It’s tough enough taking a pedestrian, slightly dated golf course with real estate on virtually every hole and turning it into a stern championship test for the 21st century. Now do it with resident members Tiger Woods, John Cook, Scott Hoch and Mark O’Meara and others looking over your shoulder the whole way.
That’s the task that confronted veteran course designer Steve Smyers when he was asked by owner Joe Lewis to renovate Isleworth. The course dates to a 1985 layout by Arnold Palmer and his chief associate, Ed Seay. This private club always had panache as an upscale, exclusive location on the west side of Orlando, but the golf course was a basic functional layout, with the emphasis more on home lots fronting fairways than what lay between tee and green. There was little native elevation, and the soil was on the heavy side. Doglegs and fairway bunkers were designed to be a challenge to 250-yard carries off the tee – a booming drive two decades ago, but pedestrian by modern standards.
Smyers, based in Lakeland, Fla., was uniquely qualified for the task. Between his own stellar play and that of his wife (former LPGA player Sherrin Smyers), and close friends and design collaborators (Nick Price and Nick Faldo), he probably has seen a wider range of first-rate golf played than any architect in America today. So he knew he needed not only to put more length into Isleworth. But he also had to add more shotmaking as well as raise the risk element while enabling the course to be playable by everyday players.
Smyers and his associate, Patrick Andrews, spent dozens of days on site making sure that when the dust cleared and the dirt settled, everything was back to natural-looking grades. The renovation required closing the course for eight months.
When Isleworth reopened in December 2003, golfers found the hole corridors intact because the real estate prevented major rerouting. But doglegs were straightened slightly so that players couldn’t easily cut corners on the inside of the holes. The course gained 400 yards and now stretches to 7,544 yards, par 71 (slope 142 / 77.5 rating). All of the ground game elements were refashioned with exaggerated topographic changes. Bolder, steeper fairway bunkers were installed, calling for carries of 300 yards from the new back tees. All greens were rebuilt, and the greenside bunkers were made deeper so that bold approach shots to tucked pin positions now risk maximum penalty.
As players will find out at the 2005 Tavistock Cup, Isleworth places an absolute premium on long, accurate driving. The more observant golfer also will note a subtle yet decisive dimension of shotmaking, namely that perfectly level lies are scarce. Most approach shots from the fairway are played on uneven ground, meaning that golfers have to adjust their footwork to secure equilibrium. As Smyers says, “if you can’t get a modern pro to hit a middle or long iron to a par-4 green, at least you can make them uncomfortable over a short iron.”
Not that Isleworth is all hard work. Lewis has ensured a multimillion-dollar measure of playfulness throughout the grounds in the form of whimsical, cast-bronze sculptures. Just don’t mistake them for 150-yard markers. And don’t mistake Isleworth for your standard Florida real estate course. It’s now a stern test for its membership – including the guys who keep hauling home trophies from the PGA Tour.