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Golf capital of the world? Naples, Florida is rich with courses

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NAPLES, Fla. -- Any place that proclaims itself the 'Golf Capital of the World' will have some backing up to do.

From mid-January to early April, golfers won't find too many places on the continent with a better combination of sun and sand (bunker and beach) than Naples. During high season, tees sheets can be packed until mid-afternoon, traffic up and down Tamiami Drive (U.S. 41) thickens and many restaurants require reservations. It certainly lives up to its nickname during that time of year.

Naples, a city of roughly 22,000 people, has the second-most golf holes per capita than any other community in the country. Dozens upon dozens of golf courses stack up from one gated community to another, stretching from Estero and Bonita Springs into Naples. Collier County, where Naples resides, offers more than 70 golf courses alone. The recession hit the region particularly hard, but the local golf scene seems to be on a slight upswing.

The poster child for the comeback has to be the rebirth of TwinEagles. The 36-hole club shuttered for a period in 2010, but new owners, the Ronto Group, are working to revive the place. They hired architect Steve Smyers to transform the former Aerie Course into the new Eagle Course, which will host the CME Group Titleholders, the season finale of the LPGA Tour, in November. In February, the club's Talon Course, designed by Jack Nicklaus and his son, Jack II, hosted the 2012 ACE Group Classic, a Champions Tour event held there previously from 2002-06.

Where to play golf in Naples

The Gold Course at the 36-hole Tiburon Golf Club hosts the Franklin Templeton Shootout (aka the Shark Shootout), a silly season event for PGA Tour pros every December. Naples Grande Golf Club is a Rees Jones design affiliated with the Waldorf Astoria Naples. The layout climaxes with several holes along a 30-acre lake on the back nine.

Architect Gordon Lewis remains a household name in southwest Florida. He designed the Spanish Wells Golf and Country Club, a private club in Bonita Springs; the 7,314-yard Stoneybrook Golf Course in Estero (with Jed Azinger) and Panther Run Golf Club in Ave Maria, a playable Troon Golf-managed course with great greens 30 minutes inland from Naples.

Old Corkscrew Golf Club in Estero and the TPC Treviso Bay in Naples play as the region's toughest bullies. They're both on gorgeous natural sites without houses to interrupt the view. They're ball-gobbling beasts that are still a treat to play. Treviso Bay, which hosted the 2009 ACE Group Classic before financial troubles hit, was designed by Hal Sutton and Arthur Hills, who earned the nickname 'the Mayor of Naples' for all his work in the area.

Bonita Bay East showcases 36 holes of Tom Fazio golf with the Sabal Course and Cypress Course. Valencia Golf & Country Club boasts a nice reputation, too.

Where to stay in Naples

The Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club, the only beachfront hotel with a golf course on site in Naples, has undergone roughly $55 million worth of renovations since 2000. The renovation of all 317 guest rooms and suites and the addition of a new pool complex have created more comforts for guests.

Naples is the only golf destination with two Ritz-Carlton properties: The 295-room, Mediterranean-themed Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort, Naples next to Tiburon and the Ritz-Carlton Beach Resort, a high-rise with 450 rooms three miles away. The beachfront property boasts a much larger pool scene and three miles of beach on the Gulf of Mexico.

The Waldorf Astoria Naples and the Edgewater Beach Hotel have undergone extensive transformations in recent years. The Waldorf, formerly known as The Registry Resort & Club from 1986-2006 and the Naples Grande Beach Resort for several more years, received a multimillion-dollar renovation during rebranding. New are the modern lobby, Strip House steakhouse, Golden Door Spa, 474 retooled guest rooms and 50 refurbished Bungalow suites.

The LaPlaya Beach & Golf Resort in Naples and the Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort & Spa in Bonita Springs offer golf packages as well. The Lely Resort Golf & Country Club boasts two courses and on-site vacation homes and condos.

Naples dining

If golf is the No. 1 sport in Naples, then dining out is a close second. Restaurants and bars line U.S. 41. Comparing the best restaurants is like comparing the best golf courses: Everybody has a different opinion.

You might be pointed toward Bonefish Grill or Pincher's Crab Shack for seafood. Chops City Grille and Ruth's Chris Steakhouse compete for top steakhouse honors at Coconut Point in Estero (Chops has another location in downtown Naples, as does Bonefish).

Seasons 52 in North Naples serves wonderfully fresh healthy meals, bookended by treats: flatbread pizzas as appetizers and mini-deserts in large shot glasses after the main course. A handful of independent establishments have banded together to form Naples Originals, a marketing alliance filled with great places throughout the area.

Naples off course

There's a whole new game in town, just north of Estero. Featuring a replica of the famous Green Monster, the JetBlue Park at Fenway in Fort Myers began hosting the Boston Red Sox for spring training this season.

The waters of the Gulf of Mexico that lap the sandy shores along Naples are perfect for swimming, fishing and boating. Naples is less than two hours from the heart of the Everglades National Park, where swamp boat rides and alligator tours rule.

Families can try the Naples Zoo, a community staple since 1919, or a round of miniature golf. Professional spenders gravitate to shopping districts like Fifth Avenue and the Gallery Row in downtown Naples, nearby Tin City or Coconut Point, a massive outdoor center in Estero.