An Atypical, A+ Collaboration: The Member-Infused Bonita Bay Club Renovation


By Dan Vukelich, Member, Golf Writers Association of America, Online Editor of Alabama Golf News


When the Bonita Bay Club south of Fort Myers, Florida, embarked on a $14 million renovation of one of its five golf courses, the architect, Tom Marzolf of the Fazio Design Group, enlisted the help of a committee of club members.

The group included low- and high-handicappers, men and women and a smattering of board members.

“We’d go out to the golf course as a large group, stand on the first tee and say, what do we like about this hole? What do we not like about this hole?” Marzolf said. “What are the agronomic issues of the hole? Sun, shade, drainage? What do we need to fix in terms of just what we see on the ground?”

During the 12-member group’s repeated trips around the Cypress course, members proposed some off-the-wall, pie-in-the-sky suggestions, as well as the occasional personal grievance: “My ball always finds this bunker, let’s get rid of it,” or “I don’t like palm trees.” 

If you subscribe to idea that a horse designed by a committee ends up a camel, you’d be off the mark here. The committee process was such a success it’s being repeated in the $14 million renovation of a second Bonita Bay course set to start in July.

Paul Nussbaum, who was the club’s president during the renovation, lauded the committee process despite early misgivings. “I think once we calmed people down about ‘Oh, they might make it too difficult for us,’ and people realized we wanted this course to be playable for players of all levels, the boat started being rowed in the same direction,” he said.

Bonita_Bay_1The Cypress renovation is part of a $60 million golf master plan at the Bonita Bay Club, which has two campuses to serve its 2,200 members, 1,450 of them golf members – one in Bonita Springs, Florida, on the coast, the other in Naples, just 10 miles inland. In all, the club operates five courses. The master plan calls for renovation of all five plus a new clubhouse at the Naples campus. 

(Photo Courtesy of Evan Schiller)

So far, three courses have been renovated, with work on the fourth to begin this July and the fifth to begin in 2025. Nussbaum said the biggest challenge to getting members’ buy-in was the placement of bunkers to make them relevant to both high- and low-handicappers. “We heard a lot of ‘Why are they putting that trap where I hit my shot?’” he said.

Over the course of weeks of walking the Cypress course as a group, the bones of the renovation began to take shape: Improving drainage to turn the course into a drier, faster track; adding sandy, beach-like waste areas; removing encroaching trees; and adding closely mown green surrounds to allow high handicappers to putt from five, even 10 yards off the green.

The biggest idea to come out of the member-architect collaboration: more forward tees to make the course more playable for a membership with an average age of 73. The Cypress course now has seven sets of tees ranging from 4,500 to 7,500 yards. It’s the first time the Fazio Design Group has built a spread of 3,000 yards from back to front tees into a design.

“You would never build those tees back in the ‘90s,” Marzolf said. “The good news here is people are living longer, thanks to modern medicine, and we're playing golf into our 80s. People are healthy and strong, and so they're going to move up.”

The greatest expense of the Cypress renovation – and why it cost roughly twice what a typical renovation might cost – was improving drainage. The course, designed by Tom Fazio in 1996, winds through protected wetlands devoid of housing. As the water table in those wetlands rose, the Cypress course became wetter. Its fairways became spongy and its low-lying areas became a real maintenance problem.

TTom Marzolfo achieve the goal of “firm and fast,” Mazolf’s renovation raised the grade of the entire course by 12 to 18 inches. That required massive amounts of fill, some 200,000 cubic yards. To put that in perspective, that’s enough soil to cover 41 acres to a depth of three feet.

To get it, Marzolf turned to the course’s lakes. In all, four existing lakes were expanded and six new lakes were to dug. Miles of perforated drainage pipe now pull water away from turfed areas into canals and wetlands.

(Photo of Tom Mazolf courtesy of American Society of Golf Course Architects)

To reduce maintenance, in a few places, Marzolf proposed replacing grass with sandy waste areas. The members’ committee liked the waste-area aesthetic so much they wanted more. As a result, the course’s turf coverage was reduced from 106 to 94 acres. Some 15 acres of trees also were cleared up open up the course visually.

In an interview, I asked Marzolf whether he took a gamble on inviting member input and risked designing a camel and not a horse. Or worse: dismissing the members’ ideas and causing ill will. As a past president of the American Association of Golf Course Architects who has renovated or restored icons such as Fox Chapel Golf Club, Merion Golf Club, Riviera Country Club and Oakmont Country Club, Marzolf could easily have insisted on dealing fewer people.    

“Every golf architect does this differently,” he said. “A lot of golf architects wouldn't have a member-based committee and would want to deal with just staff. But how we look at that is to say, it's their club.”

When design work on Cypress started in 2019, “We put together a structured visit schedule for visits with the club two days each visit, with a gap of, say, maybe six weeks in between each meeting for the work to get done,” Marzolf said.

In 2020, once the committee concluded its series of walks across the course and came up with a consensus list of proposed design features. The Fazio team then asked the committee to vote, one by one, on the various features – the waste areas, the extra tee boxes, the closely mown green surrounds, bunker placements, and so on.

Once approved by the committee, the renovation plan went before the club board. With approval, construction began in September 2021 and continued through the fall of 2022.

Michael Liesmann, the club’s current president, called it “critical” to get member input. And while adding new forward tees was important to the club’s aging membership, he said, the course – which has hosted the Florida Open – also needed to be challenging enough to attract younger members. Dick Phelps, a retired architect who designed dozens of courses, most of them west of the Mississippi, said getting the broadest representation possible on a committee is key. 

“It is difficult to select a committee  that does not have some sort of bias when it comes to golf, whether it be green speeds, length of cut of the playing surfaces or rough, placement of trees, color or texture of sand in the bunkers, etc.,” Phelps said

The toughest sell to the committee was Marzolf’s idea of including 120,000 square feet square feet of low-mow green surrounds. Nussbaum said, “I had never heard of that, but it seemed intriguing, and in the end, we thought that if we were going to design a course, one that stands out, we should do something a little bit bold and controversial.”

The number of bunkers was reduced from 88 to 55. They became the focus of Marzolf’s vision for course strategy. Those that remained were enlarged and positioned so they “poked out into the fairway,” Marzolf said, to force players to think twice about using driver off the tee.  

Last December, before a shotgun start for club members on the day the course reopened, Marzolf said he told the assembly, “You're not going to like this golf course today. … You're going to like it a whole lot more when you play it the second time, because you're going to know there's width over here and you can hit the ball over there.”

As for his insistence on including the vox populi in the renovation process, Marzolf is proud of what he called a “very democratic process.”

“We [the Fazio Design Group] knew what we were building, but [the committee’s] job was to make sure they were getting what we talked about,” Marzolf said.

“I believe that's the right way at a private club,” he said. “It’s your club. You’re here. You’re going to enjoy the facility. I think that's appropriate as a golf architect to respond to members' needs and go through that process.”


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Dan Vukelich, a member of the Golf Writers Association of America, is the online editor of Alabama Golf News. He lives in Albuquerque, N.M.

** The views and opinions featured in Golf Business WEEKLY are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the NGCOA.**