By Brendan Savage | firstname.lastname@example.org
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on November 17, 2014 at 11:11 AM, updated November 17, 2014 at 1:21 PM
After more than 20 years in the business, the first two golf courses designed solely by Ann Arbor's Chris Wilczynski opened this year in Florida.
He aced both projects.
Wilczynski formed his own golf architecture company in 2010 and his first two efforts – a pair of 18-hole layouts at Esplanade Golf and Country Club – are among Golf Digest's best new courses of 2014.
Other architects on the list include Jack Nicklaus, Pete Dye, Gary Player, Robert Trent Jones Jr., Rees Jones, Tom Fazio and Michigan's Tom Doak.
Pretty good company, eh?
"When I started these Esplanade courses, the main theme was playability, fun, having golf courses that can be played over and over where people can have fun," Wilczynski said. "We talked about having bigger greens and open-front greens and wide corridors and length wasn't a premium.
"We wanted to create a golf course where people could have fun and I think that's what we've done. I think I hit a home run in that regard. We kept talking about playability and fun without losing the excitement and character that's required to create a good golf course.
"We were also mindful of the aesthetics and creating things that looked interesting … but in reality weren't as hard as they looked. Again, I think we hit a home run with regard to making them playable because the feedback we've received from the people who have played them is exactly that."
Although the two Esplanade courses – located in Naples and nearby Lakewood Ranch – are the first Wilczynski has designed solo, he's hardly new to the business.
Wilczynski spent 19 years working for renowned designer Arthur Hills, whose courses include Bay Harbor in Petoskey, Egypt Valley near Grand Rapids and TPC Treviso Bay in Naples. Hills also redesigned Inverness Golf Club in Toledo.
Wilczynski was a partner in Hills' firm and worked on approximately 20 courses before cutbacks came in 2010 after the economy soured and golf course construction across the country came to a halt.
That prompted Wilczynski to form his own company – C.W. Golf Architecture – and he won the bidding for the Esplanade courses after an old acquaintance became part of the development.
"They took a gamble," Wilczynski admitted. "I don't feel like I was somebody who didn't know what I was doing but they hired somebody who just started his own business and wasn't a household name.
"I'm trying to stay humble and grounded but I feel we did a good job and met the goals and have exceeded the goals. The feedback has been really positive."
Wilczynski's career began on the ground level with Hills' company.
He grew up in Blissfield just north of the Ohio border and his dad, Mike, was a golf course superintendent in Ohio before changing directions and going into business selling irrigation pump stations to golf courses. Mike Wilczynski became acquainted with Hills and helped Chris land a job with him at age 17.
Chris did a little bit of everything – running errands, taking Hills' car to get an oil change or car wash, burning trash – while slowly moving up the ranks before becoming a partner.
The funny thing is, he wasn't much of a golfer as a kid but he plays at least a couple of times a week now.
"A lot of the guys I used to work with in Art's office were golfers," Wilczynski said. "But that was not me. I grew up on a farm. I had a love for the outdoors. I was very artistic. When I started working there, I wanted to be an architect actually, a building architect, and I just kind of fell in love with it.
"I ended up studying landscape architecture at Michigan State. It was a perfect degree for what my background was, growing up on a farm and loving the outdoors. I kind of fell in love with it and then the golf thing was really cool. I fell in love with it and started playing golf and fell in love with the game."
The Esplanade courses have gotten rave reviews on GolfAdvisor.com from players.
The first Esplanade course opened in February at Lakewood Ranch – just north of Naples – and received 4 stars based on the player reviews. It measures 6,756 yards from the back tees. The Naples course opened in March and received an average rating of 4½ stars. It plays 6,983 yards from the tips.
Wilczynski said construction of the courses took about 10 months and that it was a little more than two years from the time planning began until they opened. He made about 40 visits to each course during construction.
Both are open to the public.
"The last 3-4 months of construction of both courses, I was making weekly visits," Wilczynski said. "It's really about the details to me. It's about overseeing the green surfaces and making sure we get them right and the bunkering and detailing of the bunkers and the tees and alignment of the tees.
"I did all the landscaping. We did about $1 million worth of landscaping on both courses and I personally flagged every tree, every bush, for the landscaping. It was very, very hands on. That's how I like to do it. To me it's like a reflection of me in the end and I take a lot of pride in that."
Wilczynski said he's hoping the exposure from making the Golf Digest list will lead to additional projects but the courses are still so new that hasn't happened yet.
But he said he's been selected to design Michigan State's new indoor practice facility, is bidding on a couple of other jobs, has done some work at Egypt Valley – former home of a Champions Tour event – and renovated the 17th hole at Forest Lakes Country Club in Bloomfield Hills.