When my father died the first time, the doctors in the emergency room shocked him back to life with a defibrillator after he flatlined for approximately 5 minutes. It was harrowing. But once he was back in recovery, he shared with us that during those 5 minutes, he had gone off to somewhere magical. He said he was floating over lush green grass surrounded by tall trees and sunlit, shimmering water. As he floated along he noticed the sculpted and manicured lawn was bordered by sand-filled bunkers, and that it dog-legged to the right. That’s right, dad died and went golfing.
It was stunning for several reasons: 1. He died. 2. He came back. 3. He wasn’t much of a golfer.
But when you drive through the pearly white gates of The Old Collier Golf Club, hidden in plain sight just off U.S. 41 in Naples behind Walmart (I know, right?), it’s easy to see why we should all spend a little more time tithing. The Collier Enterprises- owned and -operated private golf club is one of the best-kept secrets in Southwest Florida—truly an oasis within paradise.
Equal parts wildlife refuge and golf haven, the course, which is nestled beside the Cocohatchee River, was the world’s first Audubon International Certified Gold Signature Sanctuary. And to earn that designation, designers worked closely with the environmental organization to make the location a sanctuary for a wide variety of wildlife, including eagles, osprey, gopher tortoises, foxes and gators. In fact, just 77 of its total 267 undulating acres are turf areas. Much of the rest remains mangrove or native habitat corridors with resident tortoises observing play daily.
“When I got the call from Collier (Enterprises), golf was booming in Naples,” says noted golf course architect Tom Fazio, who designed the course. “So when I heard ‘Naples,’ well, most of the time people will say Naples but they’re 20 or 30 miles away. When I found out the actual location I couldn’t believe it. How could that piece of land in that location exist? It’s a fabulous place.”
And, it’s a pure golf club, meaning no homes border the course, allowing for a pristine, natural habitat for both wildlife and golfers alike. Once inside those gates, you feel as though you’ve been transported to another world—one that feels suspiciously like the South Carolina Lowcountry. It is Brigadoon for the ultra-rich. Even its general manager, Iain Mossman, is Scottish.
Opened in 2001, the club has just 224 members (at press time), with bylaws limiting membership to 250 total. As you might imagine, that means you are never hurried, never slowed and feel totally insulated from the cares of the outside world. And again, that harried world outside is Naples. On our first visit to the course, we didn’t see another golfer until we reached the fifth hole. That’s how golf is meant to be.
So why aren’t more people crowding this gem? Well, membership costs $310,000 with annual dues of another $21,500. That puts Old Collier as one of the most expensive clubs in the State of Florida—and the United States.
Not surprisingly, the members of Old Collier read like a Who’s Who from Forbes: Dick Schulze, founder of Best Buy; Don Fites, former CEO and chairman of Caterpillar Corp.; Ralph Stayer, former CEO and chairman of Johnsonville Sausage; John Schuerholz, former president and current vice chairman of the Atlanta Braves; Todd Wagner, partner of Mark Cuban; Bill Bain of Bain Capital; Bill Perez, former CEO of SC Johnson and former president of William Wrigley Jr. Co.; John Y. Kim, president of New York Life, just to name slightly more than a few. Trust us, the list goes on and on.
During a recent round, we were playing behind Fox News host Bret Baier, who was on the course with his father-in-law, member Paul Hills, and club membership director, Golf Channel analyst and former PGA pro golfer Mark Lye. Even former PGA golfer Peter Jacobsen is a member.
“It’s like nowhere else,” says member Russell Scurto, who, along with his wife, Tracy, splits time between homes in Naples and Barrington Hills, Illinois. “There are other wonderful clubs in this area, but the degree of services—in all areas, not just the course condition—is exceptional. It is almost a sanctuary and yet you’re still in the middle of Naples. And the membership is fantastic—from billionaires to whatever. They’re all unique individuals, self-made people. But when you are at Old Collier everybody is the same.”
And the reason they’re at Old Collier, in what is regarded as the Golf Capital of the World (Naples has more private golf courses than any place else in the United States, and the Naples/Marco Island area has more holes per capita—one for every 212 residents—than any other place, including Myrtle Beach, South Carolina), is because Old Collier stands out.
“I live right on Conway Farms Golf Club (in Lake Forest, Illinois), which is a very upscale community, kind of like Greenwich, Connecticut,” says Dick Christoph, a member widely considered the unofficial mayor of Old Collier. “Conway was designed by Fazio. It’s a beautiful club, like this, but … well, let me just say that I’ve belonged to a lot of golf clubs over the years, and some very good ones. But none of them, even if I take the best from each one of them and put it together—it can’t touch this place. The membership here is top-drawer.”
At $310,000-plus per membership, it does tend to keep the riffraff out, though even at that price point it’s a “by invitation only” club. Not everyone makes the cut. And there are rules. Men must wear collared shirts. And if you wear shorts, they can’t be cargo shorts. And no denim, please.
“I think the misconception might be that we are stodgy,” says Mossman, in a lovely Scottish brogue. “But that couldn’t be further from the truth. We’re a family club and we truly pride ourselves on that.”
That’s not to say you’ll find small children running around the storied clubhouse, but rather that membership extends to immediate family members.
“When we get back into town we are out here as soon as we can get here, honestly,” says Christoph, who attended the University of Nebraska with Warren Buffett. “Playing Old Collier is the highlight of our winter in Naples. Dick Schulze has belonged to a bunch of clubs down here but has dropped several of them because this is his favorite one.”
But just what makes this club different from the myriad other clubs and courses in Southwest Florida? One major thing that separates Old Collier from courses is its unique single-bag caddie program, which encourages members to walk the course versus take a cart (though carts are optional). That means each golfer gets his or her own professional caddie while on the course, just like you’re playing in a major. And in season, these caddies come in from some of the best courses in the world. We’re talking the Old Course at St. Andrews, Kingsbarns in Fife and the Wentworth Club in London, just for starters.
“There is a unique relationship between the caddies and the members that you will not find any place else,” says member Jon Adams of Bonita Springs and Quogue, New York. “You go to Augusta, Shinnecock or National (Golf Links of America in New York), you go right down the list and there might be one golfer and one caddie who know each other. But here the members know the caddies and the caddies know the members. It’s a fascinating relationship. And caddies want to come back and work here.”
And by the way, those caddies are not included in the price of admission. The average charge for a caddie per round including tip is $150.
If a member takes three guests out for a round during the season, the cost, because of greens fees for guests, would be more than $1,000. Of course, the truth is that doesn’t really faze any of the members. Most play at least two or three times a week, and many of their spouses do the same. Add a few lunches into the mix and pretty soon you’re talking real money.
And you might think that having this much wealth and power in one spot might make it an incubator for, well, the Illuminati and its plot for world domination; or a place where billion-dollar deals materialize over chip shots and long putts or lunch in the men’s locker room (it has its own full dining area). But it turns out nothing could be further from the truth.
“The conversations are pretty low-key, actually,” Adams says. “We talk a little bit about politics—this is a very Republican club—but we don’t talk much about our businesses at all. In fact, you can play at this club for a couple of years and not know what somebody does for a living. They don’t care. On the east coast, it’s the first thing they ask you. We’re very quiet about that. But there is a lot of jawboning and ribbing going on out there. And we talk about the club itself. Do we like the greens and how they’re playing? Et cetera.”
But just because it doesn’t appear Old Collier is an incubator for megamergers doesn’t mean it doesn’t possibly play a role in major corporate maneuvers. Former Hertz CEO and Chairman Mark Frissora fell in love with Old Collier and became a member. Is it any coincidence, people joke, that he moved the entire corporation from its headquarters in New Jersey to right here?
“It’s a very special place—one of the most beautiful courses I’ve ever seen,” says member Shelia Davis. “I fell in love with it. And the staff is amazing. I have never met a more conscientious, kind, caring, accommodating club in my entire life. Sometimes I’ll just go there for lunch because they have the most amazing lobster salad I’ve ever had in my life.”
Part of that service is full-service valet. You can even get your car detailed on certain days while you golf. And thanks to a transponder placed in each member’s vehicle (so they can wirelessly get through the main gate), staff has enough time not only to have that member’s golf clubs ready, but also to get that member’s favorite drink set beside his or her locker. That’s service.
In fact, the club is so accommodating that when Christoph realized the course needed a bridge across a pond at 13 to shorten the walk for players, the club listened.
“I think Fazio thought, ‘You know, a lot of people in Florida are older and they take carts,’ but this is a walking course,” Christoph says. “You get out to the 12th hole and get to the green, then there is a path that goes all the way around (a lake) to the 13th tee box. You had to walk around. I said, ‘They blew it here. They should have a bridge from here right over to the tee box.’ Collier management said to me, ‘Dick, get me 50 emails or so from members telling me they want it.’ Well, I got 123 emails. Everyone loves it. It’s faster play. So they built the bridge. And they put my name on it—Christoph Crossing.”
Even better, as the course was being designed, Collier Enterprises identified a then new salt-tolerant turf grass, Seashore Paspalum, that flourishes in coastal settings and funded the research to make sure it would be a perfect playing surface. Because it’s salt-tolerant, it can be irrigated with available brackish water instead of fresh municipal water. The grass is now being used at courses around the globe, and its use has revitalized golf in the Caribbean.
To say Old Collier is a slice of paradise is an understatement. And for the lucky few who get to be members, it is truly heaven on earth. No defibrillators necessary.
The clubhouse at Old Collier, which evokes the appearance of a Lowcountry estate home, looks as though it’s been there for generations. Its symmetrical lines mimic early Georgian architecture and welcome members from all angles. At 20,000 square feet under air, it is a sanctuary that takes guests back in time. In fact, much of the interior design incorporates an eclectic mix of antiques dating from 1810 to 1860. The floors throughout are wide-plank antique oak. The exterior required 65,000 handmade Old Carolina bricks for its walls and 36,000 square feet of Vermont slate for the roof.
The men’s lounge and locker areas feature handmade wooden lockers, oak plank flooring and early pieces, such as the circa 1840 country sideboard from England. A linen press is Dutch and dates to the 18th century. The ladies’ locker area features an 18th century cupboard, while the card room walls are upholstered in custom hand-printed linen.
Perhaps its most amazing feature is something members and guests never get to see—its basement. Because the ground was being moved to create the world-class course, it was decided to put the clubhouse on a raised footing, allowing for a basement and walkways to be placed beneath. That gives staff members their own thoroughfare to conduct business without disturbing guests. Every time you walk in you feel as though your visiting someone’s quiet country home.