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Old Corkscrew Golf Club: A scenic challenge in southwest Florida

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ESTERO, Fla. -- Old Corkscrew Golf Club isn't for the faint of heart.

Golfers who don't have the guts (or ability) to hit quality shots under pressure might not like this demanding Jack Nicklaus design, but those of us who love risk-reward shots will find Old Corkscrew a pure pleasure. The 7,393-yard golf course was originally designed as The Retreat, a private club of the highest order. When those plans fell through, the course opened in 2007 as a public playground with a private-club vibe still intact.

There are no houses on the 275-acre property, just an outback of mature pines, oaks, cypress trees and wetlands, although that could change if plans for 25 fractional ownership homes come to fruition. Environmental restrictions helped the golf course earn status as a Certified Audubon International Silver Signature Sanctuary from Audubon International. This combination of natural scenery and gorilla golf attracts quite a diverse clientele. Old Corkscrew has numerous connections to area private clubs, hotels and resorts that feed its tee sheet.

'We are becoming the showcase course of southwest Florida,' said Mark Iwinski, the club's manager of golf operations.

All these players come hoping to slay the dragon but usually leave humbled with a few less balls. The 144 slope from the 6,244-yard white tees might be among the highest in the country. Subtle changes have softened the course over the years, although first-timers wouldn't know it. Jim Merkel, visiting from Columbus, Ohio, considers Old Corkscrew the hardest course he’s played in Florida.

'I want to come back. (But) It's somewhat penal,' he said. 'If there is any speed on the greens, it would be impossible to play. You could hate it because there are a lot of surprise penalties out there.'

Some of the fairways -- such as the tough par 4s at no. 5 and no. 18 -- slope toward the water. Approach shots can be downright evil, as well. The greens at the par-5 third, the par-4 fifth, the par-4 ninth and par-5 11th all hook around water hazards. If you don't have a short iron in your hand, say a prayer before you swing.

And the greens are just as treacherous. Nicklaus put hogbacks and swales in some of the larger greens. Many are elevated and tough to reach. The 14th is notorious. Players have been known to putt off the green, ending up some 30 feet below the pin in a collection area.

Nicklaus does show a softer side on his short par 4s at no. 13 and no. 16, as long players leave the driver in the bag and wisely layup. Our best advice? Enjoy Old Corkscrew for what it is -- a cart ride on the wild side.