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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 2)

One of the best features of the El Conquistador Resort is the private island it leases about three miles offshore from the resort proper. There is no beach at the foot of the rock cliffs of the resort, so beachgoers take the resort's launches over to Palomino Island, an idyllic little spot with an open-air bar and restaurant, a placid beach and water sports toys. The island makes for a wonderful afternoon of tranquillity following a morning of testing though delightful golf. The many restaurants at the resort are first-class, with wonderful sushi at Blossoms, a Chinese-Japanese affair with hibachi tables. Drake's Library is a fine venue for cigars, billiards and Cognac. The resort's casino served as a set in the James Bond movie Goldfinger.

Going west from El Conquistador along the north coast from San Juan, you can find the Bahia Beach Golf Course. Bahia Beach (course information is available on the Web at www.golfbahia.com) is the closest public golf course to San Juan, about 35 minutes from the east side of town. It is a development in the making, or possibly in the waiting. The original developers want to sell the entire property, which includes the 18-hole golf course, pads already leveled out for housing, and specs for a hotel and other amenities. The price: $45 million.

But for fewer than $75, you can play a varied, almost wild layout that was designed by one of the original owners of the project. The course may not be in the best of condition, though it can be forgiven its bumpy greens and uneven fairways if you look at it as a pure spot to play the game, with no hotels, homes or other distractions. When you get to the 16th tee, where the Espirito Santo River meets the Atlantic Ocean, you can be forgiven if you linger over your tee shot on the par 5. The final three holes play along an unspoiled beach, without a single hotel, apartment building or house despoiling the view. The area is sensational for walking, swimming and picnicking, and families of vacationing golfers have access to four-seater golf carts that can haul them and their provisions to the beach.

Bahia Beach has a female top pro, Martha Faulconer, a former Ladies Professional Golf Association player. She is giving lessons to plenty of Puerto Ricans, who are aggressively taking up the game. Some of them will end up joining the nearby Berwind Country Club. Berwind is a private club that allows for some public play, with advance reservations, during weekdays. Your hotel concierge can make tee times here and possibly arrange for you to play with a member.

A little less than an hour west of San Juan you come to Dorado, a town and name that gave viability and visibility to Puerto Rican golf in the 1970s. If you knew anything about Puerto Rican golf in years past, it was the courses at Dorado, and Chi Chi Rodriguez. The Senior PGA Tour's longtime entertainer still has a home at Dorado Beach.

It is at the two Hyatt resorts here, Dorado Beach Hotel and the adjoining Cerromar Beach Hotel, where golf in Puerto Rico became a serious matter in the early '70s. It is here that the prolific golf course architect Robert Trent Jones laid down four resort-style courses that are the very embodiment of tropical style. There are two courses and a clubhouse at each resort, and guests at either resort may play golf at the other. Guests also enjoy access to the other amenities at each resort.

At the Dorado, the two courses are known as the East and the West. At the Cerromar they are known as the North and the South. The East course is the best known of the four, having been the site of several PGA golf tournaments over the years. The South course is the more challenging of the two at Cerromar, and the holes that play near the hotel are the best of the lot, particularly the par-3 seventh, with its green perched above the beach. Trent Jones was very good at designing par 3s, and those holes tend to be the most memorable of all 72 holes in the complex.

With the possible exception of the Z Hole. The Z Hole is a mid-length par 5 at Dorado East that zigs and zags its way from tee to green. After a drive over water, the hole almost bends back on itself to the left, with the green out near the Atlantic on the other side of a pond. Here's a hint for playing the hole: If you haven't hit your drive as close as possible to the trees on the left side, where you might have a shot for the green, don't even bother to try to hit a fairway wood up the left side of the fairway, where the pond will come into play on the right side. Hit a short iron short of the water, then another short iron over it to the green. The strategy could save you trepidation and aggravation.

After a day at the golf course, the River Pool at Cerromar Beach makes for a body-massaging, soul-relaxing finish. The pool is 1,776 feet long, covers 4.5 acres and has 22,600 gallons of water flowing downstream per minute. A hot tub and a bar await along the way. Standing under one of the 14 waterfalls is invigorating. Walking against the current is substantial exercise.

Perhaps the best part about golf at Dorado is the Copa Hyatt, the annual golf tournament played in June that Hyatt targets for its Latin American customers. You don't have to be a Latin American to play. While it might help if you spoke Spanish, that's not necessary, either. The Copa Hyatt is serious, and seriously fun. The tournament is divided into a two-man team competition of scratch players from Latin American countries, and a wide-open amateur competition for players of all handicaps. The Copa lasts a week, with a number of dazzling parties that culminate in a pulsating banquet at Cerromar Beach with a video of the event, several Latin bands and much dancing, drink, cigars and surprisingly good ballroom food. It is an ideal week for playing golf, kicking back and making friends.


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