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A Ferocious Golf Course In the Dominican Republic

Jeff Williams
From the Print Edition:
Chuck Norris, Jul/Aug 98

Published July/August 1998

In the Teeth of the Dog Devout Duffers Pay Homage to the Dominican Course with the Canine Bite

By Jeff Williams

Mr. Dog emerges from the murky shadows of the caddie barn, a big plastic cup of coffee in hand and an enormous smile across his face. It is 6:45 in the a.m. and the light is just beginning to gather on the southeast coast of the Dominican Republic.

Armed with the coffee and the smile, Mr. Dog is about to preside over another gathering, this one of golfers. At least 20 are already on hand, some hitting balls on the range, others putting on the practice green. Some 40 others are at the nearby restaurant eating the hearty buffet breakfast, steeling themselves for the impending battle. The air of anticipation is thicker than the pancake syrup.

"Marco, am I OK to go off the back nine in that group at 7:36?" calls a man with a faint Boston accent.

"Yes sir, Mr. Bob, you are," replies Mr. Dog, who has yet to take his place in the starter's shack. "Have you got your ticket yet?"

"No, the pro shop wasn't open when I passed by. I'll get it, quick."

"Don't worry, I've got a spot for you. Just make sure you've got the ticket to give to the ranger."

It's the first of hundreds of exchanges that Mr. Dog will have with this day's gathering of golfers at the golf courses of Casa de Campo, the megaresort of the Dominican

Republic and the soul of golf in the Caribbean. "They come from everywhere and they all want to go off first," says Mr. Dog. think some of them would play in the dark if they could as long as they were the first off."

Marcos Troncoso, a.k.a. Mr. Dog, is the starter for Casa de Campo's Teeth of the Dog course. From his starter's shack (you might say it's a pulpit), Troncoso makes order of each morning's chaos as golfers from all over the world gather to play the Teeth of the Dog and its companion course, The Links. The majority of these golfers have made many previous pilgrimages to play the Teeth of the Dog. One loop around the course and it has sunk its canines deep into the golf psyche. When this dog gets ahold of you, there's no letting go.

To the cognoscenti of the golf world, the Teeth of the Dog is a grail, one as worthy of a crusade as St. Andrews or Pebble Beach or Augusta National. It is both test and treat. It is Beauty and the Beast all in one.

"It's pretty darn good, isn't it?" says Pete Dye, the designer of the course, who claims he was only a helper. "God made it. I just planted some grass."

While Dye's homespun humor contains a bit of understatement, there's no overstating the tropical beauty that forms the aesthetic for the Teeth of the Dog. Few ocean-hugging golf courses can match or exceed the natural splendor of this stretch of Dominican coast.

Dye was brought to the Dominican Republic in 1968 to look at a site for a resort and courses near the capital of Santo Domingo. Alvaro Carta, a Cuban expatriate and the managing director of the huge sugar mill at La Romana, was looking to spend some of the company's profits on a new resort that would feature top-notch golf courses. Dye was not enthused by the site, which lacked an adequate source of water. After considering the Santo Domingo site for a year, Dye inquired about possible alternatives. Carta mentioned that the La Romana mill had thousands of acres nearby that were no good for growing sugarcane or grazing cattle but were located right on the Caribbean Sea. "Boy, I knew the minute I saw that land that we could do a special course," says Dye. "Some places are meant to play golf and Casa de Campo is one of them."

Some sites are also intended for certain course designers. Of all the places on earth, the one meant for Pete Dye is Casa de Campo. He has designed and built each of the resort's three courses, The Dog, The Links and a private course, the La Romana Country Club. He is working on a fourth course that will overlook the Chavon River and the Caribbean and should be open in late 1999. He plans a fifth course when the River Course is complete. "I just love the damn place," says Dye, whose modest bungalow with its thatched roof sits near the seventh tee of the Dog with a commanding view of the Caribbean. "The people have been awfully nice to me. It was the Dominicans who built this course, virtually by hand. It's got a lot of their soul in it."

In a way, the Dominican workers gave the course its unusual name. The limestone on which the course was built was covered with jagged fingers of coral that had to be smoothed out before topsoil could be laid down. The Dominicans called these fingers diente de perro--teeth of the dog--and Dye latched on to the name. The name honors the men who built it, who used pickaxes and sledgehammers to break off the coral teeth, who drove the ox carts filled with cachaza--the sugarcane pulp that became the key ingredient in the composted topsoil that includes sand and red dirt mined a mile from the course.

This handmade quality is apparent, and very appealing. Huge bulldozers didn't push the soil around here or create unnatural shapes that are inconsistent with the topography. The only heavy equipment available to Dye came from the sugar mill, which had a small dozer and some tractors. Like most of the great courses of the world, Teeth of the Dog is coaxed from the land, not wrenched from it.

In coaxing The Dog from the the Dominican landscape, Dye produced a course that became ground zero for the explosion of the Casa de Campo resort. Encompassing more than 7,000 acres, Casa de Campo is one of the world's finest recreational facilities and surely one of the most complete. With tennis, equestrian and shooting centers, a small but lovely beach and Altos de Chavon, the re-creation of an old Mediterranean village that houses restaurants, shops, galleries and a 5,000-seat ampitheater, Casa de Campo has enough activities to keep everyone busy, if not thoroughly exhausted, until night's end.

You are introduced to the Teeth of the Dog as you touch down at the La Romana airport strip. The tiny airport is within Casa de Campo and the strip itself runs through three of the holes on the Teeth of the Dog. At the risk of annoying the immigration officers, you could walk the 150 yards from your plane--dodging the big private Gulfstreams and Challengers and Falcons roosting there--right up to the 12th tee. Just bring a driver, an iron and a putter and let it rip. "I hate that airport," says Dye. "Thank God it won't be there in a couple of years." A new airport is being built a few miles away, but still on resort property.

The second introduction to Casa de Campo, if you are lucky enough, is to meet director of golf Gilles Gagnon. If his name sounds like a French-Canadian hockey player's, that's because he is a French-Canadian with minor league hockey experience. He is the major domo of Casa de Campo golf, the man who ultimately controls every phase of the golf operation--a task he performs with an international élan. He may be speaking Spanish one moment, English the next, French the next, Italian the next. "I'm telling you, he keeps the whole thing running," says Dye. "I think I'd quit coming here if Gilles ever left."

With Casa de Campo's expanding presence on the international golf scene, rounds of golf played there have increased markedly over the last decade, to 100,000 rounds a year. It might very well qualify as the Caribbean's first golf mill. "Yes, it's become a bit of a golf factory," says Gagnon. "But we think it is a friendly golf factory. We make it a point to try to know everyone who plays here. You may not be able to remember every name, but we try to remember the faces and make them feel like they are familiar to us. It makes them feel like they are at their own club."

Gagnon recalls a player who challenged his powers of recollection. "'You don't remember me, do you,' said the golfer.

"I don't remember your name, but the last time you were here you had a moustache and wore glasses."

With that, the man sat down hard on a chair in Gagnon's office, stunned that the director of golf at a resort so large and popular could possibly have recalled someone from five years earlier who had markedly changed his appearance. "That's an example" says Gagnon, "of how we try to remember something about everybody."

The next point of contact, and in a practical sense the most important, is with Mr. Dog at the starter's shack. Or, if you are playing The Links course, then it's with Mr. Links, Victor Berroa. Mr. Dog has the uncanny ability to be familiar with people he has never met, and remains unflustered by the barrage of questions, requests and demands that could make five hours of incoming mortar fire seem placid by comparison. In the high season, which lasts from mid-October to mid-April, playing The Dog is a matter of advance reservation or immediate negotiation. It matters little to the obsessed that the reservation book is full for the day or the week. There are always chances to play, no-shows afflicted with the call of business back home or the call of the spouse at the beach.

"You can have 50 people or more a day without a tee time on The Dog trying to get on," says Mr. Dog. "There are usually some openings. You try to keep things in your head--who asked you first about playing at what time. The most important thing is to do it with a smile."

Should you be blessed with the certainty of a tee time, then getting a caddie is the last major step to the first tee. Casa de Campo has a large, experienced caddie pool. They are mostly young men, many who are trying to earn money for advanced education. They are a sharp lot, wise in the ways of the course.

If you get Caeser, an older caddie who makes a living here, then you've latched on to a dedicated wiseguy who knows everybody. At least, that's what he'll tell you. Caeser is a student of the grain and is most active when reading putts. Grain, or how the Bermuda grass of the greens grows toward the setting sun, influences all putts. Putt with the grain and the ball rolls at greater speed. Putt against it and the ball can slow remarkably. Putt across it and breaks are exaggerated. On every green, Caeser will be there to tell you this.

"Fast putt, two balls left," he states with perfect certainty.

"Slow putt, breaks right more than you think," he exclaims.

"See?" he often says, when yet another player doesn't seem to heed his advice.

Having passed through the preround rituals, which usually include the breakfast and lunch buffets at the Lago Grill near the golf clubhouse, a player embarks on a 6,888-yard journey in which the first four holes of The Dog are little more than a tease, an elaborate come-on. The first three holes are entirely inland, giving not a hint of the Caribbean close by. You could be chopping it around at any decent resort course from Boca Raton to San Diego to Puerto Rico. It's at the fourth green where The Dog begins to tantalize, and on the fifth tee where it realizes the dream that brought players to the course in the first place. The fifth is a short par 3, its green seemingly less than the height of a golf bag above the Caribbean. It's from the fifth tee that the coast line reveals itself and the course bares it soul.

The fifth through the eighth holes play along the Caribbean littoral and the seventh hole passes Casa de Pete Dye. Dye, known for making demands on the golfer, has put at his doorstep a ferocious par 3, at least when played from its full length of 225 yards.

It's at the ninth hole, an uphill par 5, that you first encounter the air strip. This is the eastern end of the strip, and drives that are pulled to the left must carry over the tarmac. The strip is next encountered at the 12th hole, where the championship tee is on the north side of the runway, while the fairway begins on the south side. It's about a 150-yard carry over the runway, though you may have to wait to tee off. A backup can arise if more than one plane is landing or taking off. There's a guard manning a bar-gate where golf carts can cross the runway. A bell sounds during takeoffs and landings.

The Dog returns to the Caribbean on the 15th for a stretch of three holes. Unlike their siblings on the front nine that rest precariously at the water's edge, these holes are the elevated cliff dwellers of this course, which has a slope rating of 140 and a course rating of 74.1. They are no less spectacular, however. It's back across the runway for the par-4 18th, a somewhat disappointing finishing hole in that it takes a player away back to reality with alarming quickness.

A note on when and how to play The Teeth of the Dog: If you are playing early in the morning, consider playing the back nine first. Groups may go off the 10th tee for the first two hours of play. The first four holes play to the east, into the rising sun. The glare can be disconcerting and distracting, making it impossible to follow your shot. The first holes of the back nine run to the west, away from the glare. Also, consider playing The Dog or any tropical course in the afternoon. While the sun can be strong in the afternoon, it almost always seems hotter and stickier in the morning because the breeze has not yet risen and overnight irrigation has evaporated. "You can't find a dozen players out before the afternoon at the La Romana Country Club," says Gagnon. "[The members] have been coming here for years and feel that it is much more comfortable to play in the afternoon. By 1:30 there can be a traffic jam like you see in the morning at The Dog."

A further note about the caddies: At the end of your round, a caddie will ask to hook up with you for the remainder of your stay. If he's good, then by all means keep him at your side. You might also ask him if he can get you good cigars at a discount in the city of La Romana. Some caddies make the offer without asking.

The Links course at Casa de Campo plays entirely inland and doesn't look a bit like a Scottish links. Still, it's a charming 6,461-yard track that starts out fairly easy and gets tougher on the back nine, where a good deal of water comes into play. If your game is rusty after its winter hibernation, consider playing The Links, with its course rating of 70 and slope rating of 124, before doing battle with The Dog. You might also have a word with Gilles Gagnon about playing La Romana Country Club. Generally one or two tee times a day are open to guests of the resort.

Casa de Campo's abundance of recreational activities other than golf should not be ignored. All right, so few of you are qualified for a pickup game of polo. However, if you are into horseback riding, a favorite of Latin American and European guests, check out the large equestrian center. The tennis center, with 13 Har-Tru courts and an army of ball boys, is first-rate. At the beach, pickup volleyball games are common, with multinational teams the rule.

If you've never tried skeet shooting, you might consider it at Casa de Campo's extensive shooting center, which is managed by the impressario of the shotgun, Michael Rose. Beginners to veterans come under Rose's watchful eye. Henry Kravis, a Casa de Campo villa owner, is a frequent student of Rose.

You must see the Chavon from the summit village,

Altos de Chavon. Looking down on the river, contained

by limestone cliffs with palm trees and mangroves growing

at its gentle embankments, there may be a sense of vague recognition. This was the

setting for Vietnam battle scenes in Francis Ford Coppola's Oscar-winning movie Apocalypse Now. Altos de Chavon was built under the direction of Italian cinematographer Robert Copa in 1976. Local artisans, using local materials, created a stunning reproduction of an ancient Mediterranean town, with streets so rustically cobbled that balancing in a pair of Gucci's is a precarious proposition.

The village contains several good restaurants, like the nouvelle Caribbean cuisine of Casa Rio. At La Piazettas, owner Raul Prinzi holds forth with more than satisfactory Italian fare. The antipasto bar is sufficient in itself, and the risotto is both earthy and heavenly. A cigar shop in Altos de Chavon has a heady selection of Cubans, with heady prices

to match. A good place for lunch after morning golf is El Pescador at Minitas Beach. The restaurant, which also serves dinner, prepares something of a fusion cuisine, melding Caribbean and Cajun. Reservations for dinner are a must here, as they are at most of the other resort restaurants during the high season.

Still, Casa de Campo is about golf. David Fay, executive director of the United States Golf Association, has been coming to Casa de Campo for years as a house guest of Pete Dye.

"It's just so wonderfully gentle on your senses," says Fay. "The Teeth of the Dog is one of my favorite golf courses and I just love coming here. Gilles Gagnon makes you feel special, like he does everyone. There's something here that just makes you want to come back year after year. It's a special place for golf."

Jeff Williams writes about golf for Newsday.

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