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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

(continued from page 1)

The new Rees Jones course is routed inland from the original course, with a man-made 23-acre lake at its heart around which several holes will play. The new clubhouse will be situated here, as will new resort housing. Given Jones' history (which includes being the son of Robert Trent Jones, the designer of the Dorado and Cerromar Beach courses), the new course will be hacker friendly and player challenging. It will include a more than 600-yard uphill par 5 that mercifully will play with the prevailing wind. The course is scheduled to open this spring.

A short drive up the coast to the north of Palmas del Mar is Rio Mar, once an exclusive residential resort and country club that has been redeveloped with the addition of Puerto Rico's first major resort hotel in nearly two decades, the Westin Rio Mar. The developers brought in Greg Norman to design a new 18-hole golf course. They also built a new clubhouse with the best locker-room facilities on the island, and next year will redo the greens of the existing Tom Fazio course with a more modern strain of Bermuda grass that has less grain in it.

The original course is a fine resort layout that gets the average player around without much difficulty and challenges the better player from the back tees. The well-shaped greens are occasionally made more interesting by groups of pastel-colored iguanas lounging on them in the early morning.

What's really exciting is the 16th hole, a long par 3 that borders the Atlantic Ocean. The wind tends to roar fiercely off the ocean to the left, pushing tee shots to the right. At more than 220 yards from the regular tee, and 240 from the back tee, this is a heroic hole, one that can stir the machismo in players. The green is really too narrow for a hole of this length, given that almost everyone who plays it, 20-handicapper and 2-handicapper alike, is going at it with a fairway wood or driver. Still, the superintendent has graciously cleared out a wide area of tropical underbrush to the right of the green. This allows the players who balloon shots up into the wind to have a shot to the green with a wedge and not a machete.

The line of play on this hole, for those players who can't hit a hard draw, is left of the green. Way left of the green. Pick out a palm tree from the line that skirts the beach down the left side, and flail away. Unlike the fifth hole at Palmas del Mar, there is no beach bar here, though the 16th is another one of those holes that make for a late evening foray into the golfing wilds. Take a foursome or two or three with you, a few pints of beer, and play greenies and closest to the pin on this hole for $5 a shot. Make sure to repair your punch marks and bring your trash back to the clubhouse.

The Norman course had a difficult birth, ravaged as it was by rains during a hurricane in 1996 that carried away the topsoil. It's called the River Course, after the Rio Mameyas that runs through it. The river was running brown for several days in 1996 with soil that was meant to be Norman's course. It took until last fall to get the course back together, to get the chewed-up fairways and greens back in shape and to get sand in the bunkers.

What Norman has wrought is a challenging test of golf served up in a wide range of short and long par 4s. Particularly memorable is the par-5 eighth hole. From the blue tee it is 506 yards long. From the back, or gold tee, it's 547 yards. Because it plays directly into the prevailing wind, the hole is a long, forced march for any player. The tee shot is played over a reedy marsh, with the riverbank coming into play up the right side and dense, dangerous-looking underbrush on the left side, the sort of jungle that does not look at all friendly to ball seekers on safari.

Farther up the coast, at the northeast corner of the island, is the El Conquistador Resort. The El Conquistador's 30-year history is not unlike that of the island's first centuries of political upheaval. A stunning structure atop a rocky cliff overlooking the conjunction of the Caribbean and the Atlantic, the El Conquistador today is one of the world's finest resorts, having been rescued from bankruptcy by the Williams Hospitality Group in the early '90s. The El Conquistador has large, well-appointed rooms and suites, and its Casitas section of townhouse-style condominiums appeals to privacy seekers who nonetheless want to be on the cutting edge of the action.

The course at El Conquistador is an old Robert Von Hagge creation that fell to ruins, then was masterfully restored and renovated by Arthur Hills. Hole for hole it may be the mostinteresting course on the island. It tumbles into and around a valley on the back half of the resort property away from the sea. The second hole, for instance, is one of several classically designed holes on the course. Here is a 360-yard par 4, downhill off the tee, uphill to a two-level green, that would fit on any golf course. You could imagine it bordered by oaks and maples in the U.S. Northeast, by Monterey pines and eucalyptus in the West. Situated as it is in the Caribbean, it's a distinguished hole without a distinguishing characteristic.

The short par-5 eighth hole, only 501 yards from the back tee, is another classic hole, a straight shot up the valley to a green that is set on a ledge in the side of the hill. Accuracy is everything on this hole. The two par 3s on the back nine, the 14th and the 17th, are challenging little one-shotters. A miss of either green is almost certain bogey, if not double or triple.

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