Naples golf: The Rookery at Marco offers a natural setting near the 10,000 Islands

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

NAPLES, Fla. — The Rookery at Marco is a terrific setting for a golf course, even when the developers decided to move in and build a big, upscale development. Imagine playing golf perched on the edge of the 10,000 islands, a long tee shot away from where the first of those 10,000 — Marco Island — sits here on the southwest edge of Florida.

Marco Island
The Rookery near Marco Island is perched on the edge of the 10,000 Islands.
Marco IslandThe RookeryThe Rookery at Marco
If you go

The vast expanse of the southwest part of the state makes itself known via the wide marsh views and the many swamp critters that haven't yet learned to pay resort green fees — the place is crazy with hawks swooping around and it isn't unusual for their shadows to pass over as you traipse around the course.

On a recent outing, my playing partner spotted one with what appeared to be a baby alligator snared in its talons. In the interconnected canals, you're liable to see anything that swims or crawls in this swampy part of the world.

The course does its setting justice, letting its surroundings speak for itself.

The Rookery is a beautiful, low-key layout, with wild, native grasses like Fakahatchee and fountain grass set off by muelhi, which shows a purplish-pink flower in the fall, yellow "dune daisies" and the brilliant red of firecracker weed. The watery interior of the course is open, with sabal palms dotted throughout the terrain.

"It's inside an upscale development, but at the same time it's got a very natural feel," Rookery general Manager Chris Major said.

The course was originally designed by Joe Lee. When the Fiddlers Creek developers came in with their bulldozers, taking out forests and filling in wetlands, the Rookery decided to make changes, with Robert Cupp handling the re-design.

They shut down for a year in 2002 and re-did almost everything but the routing. They re-created some of the wetlands by converting about 40 acres of the 185 acres of turf back into wetlands. There are 45 acres of lakes in all, coming into play on 15 holes.

Those wetlands are ubiquitous around the course, though most of the water is lateral and you never face a substantial water carry off the tees, unless you want to go for broke on a couple of the more outrageous risk-reward holes.

The Verdict

The golf course itself can be a challenge, especially those risk-reward holes: like No. 7, which requires a Tiger-like drive to get over, No. 9, a mid-length par 5 with scant landing area past the lake, and No. 13, a long, narrow par 4 with water all down the left.

The architects aren't beneath a little visual trickery. No. 17 has a bunker that looks like it's right in front of the green. Come to find out you've got 30 yards to work with.

No. 18 is a fine closing hole, virtually surrounded by water. You tee off to a landing area surrounded by water, then it's back over water again to the green.

The greens are big and receptive, with good slope. There's not much undulation and the conditioning throughout, even in blistering August, was excellent.

The club will probably have its new clubhouse in place by the time you read this. The old one had an "Old Florida" feel and "stuck out like a sore thumb," according to Major.

Stay and play

The Marco Island Marriot Resort Golf Club and Spa is about as far as you can go in southwest Florida and live in luxury before you hit the wildness of the 10,000 Islands.

It is a gorgeous setting, built almost on top of the Gulf of Mexico before they started prohibiting building so close to the warm waters. Therefore, the beach is huge and ends right in the emerald green Gulf.

The resort has several restaurants, golf, spa meeting facilities and every activity under the sun and in the water, like fishing, volleyball, two pools and more. If you can't relax here, throw away your Blackberry.

Greenlinks is Naples' only luxury condo resort right on the course, where you can watch the golfers on fairways and greens and the alligators in the lakes and ponds. Don't even think about feeding them — the alligators that is. The condos are big and roomy, with full kitchens and laundry facilities and there's a pool, Jacuzzi and barbecue area behind the excellent clubhouse.

La Playa Beach and Golf Resort is one of the best-known in Naples, a grand resort that looms high over the Gulf, where you can look right down on the snorkelers making their way through water so clear you can see whatever happens to be swimming through. It's right next to Vanderbilt Bay.

There's an excellent restaurant, Balleen's — "serious food with a whimsical mood" is their motto — as well as a spa and a host of other stuff to make you feel rich and spoiled. The resort has won a number of deserved awards, like inclusion in Conde Naste Traveler's top 100 golf resorts for 2006.

Naples Grande Resort and Club is a newly designed, modern resort looking out over the Gulf, about a half-mile from the beach itself, with shuttles running back and forth to get you all sandy and wet. It's built on 23 acres and overlooks the mangrove swamps that serve as a buffer for Gulf storms.

They've finished a multi-million dollar renovation and are in the middle of expanding even further, redesigning the old Registry Resort and Club into a more modern motif. Plans call for a new spa directly beside the lobby. Its sister property, the Edgewater, a few miles down the road and truly right on the Gulf, is also getting a makeover.

The Ritz-Carlton name has been synonymous with luxury for decades and the Naples golf resort does nothing to tarnish that image. It's a beautiful resort, from the time you turn into the palm-lined entrance. It's a little more casual than in years past, but they still have the blue crystal and cut flowers.

The property recently underwent a $22 million renovation, updating every room and including wood floors in the foyers , flat-screen LCD televisions and sleeper chairs. You're so pampered here you feel guilty. The pool area has personal cabanas have their own refrigerators and TVs.

Dining out

Greenlinks has the Flamingo Island Grille and Lounge with appetizers, sandwiches and pizza for lunch, as well as a dinner menu serving dishes like honey pecan chicken and cedar plank salmon. There are also a number of restaurants nearby, like Alexander's, Andre's Steakhouse, Watermark Grill and Pippin's.

The Naples Grande has a number of restaurants and will soon built the Strip House, with an all-red interior and which will serve dishes like Colorado lamb rack, Maine lobster and sesame-crusted tuna.

The Lemonia at the Ritz is a Tuscan restaurant, where you can eat indoors or on the outside patio that overlooks the golf course: man, you've got to try the salmon and their desserts. There is also the Bella Vista Lobby Lounge, poolside grill and a coffee shop. Downtown restaurants are nearby.

Fast Fact

The Nick Faldo Institute is located at the Rookery, teaching you golf Nick's way. Seek out Bryan Berryman: he's a patient instructor who can spot your flaws and fix them.

Tim McDonaldTim McDonald, Contributor

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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