I have flown back and forth to the Sarasota area over the past 15 months, scouting office locations as we continue to grow our footprint even through the pandemic. I try my best to squeeze in a few rounds of golf here and there to keep my game in somewhat decent form. On one of these trips I was lucky to find a displaced golfer from Boston (via Ireland) spending the COVID period in Florida while transitioning to a new position in the U.A.E. It is always good to have a fellow golfer to tee up and play some new courses with. We have played early in the morning and late in the afternoon, and it has worked well around my schedule. This morning, we secured an early tee time at Esplanade at Azario, part of the Lakewood Ranch complex.
The 18-hole Esplanade is an above-par facility designed by Chris Wilczynski and his relatively new company, CW Golf Architecture, hired by leading national homebuilder Taylor Morrison. Chris’ two courses — Esplanade Golf & Country Club in Naples and Lakewood Ranch — earned a place on Golf Digest’s 2014 “Best New Courses” list.
GPS took me to a parking lot of a shopping center, and after talking to my golf partner, I was directed about another mile to the course entrance. The team at the course, friendly and helpful, said this happens to everyone. A lot of homes remain under construction; as with many Florida developments, the course is built first and the homes follow. I learned the housing market is so hot, Lakewood does not even confirm final prices for lots when buyers place their down payment.
Aiden McNulty, my partner in crime, decided we’d play a little side game for the round. I was offered a few strokes, fine with me, as Aiden is a better player and able to find his way out of some sticky situations. We decided on five a side as the wager and off we went as a twosome for the round. We were considerably pleased with each other, as we had both secured our second COVID vaccine shot, and even though we had played a few times prior, we always rode in separate carts. This was a big change!
410 yards, par 4
Out of the gate, Hole 1 is a beautiful hole, and it helped it was one of those clear Florida West Coast days with lots of sun and blue sky. Competitive as ever, Aiden slammed his first tee shot down the fairway, avoiding the water on the left and setting himself up for a great approach. Wilczynski prides himself on designing a course that is both playable and challenging. Using the flat topography of the region, he mounded and sculpted (often by hand) the course to its current rolling shape. On this dogleg left I decided I needed an edge to keep up with Aiden. I cut my ball over the corner of the water, offering a little more advantage — this type of shot can easily end in disaster … and wet. Next shot I landed in the front of but off the green, then chipped on and into the cup for a bogey. Aiden had a miss hit and bad chip, securing a double bogey and putting me, the underdog, in the lead.
424 yards, par 4
By now I was firmly in place, having won the first and second holes. Glory was in my grasp! I felt confident and in control. Hole 3 is the No. 1-ranked handicapped hole on the course, so we were ready to tackle it into submission, and we secured two massive drives. Once again there is water on the left of the hole, but this should not come into play. A straight shot favoring the right side of the fairway should bring you into striking distance as the hole turns slightly left to the green. Clumps of trees stand to the left as you approach the green, and another pond lies on the right. A textbook approach allowed each of us to card a par, keeping me in the lead.
401 yards, par 4
Water, water everywhere — that is, if you land right, as the pond extends along the length of the right side. The best position is slightly center left of the fairway, offering a great approach to the green. My drive dribbled right and slowed down, nearly rolling into the pond. Aiden took a more leftward route but landed in a clean position. We both ended up with some issues in the trap, but Aiden got out and carded a “sandy par,” closing out the match.
200 yards, par 3
By any standards, this par 3 is on the longish side, and with water cutting to the left, makes your shot directly to the hole a little concerning. The hole requires a little accuracy and finesse as it is well-bunkered and has a significantly marshy area cutting across the front of the green. Aiden and I both shot strong drives but not quite enough to make the green. Chipping up came easy; our putting skills left us, and we walked away with bogeys.
571 yards, par 5
Nothing like ending your round on a significant par 5! With nothing to lose, I offered a wager of double or nothing on the last hole. I had lost the front and back to Aiden, so I was out $10. Off the tee box, water lies to the right, but this would only come into play on a miss hit drive. We both sent our balls sailing out to the fairway, mine a little too far right and landing in a palm tree cluster — or as Aiden calls them, “paam trees.” This added a stroke to my score and left me offering the game to Aiden on a silver platter. He hit a worthy second shot with his 3-wood and then a decent ball to the green, threading his way up the fairway. A great finishing hole and a well-maintained course. I look forward to testing the sister course in Naples.
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