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Raptor Bay Golf Club near Naples: Enjoy nature while taking on devilish greens

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CROMWELL, CT - JUNE 25: Ryuji Imada of Japan hits a shot from the fairway during the second round of the Travelers Championship held at TPC River Highlands on June 25, 2010 in Cromwell, Connecticut. (Photo by Michael Cohen/Getty Images)  - 

BONITA SPRINGS, Fla. -- As you play Raptor Bay Golf Club, take time to soak up the melodies of bird calls, the waving grasses and the rippling waters of this Audubon International Gold Certified Sanctuary course.

It's a beauty.

Designed by Raymond Floyd, there are two nines, Hawk and Osprey with a third nine, Eagle, to be added later.

Developed by WCI Communities and Hyatt Hotels, Raptor Bay is set within Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort and Spa's 500 acre-site overlooking the Estero Bay Aquatic Preserve. In building the golf course, 25 acres of wetlands were restored and valuable wildlife habitats were preserved.

Driving clackety clack over a wood plank bridge with wetlands, tall grasses, palmettos and scraggly oaks on either side, you arrive at the first tee where a white heron is perched at water's edge. Clumps of yellow daisy-like flowers grow out of carpets of pine needles all the way around, and you're sure to see a cormorant spreading its wings to dry. You might even spot a bald eagle.

Raptor Bay may play but 6,400 to 4,564 yards with wide landing areas, few carries and no bunkers, but don't let that fool you. Difficulty lies in the green complexes featuring very tricky, fast and roly-poly putting surfaces. Many have false fronts and slope off the back or sides, so even if you nail your approach shot, hold your breath: There's no guarantee you'll stick. Still, there are several bailout areas around the greens.

The tall towers of the Hyatt peek through trees on many holes or loom straight ahead, as on hole no. 8, but there are no neighborhoods to distract. Everywhere you look, there is water, although it doesn't seem to come into play much except from the back tees such as on Hawk no. 8 and Osprey no. 3.

And on Osprey no. 5, a par 4, you'll need to carry a pond to reach the green on your second shot. Jim Birrell, vacationing from Minnesota, announced, 'This is the gator hole.' Perhaps, but this time the gator was MIA ... or scooping up two errant balls that failed to reach safety.

To score well, you'll need to putt well, stay on course, deftly execute your approach shots and stay out of Raptor's long, sweeping, sandy waste areas. Sure you can ground your club in them, drive in them and chip out of them, but you can get into trouble in them as well and beware: The ground tends to be hard, the sand grainy and sprinkled with a confetti of shells.

The par 3s are pretty and well designed but not overly long. The longest (Osprey no. 4) plays at 184 yards, while none from the forward tees are more than 108 yards. Only Osprey no. 4 asks you to carry over water from all tees.

'Women enjoy Raptor a lot,' said Ed Weber, director of golf and general manager. 'There aren't a lot of forced carries from the forward tees but for those who want more of a challenge, they can move back to the orange or golds.'

Ernest Hemingway would be right at home cozying up to the bar in Braxton's Grill in the old Florida-style clubhouse, while today's guests will appreciate the first-rate locker rooms and pubic areas furnished with West Indies-inspired, wood-carved furniture and art work such as elephants and palms.

Guests staying at the 454-room Hyatt receive preferred green fee rates and ask about the Let's Play 9 golf option for reduced fees and late afternoon play.

Raptor Bay Golf Club: The verdict

This immaculately maintained golf course is a joy to play and one you will want to come back to more than once, and with seven sets of tees, Raptor is playable for all levels.

'I've played it several times,' said Doug Pinckney, a four-handicapper from Skaneateles, N.Y. 'It's one of my favorite courses, always in great shape and with plenty of fun in store, especially from the blacks.'