It’s not like anybody important ever won a golf tournament at Bent Tree Country Club.
Just a bunch of nobodies like Kathy Whitworth, Judy Rankin, Jo Ann Carner, Amy Alcott, Beth Daniel, Patty Sheehan and some upstart by the name of Nancy Lopez, who bookended her career with wins at Bent Tree in 1978 and 1987.
It was called the Bent Tree Classic back in the day, and for 12 years the best players in women’s professional golf made the trek here to play in what many proclaimed to be one of their favorite tournaments on one of their favorite courses.
I was not the only male golfer to discover that his game improved dramatically for a week or two after watching the ladies negotiate Bent Tree. The women pros rely on tempo, balance and solid contact to generate their power, all things the average (or even better-than-average) male players would do well to emulate. (An exception to this was Jo Ann Carner, who was sort of the female equivalent of John Daly in her day. Carner left nothing in the bag—including her cigarettes—and was a fan favorite before Nancy Lopez became, well, Nancy Lopez.)
It doesn’t seem like 21 years since Bent Tree hosted its last Classic. Given the economy, it’s unlikely that professional golf—men’s or women’s—will return to the Sarasota area anytime soon. But you can rekindle your memories by revisiting Bent Tree (it’s open to the public for the time being) and trying to duplicate some of the shots made by the great LPGA stars of yesteryear.
The best tournament courses have great finishing holes, and Bent Tree is no exception. Hole numbers 16, 17 and 18 are called the Coffin Corner by the members, quite possibly because they are the holes where good rounds go to die. I’ve played Bent Tree probably 50 times, and I still haven’t figured out No. 16. It’s the shortest of the par fours, measuring only 317 yards from the black tees. That’s about the only thing you know for sure about this hole; everything else is a guessing game.
I’ve seen people hit everything from a seven-iron to a driver off the tee. I’ve seen people try to take it over the (surprisingly tall) trees on the right. I’ve seen people try to fade it around the trees. I’ve seen people try to lay up short in the fairway and wind up in the creek at the end of the fairway or blocked out by the trees. If you do manage to have a clear second shot, you’ve got to clear a creek in front of the green. The green itself is three-tiered and slopes severely from back to front. Out-of-bounds stakes are just one bad hop away to the left. Other than that, it’s a pretty easy birdie hole.
Seventeen, a short par three of only 132 yards from the black tees, looks benign but somehow finds a way to wreak havoc. Your tee shot is through a narrow chute of trees, and wide bunkers protect the front of the green. The green is not the biggest of targets, either, and you often find yourself chipping from an awkward lie to the right or left of the green. It’s a good hole to make a 2 on. Or a 5.
The 18th is the signature hole. The grandstands around the green were always filled on Sunday afternoons when the Classic came to town, and fans seldom had to wait long for something dramatic to happen. A par-five of 469 yards from the black tees, the 18th is a classic risk/reward finishing hole. Big hitters can try to take it over the lake to the right, leaving themselves a middle-iron to the green, assuming their ball doesn’t nestle behind a palm tree or dribble into the creek. More conservative players hit it about 200 yards down the middle of the fairway, but their second shot has to steer clear of the big lake that runs down the left side. This is another big, multi-tiered green that invites three-putts and squandered championships. It was fabulous theater, at least from the fans’ perspective.
Bent Tree Country Club opened in 1975, and except for a redesign of the greens in 1994, the course has changed little over the years. The layout makes it ideal for walkers; head pro Doug Mochrie estimates that 30 percent of the players either tote their bags or pull a cart.
Bent Tree is an "old school" kind of golf course. You won’t find any railroad ties or enormous waste bunkers or island greens that have become the trademarks of newer, pricier courses. From the backmost tees, the course plays 6,880 yards, short by today’s standards but more than long enough for the average player. And that probably sums up Bent Tree: It’s one of the nicest courses in the area built with the average player in mind.
Which brings us to how the course got its name "Bent Tree." Mochrie said there wasn’t one particular bent tree that inspired the course’s logo, just a bunch of old oak trees growing this way and that. He suggested that the course should be renamed "Bent Trees," but somehow that seems like too much change after all these years.
A former reporter for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, David Grimes has won a number of awards for his columns and is the author of several books. An avid golfer, he’s now writing this new monthly column for us and a humorous blog, "Father Grimes," at sarasotamagazine.com.
What: country club Grimes calls the shots. Bent Tree Country Club Where: 4700 Bent Tree Blvd., off Bee Ridge Road about three miles east of I-75. Phone: For tee times, call (941) 371-8200. Mind-bender No. 1: Try to figure out which bent tree is the real Bent Tree. There’s a little one by the practice putting green that the club management likes to tout, but you’ll find better candidates yourself. Mind-bender No. 2: Arguably the best Bloody Mary in all of Sarasota County. We haven’t tasted them all, but by golly, we’ve tried. Get fit: If you don’t think golf is exercise, try toting your own bag for 18 holes. The long view: The picture window in the restaurant offers a great overview of the course. A Bloody Mary or two only deepens your appreciation.