It's politically incorrect to categorize people, but if I had to name the three most notorious benevolent dictators of golf, I'd list Clifford Roberts of Augusta National, John Arthur Brown of Pine Valley and Dr. Charles Benton of Naples National. I never met Mr. Roberts, had met Brown only once, but could write a book about Dr. Benton. I am sure they were all three strong willed individuals who cared more about the golf course than most of the people around them, and as a result caused some long lasting hard feelings.
Charles Benton has a Ph.D. in biological sciences. Through some astute medically-related discoveries involving genetic engineering, he made enough money to retire young as a wealthy man. He loves the game of golf and became obsessed by the idea of creating a first-rate members club in Naples, Florida. So he searched out a 325-acre parcel of land and persevered through a painful permit process that required he put 150 acres into permanent wetland conservation, leaving 175 acres to work with. Then all he had to do was find a designer, secure funding, staff the place, sell memberships, and micro-manage the operation to perfection. He did all that, and did it well.
I'm not sure why Dr. Benton even called me for an interview. Maybe it's because I also have a Ph.D. and, knowing how hard one must work to earn that degree, he figured I must have a work ethic that matched his. Anyway, I put together my best slide show and prepared an outline for an hour-long presentation on why we should be chosen as his golf course architect. About 10 minutes into the interview, Dr. Benton held up his hand and said, "Thank you, I’ve heard enough." I was stunned. I hadn’t even gotten to my good stuff. I muttered something like, "Thank you for your attention and this opportunity," and hit the door. To say the least, I was dejected. I began to doubt if we'd ever really have a chance to land such a high profile project.
About two weeks later, Dr. Benton called me and said, "Well, we’re ready to start." I had no idea what he meant. "Does this mean we have the job?" I asked. In typical Benton fashion, he answered with a question. "What do you think it means? How soon can you come down here?"
I was stunned again, but the next day I flew to Naples to meet with him and walk the property, as he had already done dozens of times.
At this meeting, I asked Charles what kind of golf course he envisioned. He answered that he wasn't going to tell me. Then I questioned what courses would he compare it to? He wouldn't tell me that, either. He didn't want us trying too hard to make it like some other course. He wanted his golf course to be different, to be "the most unique golf course in Florida".
Once again, I was stunned. There are over a thousand golf courses in Florida. Most of them are built on the exact same flat, swampy land with the exact same vegetation and soils and end up with the same necessary lakes and ponds. He wanted something unique, but wouldn’t give me a clue as to what he envisioned. "Look," he said. "I hired you to give me answers, not questions." On the plane ride home, I made a list of every conceivable feature I'd ever seen on any golf course in the world, including every manmade architectural device. Then I started scratching off those that were common to Florida golf courses. After that, I scratched off outlandish and impossible ideas for this course, features like oceanfront holes and 60-foot high sand dunes.
Finally, I had narrowed the list down to stone walls. Dry-stacked stone walls are common in New England, where the walls were built to separate farms, and in Ireland, where they crowd the narrow winding roads. Many stacked rock walls were retained when courses were built in New England and Ireland, probably because they were too costly to remove. But south Florida had few rocky attributes, and no Florida golf course I could think of had any stone walls. What you do find in south Florida is coral rock beneath the three-or-four feet of topsoil. It's ancient coral rock, in layers four-to-eight feet thick. Usually, when golf course builders unearth coral during construction, they blast it loose, dig it out to create lakes, then get rid of it by dumping it in deep fills and covering it with sand. Sometimes, some of the coral gets used as bulkheading around lakes. But nobody used it to create stone walls on a Florida golf course.
So on one of the routing plans we did for Dr. Benton, I added some stone walls to provide color, texture and height to the golf landscape. He liked it because it was indeed unique. When I questioned him where the walls should go, he said, "Just do what you think is right. If I don’t like it, I’ll take it out."
But once construction began on the golf course, the stone walls became an obsession to Dr. Benton. Not only did he lay most of them out by himself, he also laid out the locations for stone cairn tee signs. If workers didn’t build walls that were perfectly straight, he'd make them tear them out and start over. Today, the stone walls are the signature of Naples National, and to me they're a symbol of a group of founders determined to make the best possible golf course they could.
I could tell hundreds of stories about Dr. Benton, and for better or worse he is no longer part of the club. He was uncompromising in his demand for perfection from everyone who worked for him. He had phenomenal vision about what it would take to make a first-class club stand out among its peers. He coddled no member. Dr. Benton was a bit reclusive, gruff, headstrong, and to some, even a little abrasive. But from what I've read, so were Clifford Roberts and John Arthur Brown. The quality of the golf clubs they left as legacies attest to their passion.
There are lots of fabulous golf holes at Naples National, holes wrapped around wetlands, cypress hammocks, and significant trees. Our bunkering emulates low, rolling sand dunes, and the green surrounds are tightly mown chipping areas similar to Pinehurst No. 2. That alone was enough to qualify it for Top 100 status. But the people who've been attracted to Naples National make it just as distinctive, guys like Fuzzy Zoeller, long-drive champion Evan "Big Cat" Williams, and many CEOs of multinational companies who love its low-key atmosphere.