As you take in the view from the elevated tee box at the par-5 11th hole of the recently opened Ritz-Carlton Members Club golf course in Bradenton, Fla., it is difficult to imagine that rows of crops once dominated this landscape. Now, you see long, rolling swales punctuated by hills, valleys, and a large man-made lake, one of 16 on the course. An imposing ridge runs along the entire right side of the hole, and a variety of trees—palms, pines, maples, oaks, and ficus—can either frame an approach or force you to weigh your shot-making options.
“This used to be a tomato farm, as flat as a pool table,” says the club’s director of golf, Brian Henderson. When asked where designer Tom Fazio acquired all the material (a total of 1.9 million cubic yards of sand and soil) to transform the topography, Henderson smiles smugly, as though he is in on a secret. “Many of these lakes,” he reveals, “are 90 feet deep.”
That would be deep enough to accommodate the yachts docked off the shore of downtown Sarasota and within view of the Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota. The course is a half-hour drive from the hotel and joins a 15,000-square-foot spa and the newly opened Beach Club on Lido Key as components of the Ritz-Carlton Members Club, Sarasota. For a fee that varies depending on the amount of days they want to spend at the hotel, club members have access to all three facilities.
Open to regular hotel guests as well as club members, the par-72 course appears fully mature a week before the official opening. Although the land has been altered beyond recognition, the holes blend into the natural environment as if they have been here for decades. Full-grown oaks, flowering shrubs, and flower beds line the greens and fairways. Natural barriers conceal most of the cart paths, and you do not see any houses on the course, because there are none—a rare occurrence among new tracts. Instead, wetlands, tropical forest, and the Braden River border the course.
In addition to offering these aesthetic charms, the course also makes good on its claim that players of all skill levels can make shots and enjoy their rounds. The six sets of tees provide true options; the cumulative distance between the two forward sets alone approaches 800 yards. The 16th hole, a par 3 on which you can reach the green by cutting the corner of a lake, plays 106 yards from the forward tee and 216 from the tips.
Throughout the course, players with a case of aquaphobia can confront their demon head-on or, in most cases, avoid it completely. On the 473-yard, par-4 18th, for instance, you can play the left-to-right dogleg safely by going around a large lake. This requires a second shot of moderate length yet pinpoint accuracy. Long hitters may want to shorten that stroke by flying the water hazard.
All players face the same disadvantage on the course’s deceptively sloped and very quick greens. Here, you might be reminded of the site’s former purpose, for unless you exercise care, the greens, like tomatoes of this color, will leave a bitter taste.
Ritz-Carlton Members Golf Club, Sarasota