Naturally, you must play golf on Florida's Nature Coast

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Do you want to incorporate some hiking, boating, fishing and wildlife viewing in your next Florida golf experience?

Head to the Nature Coast, the aptly named, less-traveled region on the upper western coast of the state brimming with almost 400 freshwater springs, dense hardwood forests, marshlands, rolling hills and pristine Gulf of Mexico waters.

For golfers, the menu includes layouts designed by architects like Tom Fazio, John Sanford and Mark Mahannah in a variety of resort, daily-fee and residential community settings.

Excellent recreation options off the course are available on the Nature Coast, which is approximately a 90-minute drive north of Tampa and is often called the Big Bend.

The area's main attractions include Crystal River (home to the greatest concentration of manatees in Florida), Homosassa Springs (where you can see live mermaid shows), Dunnellon (with its 100-year-old historic homes) and Cedar Key (a quaint, historic fishing village on the Gulf of Mexico).

Golf in Brooksville

Let's face it, this laid-back little town doesn't immediately spring to mind when the conversation is great Florida golf courses.

That said, you'd be amazed at the award-winning golf possibilities in Brooksville.

Just about every major golf publication and Web site rates World Woods Golf Club as one of Florida's top 10 golf courses, and it also appears on many top 100 course lists in the U.S.

You have your choice of two Fazio designs at World Woods, which debuted in 1993: Pine Barrens, a visually stunning layout sculpted through an expansive pine forest with dramatic changes in elevation and creative waste bunkering, evokes a Pine Valley in New Jersey feel. World Woods' Rolling Oaks Course has a distinctly different ambiance with giant oak trees draped with Spanish moss and bleached white-sand bunkers.

The practice facilities at World Woods are equally impressive with a sprawling, circular, 20-acre driving range with grass teeing stations on four sides and three practice holes.

If you like Rolling Oaks, you'll also enjoy Hernando Oaks Golf & Country Club, a Brooksville daily-fee layout designed by Scott Pate (the brother of U.S. Open champion Jerry Pate), where picturesque giant oak trees draped with Spanish moss and native grass areas offer challenge and beauty on every hole.

Brooksville Country Club touts itself as 'a little hard to find but impossible to forget.' This 18-hole layout has a traditional tree-lined front nine followed by a Bobby Weed-designed back nine that has several holes framed by the sheer rock walls of an abandoned limestone mine.

If you want more play amid deep rock quarries, try the newly renovated Quarry Golf Course, a scenic nine-hole executive layout with seven par-3 holes and two par 4s. It's inexpensive and there's also a driving range and batting cage.

Golf in Crystal River

The venerable Plantation Inn & Golf Resort, with its white columned inn set on 232 acres of lush preserve land, conjures up images of southern hospitality and friendliness, and that's just what you get along with some excellent golf and superb diving and fishing opportunities.

A host for several North Florida PGA events over the years, the Mahannah-designed Championship Course at Plantation Inn weaves around dozens of natural lakes and loblolly pines. There's also a short Lagoons nine-hole course that is ideal for juniors and novices, as well as low-handicappers who want to sharpen their iron games.

A longtime favorite in Crystal River is Seven Rivers Golf & Country Club, a William Amick design that opened in 1968.

For those with member connections, the celebrated private Black Diamond Ranch in nearby Lecanto is home to 45 holes of Fazio-designed golf fashioned around abandoned limestone quarries and hilly terrain.

Golf in Dunnellon

Fifteen miles northeast of Crystal River is the town of Dunnellon, where the Rainbow River merges with the Withlacoochee River. Golf is an important component in recreation offerings here, which include snorkeling, canoeing and hiking at Rainbow Springs State Park.

Jupiter, Fla.-based course architect Sanford is the designer of Juliette Falls, a classic parkland layout dotted with large, mature oak trees and high-profile features such as four waterfalls and waste bunkers with crushed white coquina shells peppered with wire grasses and shrubbery. Accented with some significant elevation changes, Juliette Falls is an excellent inland Florida golf experience.

Remindful of tree-laden North Carolina layouts, Citrus Springs Golf & Country Club has rolling terrain, oak tree-lined fairways and several elevated tees.

If you're tired of hitting shots in the wet stuff, play Rainbow Springs Golf & Country Club, a Joe Lee design with lots of mature trees, well-placed bunkers and no water hazards.

Golf in Inverness

Forget the flat Florida golf course stereotype with the Inverness Golf & Country Club, which has naturally hilly terrain, mature tree growth and attractive landscaping with shrubs and colorful flowers.