Raptor Bay is a virtual sanctuary

By Derek Duncan, Contributor

Raptor Bay Golf ClubBONITA SPRINGS, Fla. -- If you're a golf course it's easy to get lost in a town like Naples.

Between Marco Island and Bonita Beach to the north, the greater Naples area supports more than 100 golf courses. The sheer number of playing options is roughly as overwhelming as the range of architectural variety is under-whelming -- South Florida is notoriously flat, breezy, and overrun with wet vegetation, and so are most of its golf courses.

Simply being a solid, finely manicured course -- a description the fits roughly 90 percent of the courses -- is rarely enough to compete in the homogenized marketplace. To garner attention something more notable is required, which is why Raptor Bay, a WCI Communities owned course located 25 minutes north of downtown Naples in Bonita Springs, is one of the area's recognizable attractions.

Aside from being a solid, finely manicured course, Raptor Bay is a unique design. The setting amid scrubby wetlands and lakes is little different than many nearby courses, but the planners and architects handled the site a little differently. Rather than attempting to fight and permit their way around the property, they instead embraced both it and its accompanying wildlife.

WCI and Hyatt Equities, which operates a 456-room resort near Raptor Bay, along with the design team of Ray Floyd, routed the course gingerly through the omnipresent hammocks, palmettos, and wetland preserves, taking care to coddle everything growing and breathing to the extent that it's now a virtual sanctuary.

Raptor Bay Golf Club"The design and best management practices put in place at Raptor Bay will guarantee that the experience of both the golfer and the wildlife will be top quality in all regards," said Ronald Dodson, Audubon International President and CEO, whose organization awarded the club with Gold Certification. "Raptor Bay will.provide a home to bald eagle, gopher tortoise and other rare species of plants and animals." Its two nines are appropriately dubbed Hawk and Osprey (a planned third nine, Eagle, is currently on hold).

Still, Raptor Bay isn't the only course in the region to achieve brotherhood with its environment, although it may be the most consistent and minimally designed course in the Naples kingdom. It's certainly the only one without formalized bunkers.

The operative word here is formalized -- there is "sand" at Raptor Bay in the form of long, flat cart path/waste areas flanking fairways and greens, but no strategically placed bunkers, so to speak.

The un-standard approach serves several purposes, some intentional and others possibly tangential.

Raptor Bay Golf ClubFirst, as a resort course to the Hyatt the absence of bunkering -- and rakes -- speeds the pace of play and means the course is more forgiving (Raptor Bay isn't toothless; water infests 22 acres and 14 holes). Secondly it adds an element of integrity and repose to a setting where no sand bunkers would occur naturally (traditional sand bunkers are natural to virtually no setting, but that's another matter). Third, the cost of bunker and cart path maintenance is reduced because the crushed shell waste areas serve as both.

Raptor Bay's most striking feature is the broad, endlessly expanding fairways that flow into the greens, and the visual discrepancy between where the smooth fairways end and the greens begin is arguably the course's most important playing obstacle. With nothing in the foreground for definition, and no bunkers to aim at, the player is constantly questioning depth perception. Shotmaking becomes an exercise in both trust (of the yardage) as well as execution.

The Hawk nine's three par-3s provide the best examples of the illusory tricks. The front of the green at the second, an uncomfortable mid-iron shot across a corner of water and a waste, is indistinguishable from the fairway making the hole seem shorter than it is. The fourth green is elevated just enough so that the only target to play to is a bottomless flag, this time making it seem longer. A series of bumps and rolls prior to the low sixth green similarly obfuscate distance to the putting surface.

Raptor Bay Golf ClubSuch mind play is either stimulating or maddening depending on your view, especially when the results of approach shots are seldom revealed the green is reached. Either way it's a departure from the highly framed, back-to-front, hand-held visual style of architecture predominate to the region.

Floyd's firm should be complimented for the bravery of designing Raptor Bay in this manner; they easily could have cooked up another water and wetlands style of design that's been done ad nauseam in South Florida. A lot of architects talk minimalism, but at Raptor Bay, by primarily using existing water hazards, building no containment mounds, and resisting the urge to dress-up any holes, Floyd walked it.

Certainly such a bare, low-profile design is not going to go without critics. The lack of fairway bunkers or even the serious threat of the waste areas affecting driving decisions means Raptor Bay a fearless driving course. And without the aid of distinctive bunkering the threat of one hole seeming like the next is great. Yet what it lacks off the tee it makes up for around the green and in the approach shots, especially when the trade winds are blowing (13 of 18 holes are situated more or less on a north/south axis), and what it lacks in diversity it amends in unrelenting playability.

In fact, the more the wind blows that better Raptor Bay becomes. Very few American courses, especially in Florida, allow the player to adapt to or play under the wind. Raptor Bay is an excellent wind course. All the greens can be accessed from the ground, most joyously at Hawk's first, third, and ninth where waste areas tickle the direct line, and at Osprey's par-4 seventh with its big boomerang green. Distance control, trajectory, and chipping and pitching from the roughless green surrounds are the key to scoring.

Maintaining a firm course in southwest Florida is a challenge, but in a stiff wind Raptor Bay has more in common with British seaside courses than dozens of others that market themselves as "links style." That alone sets it apart.

Vitals

Opened: 2001
Architect: Ray Floyd Design
Par: Hawk-35, Osprey-36
Yardage: 5,217-6,702

Where to stay

The Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort, (239) 444-1234, is adjacent to Raptor Bay, serving as the backdrop to the Osprey nine's fifth hole. Another alternative is The Inn at Pelican Bay, (239) 597-8777, in north Naples, 20 minutes south of the course. Guests at both hotels, and at any WCI Community property, have access to Raptor Bay tee times.

Derek DuncanDerek Duncan, Contributor

Derek Duncan's writing has appeared in TravelGolf.com, FloridaGolf.com, OrlandoGolf.com, GulfCoastGolf.com, LINKS Magazine and more. He lives in Atlanta with his wife Cynthia and is a graduate of the University of Colorado with interests in wine, literary fiction, and golf course architecture.


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