(ANN ARBOR, Mich.) - Chris Wilczynski is a rare breed among golf course architects these days. He's working on a new course in the United States.
"Given that there's only a handful of courses being built these days, I feel privileged," said Wilczynski, a former partner with one of the nation's leading golf course design firms, Hills & Forrest.
Landing the opportunity to design a course in a stagnant golf economy takes more than luck. Wilczynski also owes his good fortune to the skills acquired and relationships formed during nearly 20 years working for renowned course architect Arthur Hills.
It was one of those relationships that prompted Tony Squitieri, Taylor Morrison's Vice President of Land Resources in Southwest Florida, to hire Wilczynski to design Esplanade G & CC at Naples. The two had met in 2001, when Squitieri was representing another homebuilder-developer as lead executive in the development of Heritage Harbour in Bradenton, Fla. Wilczynski was Hills & Forrest's lead architect on the two golf courses at Heritage Harbour, a master planned community that features more than 5,000 homes, a 460-slip marina, and 70-plus acres of parks and passive recreation areas.
"Through the years we've kept in touch," Squitieri said. "I've always been impressed with the quality of Chris's architectural designs, his work ethic, and his communication skills. We understand each other well, and we executed seamlessly from the planning stage, through construction, and into the operation of our courses at Heritage Harbour."
Squitieri said his company wasn't in the market for a "name brand" architect to design Esplanade G & CC at Naples. He said it was more important "to find a teammate who could execute and integrate our golf course design with our homebuilding and community development operations. We were looking for the right architect who could design a membership-friendly layout that integrates the surrounding environmental features with the golf course, community neighborhoods and other amenities."
Squitieri's search focused on former design associates, like Wilczynski, who had worked for well-known firms then struck out on their own as a result of those companies downsizing. From that talent pool, Squitieri said, "we determined that Chris was the perfect fit for us."
Wilczynski grew up in Blissfield, Mich., and during high school he began working for Hills, based in nearby Toledo, Ohio, as an apprentice draftsman. After earning a degree in Landscape Architecture from Michigan State University, Wilczynski joined Hills' firm full time. His design credits with Hills & Forrest include acclaimed courses such as Ironbridge Golf Club and Mountain Community in Colorado, Wolfdancer Golf Club at the Hyatt Lost Pines Resort in Texas, Westhaven Golf Club in Tennessee, Silver Creek Golf Club in Canada, and Red Hawk Golf Club in Michigan.
Wilczynski said the topography of the Esplanade site is typical of Southwest Florida. Along the western and northern boundaries of the golf course is an environmental preservation area featuring specially designed birding zones. A pristine, meandering wetland stream will border some residential areas and the second through fifth golf holes. "There are also a couple of wetlands pockets within the confines of the golf course and alongside residential areas, but they will not be integrated into the course or affect its playability," Wilczynski said.
The subsurface of the property is coral rock, which is typical of its southwest Florida location. "We're going to excavate these formations and create storm water lakes, which will enhance community water quality and provide flood protection areas," Wilczynski said. "We'll use the excavated rock from the lakes to develop the base grades for the course. Many of the holes will be designed adjacent to the lakes, but we're going to strategically locate them so that we don't burden the everyday membership players.
"There will be a few 'heroic carries' (over water) to challenge those golfers who choose to play from the back tees," he said. "But the water will typically be off to the side and away from the greens and landing areas."
That reflects Wilczynski's design philosophy, which emphasizes playability and aesthetics. He believes the one positive aspect of the shrinking golf economy is that the downturn ended an era of architectural one-upsmanship, when designers built ever more difficult and lengthy courses from the mid-1980s through the early 2000s. "Sad to say, but I think we forgot about the player during that time," Wilczynski said. "I've seen a lot of courses in Florida, and I feel like I have a good understanding of what makes a good golf experience. Aesthetics and playability are my two priorities."
Esplanade G & CC at Naples is slated to open for play in early 2014. The course will max out at "just shy of 6,900 yards," Wilczynski said. The architect is a fan of short, risk-and-reward par 4s, and players will encounter those at Nos. 5, 10 and 14. The property will feature 1,100 housing units (single homes and condominiums), but the golf isn't claustrophobic. Eight holes have no home sites on either side. Even on the four holes bordered on both sides by residences, there's a lake buffer on one side of the fairway. There will be three forced carries over water, but only from the back tees. The greens will be medium to large (roughly 6,000 to 8,000 square feet), typically with open fronts that will allow golfers to run the ball onto the green.
The master plan for the Esplanade G & CC at Naples includes a distinctive greenway trail system for walkers and cyclists that connects neighborhoods with several parks and open spaces. "We designed the community to integrate with its natural surroundings," Squitieri said. "The trails and green space, including the golf course, are important amenities to the community."
While it may appear that Taylor Morrison is sailing into a headwind by creating a golf community at a time when more courses are closing than opening in the United States, Squitieri notes that the golf market in Southwest Florida has remained comparatively robust. "History tells us that people associate the Naples area with golf," he said. "The game draws people to Florida. Homes in golf course communities in this area continue to prove their value to those who seek the Florida lifestyle. Esplanade Golf & Country Club at Naples will deliver the kind of amenities expected by home buyers who live an active lifestyle."
The slumping nationwide golf economy dealt Wilczynski a temporary setback two years ago, when he was the junior partner out in a downsizing company. But the parting was amicable, and the newly formed C.W. Golf Architecture collaborated with Hills on a couple of projects as Wilczynski established his business. He persevered, and he's glad he did.
"I considered other options," Wilczynski said, "but this is what I love."