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Golfing in Puerto Rico

Forsaken for 500 years, Puerto Rico Finally Fulfills Its Promise as a Golfer's Eden
Jeff Williams
From the Print Edition:
Sylvester Stallone, Mar/Apr 98

If Christopher Columbus had been a Scotsman instead of an Italian, Puerto Rico would have had golf a lot sooner. If he had been say, a MacColumbus, then on his initial discovery of the island in 1493 he would have clearly seen that the coastal plain surrounding the forested core of this Caribbean beauty would have been perfect for golf. He would have seen the prospect of tropical links land, of palm-lined fairways, of sea-kissed greens. Alas, without the seminal heritage of golf in his genes, Columbus could only admire the beaches, the palms, the great rock promontories, the enchanting bays. He could not envision a golf course with palm trees, a "plinks," if you will.

No, golf had to wait nearly five centuries before establishing itself on Puerto Rico. It had to wait through the Spanish colonization under Juan Ponce De Leon and several bouts of political and social upheaval. It had to wait for the United States to take control of the island, and for the island to take control of much of its own destiny. Then, and only then, did golf begin to fit into a landscape that was so perfect for it. Only then did the windswept plinks emerge.

Right now, golf in Puerto Rico is growing zestfully, feeding off a burgeoning tourist industry and an increasing passion of the natives themselves to take up a game that had been previously played only by gringos in bizarre pants and military personnel on curious maneuvers with iron sticks and white balls.

Within the next year, two new golf courses will have opened in Puerto Rico. Another course, abandoned, is being resurrected. Still others are contemplated, one of which could possibly carry the Jack Nicklaus signature. It can be fairly said that before the decade is over and a new century begins Puerto Rico will be a golf destination and not merely a destination at which the game is available.

Tropical golf is windy and hot and humid and rainy. It's Bermuda grass and insidious water. It's sand. Lots of sand. Sand in bunkers and sand along the beaches that form so much of the littoral between Puerto Rico's courses and the waters of the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. It's stunning tropical foliage, like the raging orange of the flamboyant trees, the leathery leaves of the sea grape, and the puzzling plump fruit of the sausage tree. It's gliding West Indian red hawks and the noisy Puerto Rican changos that heckle you in your backswing and admonish you after you miss a short putt. And it's about distant rhythms of the steel bands, conjuring thoughts of dark rum and darker cigars after a bright day on the plinks.

There is a spicy flavor to Puerto Rican golf, a Latin sizzle. Hang out in the clubhouse at Rio Mar or Palmas del Mar or Dorado or Cerromar Beach and hear not only the English musings of New York stockbrokers and Chicago commodities traders, but also the Spanish oratories of Venezuelan doctors and Mexican merchants and Puerto Rican businessmen. It's a pepperpot stew of cultures discussing birdies made and missed, pars misbegotten, and bets won and gleefully collected. It's a gathering of the Americas, North and South. It is not Myrtle Beach.

You won't find Luigi's Cigar Bar in Myrtle Beach. You will find it in the commercial plaza complex at the Palmas del Mar resort, a short golf cart ride from the resort's older Gary Player course and its about-to-be-opened Rees Jones course. Palmas del Mar is one of the hotbeds of golf expansion in Puerto Rico. It's less than an hour from San Juan, now that the highway runs all the way to its southeast coast location. Originally developed by Charles Fraser, the man who started the Sea Pines Co. on Hilton Head Island and put golf and resort communities together, Palmas del Mar today is an amalgam of well-to-do Puerto Ricans and international travelers coming together to enjoy a splendid beach, an array of interesting restaurants, a small marina, a casino and a newly renovated hotel that has been taken over by the Wyndham chain.

Increasingly, the golf crowd is migrating to Luigi's, a tiny storefront operation under the guidance of Luigi Martinez, restaurateur and golfer. Martinez, New York born and raised though a resident of Puerto Rico for 27 years, knows his linguini in red clam sauce. He also loves to talk about golf. He is a member at Palmas del Mar, along with his wife, Joanna. "Golf, boy, it's really becoming the thing here," says Martinez. "In the wintertime, January through April, it's so hard to get a tee time [at Palmas del Mar]. That's why we are so happy that this new golf course will be opening. Palmas needs the course, Puerto Rico needs the course. Golf is booming and we are trying to catch up."

The growth of golf at Palmas del Mar includes a new clubhouse to go with the Rees Jones course, and an updating of the Gary Player course that opened in the late 1960s. Only two of the original 18 holes can be considered seaside. Because of the hotel renovation, the short par-4 fourth hole is becoming a par 3, and is followed by another short par 3. Both holes play close to the beach and close to the Bohio Bar, the hotel's wonderful little beach bar that sort of doubles as a rest stop for thirsty golfers. Golfers grab a quick brew, then try to figure out how to cheat the wind that blows hard off the Caribbean. Late in the day, well after the last tee times, a golfer or two can sometimes be found at the Bohio Bar with beer in one hand and a 9-iron in the other, ready for a few swigs and a few swings.

The ninth hole of the Player course is a perfect example of tropical golf, a par 5 that plays around strategic palms on the right and over a strategic pond that encroaches on the left. The back nine is rather like Hawaiian golf, hilly and windy. With views of the long, serpentine beach at Palmas del Mar, the back nine is prettier and more challenging than its condo-enclosed front nine.

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