By the time Gordon Lewis was a teenager, he knew his calling was to design golf courses. The prolific 72-year-old golf course architect grew up in a family of avid golfers. His mom, he recalls, was the best player in the family, winning at least a dozen club championships during her days as a competitive, amateur golfer. “Growing up, I couldn’t beat her—at least not until I turned 16 and started hitting the ball much farther,” he says. “She used to beat my dad like a drum.” Gordon grew up next to the Paola Country Club, about 50 miles south of Kansas City. His childhood memories are full of rounds played with friends. “I could walk or ride a cart over and play golf every day,” he says. “It was just good fortune.”
After studying landscape architecture at Kansas State University and working with several course architects and developers around the country, Gordon moved to Fort Myers in 1978. He was living in Atlanta when his boss invited him to design a course in Bonita Springs. “I got off the plane in December or January and went, ‘Whoa, this is heaven.’ Even if I weren’t designing courses, I would’ve stayed here,” he says. He recognized the city as an ideal landing spot, given his career aspirations. Golf course development was starting to boom in the region when he arrived, as more and more northern retirees migrated south to enjoy their golden years. Gordon put down roots and got to work designing and building a handful of layouts in the area, like The Forest Country Club in Fort Myers, Spanish Wells Golf & Country Club in Bonita Springs and Alden Pines on Pine Island. Although he has since traveled the world, overseeing the preliminary and master planning for courses in Portugal, Egypt and Thailand—among other international destinations—Southwest Florida has remained his home base over the years.
He has designed 52 courses in the region—a hotbed for golf in part because of the area’s many lakes, protected wetlands and wildlife habitats. When built around those conservation areas, Gordon says, the golf courses shine for their natural beauty. He points to Heritage Landing in Punta Gorda and Eagle Creek in Naples, two partially tidal courses that meander through protected mangroves and culminate along the Gulf’s edge. “This place has a lot of variety and a lot of golf courses,” he says. “You have the advantage of playing 200 to 300 hundred golf courses within 50 miles; there probably aren’t too many places like that. Plus, you can play year-round.”
“People think of Florida as being flat,” Gordon says. “But if you play one of my courses, you’ll probably never have a flat lie.”
Many local courses are built upon sandy terrain, including Estero Country Club in Fort Myers, and for that reason, in Gordon’s estimation, the course plays like a traditional links layout—the type of undulating courses found between the ocean and farmlands in the United Kingdom, where golf originated. The sandy soil drains well, creating firm terrain and producing lots of unpredictable bounces and plenty of roll in the fairways. He also admires the 2001-built Calusa Pines for its several long sand ridges that travel through the layout and create noticeable changes in elevation. The course peaks at 58 feet above sea level, the tallest point in Collier County.
On the topic of contours, Gordon is a big proponent of undulating fairways and has recently designed several courses characterized by noticeably sloped playing corridors, such as Babcock National at Babcock Ranch and The National Golf & Country Club in Ave Maria. “People think of Florida as being flat,” he says. “But if you play one of my courses, you’ll probably never have a flat lie.”
Local courses are also defined by large putting greens, a necessity given the number of rounds played each year in Southwest Florida. A large green with a putting hole that is relocated daily spreads out the foot traffic, preventing any one area from getting too worn down. “We build a little green inside of a big green,” he explains. “We like to have three or four different areas [where holes can be cut].”
As one might expect, those large greens can produce tricky putts. “If you get inside of 15 feet [from the hole], you’ll have a putt that breaks no more than 6 inches,” Gordon says. “But if you’re 30 feet away, the putt is going to break 6 inches one way and then crest a hill and roll 6 inches in the other direction. If you have an 80-foot putt, forget about it,” he adds, with a laugh. “You’ll never be able to figure it out.”
Gordon estimates that 90 percent of his projects today include a real estate component, but it’s difficult to project if that trend will continue. What he does know is local golf course development has a bright future. “Today, the game is as popular as it’s been in decades,” he says. “It’s an exciting time to be designing courses.” Even communities that don’t have access to large parcels of land are getting in on the action. Gordon’s been taking more requests from developers for large putting courses (some spanning 30,000 square feet), and he’s building smaller, shorter courses comprised of fewer holes than the standard 18. He expects courses with fewer holes will continue to gain popularity. “We’re creating a 12-hole course that’s comprised of six-hole loops with three tee boxes,” he says, referencing a yet-to-be-named project in Bradenton. “It can play as long as 7,500 yards or as short as 3,000 yards. You’ll be able to play it multiple ways. Even if you only have time for six holes, you can fit that in.”
He gets a kick thinking about the action on his courses—even the players who cuss him out under their breath when stuck in a bunker or wrestling with one of his water-dominated courses, like ArrowHead Golf Club in Naples. “Some days, it’s even me, saying ‘why did I do that?!’” he says with a laugh.
He likes to think through the numbers: Take 300 courses he’s renovated or designed, multiply with the 200 or so people that play daily in peak season, and you have 60,000 people a day enjoying his handiwork. “Whoa!” Gordon adds. “That’s pretty neat. That just gets me excited.”