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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)

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.

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.

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.

"This week is about having fun," says Cerromar Beach general manager Carlos Cabrera. "We have a serious side to the competition. Last June we had 34 Latin American countries involved. But we had the best parties we ever had. The one night out by the River Pool was just fantastic. There were 400 players and their guests. This has really become an annual event that we all look forward to."

There's another 18-hole course on the west coast that is worth a visit. Punta Borinquen in Aguadilla is part of the U.S. military's golf legacy to Puerto Rico, which also includes the nine-hole Luis Ortiz course near San Juan and the nine-hole course at Roosevelt Roads Naval Station. Built in the '40s, Punta Borinquen is an attractive layout on the ocean, and the ocean holes have a genuine linksy feel to them. Dwight Eisenhower played golf here as general and as president. Another nine-hole course, Club Deportivo del Oeste, is in nearby Cabo Rojo.

The Puerto Rican Golf Association, whose president is transplanted New Yorker Sidney Wolf, has more than 4,000 players with registered handicaps and conducts a number of tournaments. Some kind of charity tournament goes on almost every weekend in Puerto Rico, some of them run by Luis "Papo" Velez, one of the best soccer players ever produced in the commonwealth. For vacationing players wanting some competitive action, these tournaments may be open and accessible through a hotel concierge.

There are plans for at least two more 18-hole courses, one to be designed by Jack Nicklaus near the El Conquistador, and another near Puerto Rico's second largest city, Ponce, on the south coast. After the depression of the early '80s stunted the island's growth and stained its image, the boom times of the 1990s have attracted tourists at record levels. They come for the beaches, the casinos, the nightlife. Increasingly, they come for the golf. The setting for golf was always there, of course, even before Columbus set eyes on the place. Puerto Rico was the perfect spot for a plinks, even if it took the better part of five centuries for the dreamers to finally realize it.

Jeff Williams is a sportswriter for Newsday.

A PERFECT DAY IN PUERTO RICO


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