members like John Harris, a former Walker Cupper. Visitors to the club today are met by a welcoming membership that takes their golf seriously but also knows how to have fun. I can attest to the fun factor, having laughed so much during my round that my face hurt by the 18th hole.
High above Calusa's central hill - Photo Credit: Dana Fry / Calusa Pines
Golf architect Dana Fry—formerly of Hurdzan/Fry and now of Fry/Straka—cut his teeth on a bulldozer with Tom Fazio before achieving noteworthy successes at Erin Hills, Arcadia Bluffs South and Calusa Pines, among others. During his time on Team Fazio, Fry learned from two key figures who continue to influence him to this day. The first was Andy Banfield, who was the standard-bearer for the Fazio team’s expertise in “creating environments.”
Sometimes Mother Nature blesses an architect with great land. In those instances, it is the designer’s job to use as light a touch as possible. Other times, a site has little inherent interest. Some architects avoid such projects, but Fazio has always seen them as an opportunity to apply his maximalist free hand.
“I don’t believe nature can make great golf all by itself. I think it’s pretty obvious that you need to shape the land forms to create a quality golf setting and to produce acceptable shot values. That’s where a golf course designer earns his keep.” – Tom Fazio
Banfield taught Fry that if you have to move dirt, you should move enough to make sure that the landforms tie together elegantly and naturally. The frame of a golf course is critical, and if not built properly, the picture never looks quite right. “Too many courses are built starting with the holes without paying attention to the larger landscape,” says Fry. “These courses end up with ugly mounding and ponds as a result.” Because of this belief in the importance of the frame, the Fazio team started by getting the landscape right. After that, they narrowed down to the level of holes and features.
The second major influence on Fry was Mike Strantz, famous for his creativity and artistry, who was also with Fazio at the time. “I have never seen anyone who could sit down and sketch a golf hole like Mike, and then recreate his picture with a bulldozer,” shares Fry, still with a tone of awe in his voice. Strantz stressed the importance of attention to creative details as the differentiator between good courses and great ones.
The dual influence of Banfield and Strantz is what Dana Fry brought to his site visit with Dr. Michael Hurdzan and Gary Chensoff. The owner gave the designers the objective of making a dead flat piece of southwest Florida scrubland look like a site that nature had prepared specifically for great golf.
Chensoff and team achieved his goal of creating a golf course that feels somewhat found rather than completely contrived. Understanding the enormity of the undertaking makes that achievement more impressive. The land was flat with a high water table, which meant that the holes would need to be built on fill. However, Fry was not about to produce a course of ugly mounds and ponds, so his crew launched into a massive transformation of the site that revolved around two key features: the lakes and the hill. They removed all of the soil down to the bedrock and set it aside.
Six months of daily dynamiting ensued to create the lakes that snake through the property. Those lakes were designed and built adhering to a key principle – a player cannot see both ends from any one spot on the property. This creates a look of a natural waterway, rather than typical Florida irrigation ponds.
Large rocks were used to build the central hill, with smaller pulverized stone employed in shaping the fairways and other landscape contours. Chensoff would check progress regularly and was met with a recurring thought from Fry: “Gary, I think we need to go higher.” The reply was always the same: “Do it.” The hill ultimately grew to almost sixty feet, much taller than was originally planned. The elevation it creates at the heart of the course, coupled with the snaking lakes, are the features that give Calusa its unique character and make it stand out from its neighbors.
With the landscape conjured, soil was returned to cover the stone, the holes were sand-capped and features shaped. A large scale revegetation process was also undertaken, drawing inspiration from the surrounding area. Hundreds of pine, oak, palm and palmetto trees were planted, along with native grasses, shrubs and groundcover. Von Hofen brought in a wetland specialist to enhance the lake banks, an important detail given the significant rise and fall of water levels throughout the year. Chensoff invested and the team worked hard to adorn the landscape in such a way that it looked both mature and “believable,” to use Fry’s word.
The par-3 3rd, with hints of the Sandbelt - Photo Credit: Dana Fry / Calusa Pines
“Calusa Pines will be a golfer’s golf course, meaning that you will never tire of playing it, there are an endless variety of golf shots required each time you play it, and every hole will be distinct and memorable.” – Dr. Michael Hurdzan
There are many reasons why members and guests love playing Calusa Pines. The course is visually stunning, with shapely fairways, bold bunkering and pushed up greens. Reasonable people can disagree about the aesthetics, but it is hard to argue the with quality of the work. Further, Superintendent Jim Whalen and his crew deliver an immaculate presentation on a consistent basis. Members know, and Dana Fry confirms, that there is substance underneath the flash. “It takes repeat plays to learn how to get around the course,” he says. “Members will often stand aside and chuckle while their guests are being aggressive in the wrong places.”
Calusa is intimidating from the tee the first time around, but once the lines have been learned, players find that there is more room than is initially apparent. The greens and surrounds are what make the course stand out. “This is an approach golf course,” explains Fry. “Players need to know when to attack, when to be conservative and when to take their medicine.” Those rules apply to recovery around the greens as well. Aiming at the pin is often a bad play.
Fry didn’t draw inspiration from any particular architect or course in determining the style of Calusa. The bunkering has shades of Alison at Milwaukee CC, with a splash of MacKenzie, Russell and Morcom’s Australian Sandbelt flare. The greens have a Pinehurst No. 2 feel in their construction, contours and surrounding slopes. After a cold snap, Fry admits that the difficulty can go over the top, but under normal conditions crafty players can use contours to their advantage. Calusa Pines rewards shots that are creatively conceived and well executed. It punishes carelessness and deflates big egos. Guile and humility are the keys to success.
The lack of housing around or on the course, coupled with robust interior landscape features that were created, allowed Hurdzan-Fry to route the course in a manner that adds to its mature feel. Calusa Pines is replete with cross-course vistas that deliver the multi-flag looks that we so cherish. The par and length mix is dynamic, and no two consecutive holes play in the same direction. Green to tee walks are generally short, creating a smooth, walkable flow.
HOLE #1 – 389 Yards – par 4
The first is an introduction to what the player can expect to find through the course. It plays as a slight dogleg left with deep bunkers left and a single bunker right. There is plenty of room to bail out right, but doing so leaves a longer approach into the elevated green. Proximity and angles matter at Calusa.
HOLE #2 – 551 yards – par 5
The first three-shotter bends gently around the corner to the right. For a chance to score, a player has to get right either off the tee or on the lay-up. The green is well guarded on the front left, with slopes that send balls right and long from that approach angle.
HOLE #3 – 135 yards – par 3
Many of the Golden Age greats believed that at least once a round, a player’s wedge or short iron game should be put to a test. The par-3 3rd has that all-or-nothing character. Bunkers left, gunch long and right, and a severely sloped front await the misses. Here, a player either finds the safety of the green or they find a world of hurt.
HOLE #4 – 379 yards – par 4
The 4th is the first hole that interacts with Calusa’s system of lakes. Although it wraps around the water from left to right, the hole is not a true Cape because of the green site. It does have Cape characteristics however, particularly form the tee. The player need to challenge the water and bunker right to gain the best angle on approach. Playing safely left guarantees staying dry, but brings the front left bunker more into play. The green sits at grade, but features a pronounced spine, with back and front sections falling away. Putting from one section to another is a distance judgment puzzle and de-greening is a real possibility.
HOLE #5 – 378 yards – par 4
The fifth doglegs right with a tee shot up over a rise. Taking the right route shortens the hole but leaves a bad angle. Playing up the left provides a better angle, but brings a single tree into play. The green is elevated and guarded by deep bunkers right and a steep runoff left. Finding the right bunker on approach results in a nearly impossible recovery with the slick green running away. The yardage on the card says attack, but birdies (and pars) here are well earned.
HOLE #6 – 513 yards – par 5
The 6th is reachable for longer hitters who can muster two long straight shots. The challenge of the sixth is a function of width. There isn’t that much to begin with, and the hole narrows as it approaches the green which is set against the lake. Blocking out the borders and confidently focusing on the target for each shot is a requirement. The putting surface has subtle internal contours, but putts can be made here.
HOLE #7 – 186 yards – par 3
A terrific and tough par three, the 7th plays through the goal posts created by the trees to a green guarded left by a massive bunker, bunkering right and slopes front and back. The putting surface is high front right and back left, with a swale angled across the middle. Devilish pin positions abound on this green.
HOLE #8 – 280 yards – par 4
The eighth is the first of Calusa’s short fours, and it is a wonderfully creative hole with sand along the entire left side and a green benched into a hillside. Playing safe leaves a simple wedge approach, but the short yardage makes having a go a tough temptation to resist. A deep bunker guards the bailout right and finding it throws birdie out the window. The small green is relatively flat meaning that putts are makable. If your putt is for eagle, you know you mustered up a truly great drive.
HOLE #9 – Par 4 – 421 yards – par 4
The ninth plays from an elevated tee, with an approach over the lake to a green set just below the clubhouse. A visually stunning hole that provides one last stiff test on the outward nine. The green appears to be angled to favor an approach from the right. But the slope makes the putting surface more receptive from the left, which means flirting with bunkers and the lake. With the wind whipping across this open section of the property, a GIR is an accomplishment.
HOLE #10 – 376 yards – par 4
The first hole on the inward half is a par-4 that works around the base of th hill to the right. The slope of the hillside and the large bunker complex on the inside corner create a gentle reverse camber effect on the first portion of the fairway. Players who take on the bunkers can blow it all the way down into a hollow leaving a flip wedge in. The green is benched into the same hillside with a large bunker left and a massive bunker right. Rounding the corner delivers a dramatic reveal for players. The putting surface falls away at the back right and left, taking overzealous approaches into tricky spots.
HOLE #11 – 171 yards – par 3
Calusa’s third one-shotter is another picturesque hole. A mid-length par-3 playing back into a corner of the property, the green is angled and defended by bunkers and the water. The putting surface has a false front that can create nasty bounces. Judging the swirling wind in this spot makes club selection and line a real challenge.
HOLE #12 – 419 yards – par 4
Climbing the hill to the 12th tee, players are greeted with one of Calusa Pines’s best reveals. This beauty is a beast though that demands two well struck shots to find a subtly contoured green surrounded by runoffs. Water runs the entire length of the left, but does not necessarily need to be challenged. On this relatively straight hole, the player gains advantage on the approach by hitting their drive to the side of the fairway opposite of the day’s pin position. Internal contours on this green most definitely favor local knowledge.
HOLE #13 – 554 yards – par 5
There is reward to be had for attempting to cut the corner on this hard dogleg right five-par. As the crow flies, the distance to the green is significantly shorter than the yardage on the card. Fail to make the carry though and potential disaster lurks in the form of deep bunkers and gunch. If playing the hole as a three shotter, the layup needs to cozy up between the two sets of bunkers left for the best angle of approach. The small, elevated green is canted to accept shots from the proper angle, and make recoveries difficult.
HOLE #14 – 293 yards – par 4
Players are again tempted with a drivable par-4 where guts can lead to glory. The deep fronting bunker and firm, elevated green give the hole as much of an all-or-nothing quality as the 8th. Get the drive to the green, and a birdie or better is there for taking. Leave an awkward approach angle or distance, and good luck holding the green with your second.
HOLE #15 – 374 yards – par 4
Otherworldly bunkers line the right side of the 15th, all the way up to the green. Depending on line and length, the fairway has several ripples that act as speed slots to deliver extra distance from the tee. The putting surface has rolls of its own, creating distinct sections and rewarding approaches that get to pin high.
HOLE #16 – 161 yards – par 3
The final par-3 is a photo op, with a healthy dose of visual intimidation. The tee shot plays well downhill to a green set on a peninsula in the lake. The green is angled with the left bunker cutting into its surface. Going for the back left pin position is one of those sucker plays that members leave to their guests.
HOLE #17 – 390 yards – par 4
The penultimate hole works around the lake from left to right with the main challenge on the approach. The 17th is another hole where the player is best to check the pin before choosing a line. Approaches from the same side of the fairway as the pin position have the advantage. The large green is one of the most creative on the course as it boomerangs around a center bunker.
HOLE #18 – 487 yards – par 5
The closer turns hard left off the tee, giving the player a chance to cut the corner and get home in two for a round ending birdie (or better). The green sits up above one last large bunker, in the shadow of the clubhouse. A thrilling finish that is perfect for dramatic conclusions to matches, especially when the patio is filled with onlookers who are more than happy to cheer or jeer.
The adventure of playing Calusa involves traversing uneven ground and there is a hill that must be climbed in order to get to the end. A loop around the course feels like a metaphor for life itself – meeting challenges in the company of your mates, shaking off the setbacks, celebrating the victories and having laughs along the way. As a result of the work of the founder and his passionate team, the course now stands as both a testament to creative determination as well as a place to pause for a moment and gratefully enjoy the view. Gary Chensoff beat cancer and realized his dream at Calusa Pines, and lovers of the game are better for it.