Tiburon, Ritz-Carlton make up one of Naples' top-shelf golf experiences

Trip Dispatch: At Tiburon Golf Club in Naples, the golf experience is Ritz-Carlton worthy

NAPLES, Fla. -- Checking in at a Ritz-Carlton comes with a high level of expectations. Like "Cheers," they always know your name. And rooms, dining and service come at a near flawless and certainly luxurious level.

So golf at a Ritz-Carlton resort needs to match those standards. Fortunately, for golfers, the Troon-managed Tiburon Golf Club in Naples, Fla., doesn't fall short of the service and quality of the accommodations next door.

"Tiburon" means "shark" in Spanish, so no mystery here: The 36 holes at Tiburon Golf Club were designed by the Great White Shark, Greg Norman. And while you can debate whether or not you favor the designs, the level of service, conditions and atmosphere are all on the Ritz-Carlton level. Plus the dining in the clubhouse is on par with the cuisine at the Ritz-Carlton, Naples Golf Resort. Recently, I got to experience all that was offered by Tiburon Golf Club, plus the Ritz-Carlton, as well as an interesting field trip off campus.

Tiburon is Naples resort golf

The 10th hole on the Black Course at Tiburon Golf Club in Naples, Fla.

Although Tiburon Golf Club comes across as an exclusive club, not only can resort guests play it, but the public can, too. The courses are alternated between members and resort/public guests. It comes at a high price (rack green fees are $160-$195 in the spring), but it's a premium golf experience in one of America's most prestigious southern destinations.

The original course at Tiburon, the Gold (which opened in 1998) is the site for two professional events – the LPGA Tour's CME Tour Championship and the Franklin-Templeton Shootout, which Norman hosts. The other course, the Black (2001), is tighter and more difficult.

We started our golf experience on the Black Course, which is actually due for a "remastering" this summer. And we got the preview of that remastering the next day by playing the Gold Course at Tiburon Golf Club, which was redone last summer.

But first, the Black: It's undoubtedly the more difficult of the two, but perhaps the more interesting too. With more narrow corridors and a little more tree trouble, accuracy is crucial. Yet, the fairways are really wider than they appear off the tees, so it's not like it's unplayable. You just have to be able work the ball or at the very least manage the course.

At 6,949 yards, it's not particularly long, but unless you're a low handicapper, you don't want to tackle it from the back tees.

Both courses are designed to play firm and fast, and there's no rough. Cart paths are coquina and are in play, and both courses have plenty of natural Southwest Florida beauty.

The Gold Course is the longer of the two, 7,271 yards, and it's undergone changes in the last year. The most notable are the new Durabunkers, which are actually synthetic sodwall bunkers, but much more durable than the real kind. Tiburon is the first course on the PGA or LPGA tours to try the new product and everyone seems to love it. Unlike regular sod bunkers, they don't have to be rebuilt after heavy rains, and they look perfect.

No doubt, the Gold Course is also the more playable of the two. With more coquina waste bunkers than the Black, wider fairways, renovated tees, fairways and greens, it's as visually appealing as it is playable. The Black Course, which will be shut down for the summer of 2017, will reopen in the fall after it gets similar improvements, including new greens.

The Ritz-Carlton Resorts, Naples

There are actually two Ritz-Carltons in Naples. We stayed at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort, of course, but just three miles away via a free shuttle is the Ritz-Carlton, Naples, with access to Southwest Florida's beautiful white beaches.

Both are what you might expect in a Ritz-Carlton – elegant, well-appointed rooms, great dining and impeccable service. From the moment you arrive they've got you covered, taking your bags to your room and your clubs to the course. We also had access to the lounge in the Club Level, which for guests and a nominal charge, can basically take care of all your dining, snack and drink needs if you want. It's hard to return to normal life after that kind of convenience.

The first night, though, we dined at Lemonia Bistro, the golf resort's signature restaurant, which featured fresh seafood, farm-fresh salads and wide selection of wines.

The next night it was over to the Beach Club three miles away, where the views of the sunsets over the Gulf of Mexico can be more stunning than the cuisine.

And finally, we ended our quick stay with a meal at Sydney's Pub in Tiburon 27,000-sqaure foot clubhouse. Offering everything from soups and salads to steaks and grilled grouper, everything is good here, including the tantalizing Nueske's bacon sliders.

The Ritz-Carlton, Naples, is also home to the luxurious 51,000-square foot spa that includes a wide range of treatments. A good strategy would be to spend a good part of your day here getting a massage and experiencing the other amenities, which include steam rooms, saunas and aqua lounges, along with an outdoor mineral pool for a complete holistic experience.

Craft beer to clubfitting

One of the most pleasant surprises was a quick trip to the Naples Beach Brewery, which opened in 2011 and started the craft beer industry in the Naples , Fort Myers area.

Even more interesting though is that the owner, Will Lawson, used to be the golf course superintendent at nearby Naples Beach and Golf Resort and turned a home hobby into a professional passion. Once he decided he could be a success by opening a brewery in Naples, he sought higher training that included studying in Chicago and Munich to perfect his craft. Now he has 50 different brews and is starting to distribute locally.

"I wanted to get as much training as I could get," said Lawson, a graduate of the highly-touted Michigan State University turfgrass program.

His brews include descriptive monikers like "Peanut Butter Cup," "Key Lime Dropper," "Latitude Adjustment" and "Sunrise Wheat."

So what do you do after sampling beer at a brewery?

You sample different golf clubs with at Tiburon Golf Club, of course. That's what I did at the new Tour Fit Golf Labs, where former professional golfer Brandon Collier took me through the process.

Tour Fit has thousands of combinations of heads and shafts and lies, including the new and expensive PXG, but they don't try to influence you into any particular brand. Instead, they test you on your own clubs, and then if Collier tries out other combinations to see if you could make some substantial improvements.

In my case, he concluded I was maximizing my results with my current set of irons, but my woods could use some help. In the end, I wound up buying a new driver head (it was 20-yards farther with more accuracy), a fairway wood and a couple of hybrids.

Of course, I had to wait a couple of weeks for them, but I think it will be well worth it. They arrived just in time for my next golf journey.

Mike Bailey is a senior staff writer based in Houston. Focusing primarily on golf in the United States, Canada, the Caribbean and Latin America with an occasional trip to Europe and beyond, he contributes course reviews, travel stories and features as well as the occasional equipment review. An award-winning writer and past president of Texas Golf Writers Association, he has more than 25 years in the golf industry. Before accepting his current position in 2008, he was on staff at PGA Magazine, The Golfweek Group and AvidGolfer Magazine. Follow Mike on Twitter at @MikeBaileyGA and Instagram at @MikeStefanBailey.

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Trip Dispatch: At Tiburon Golf Club in Naples, the golf experience is Ritz-Carlton worthy