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A New Caribbean Golf Kingdom

The Dominican Republic's eastern shore is taking shape as a world-class golf and resort destination.
Jeff Williams
From the Print Edition:
Tom Selleck, Nov/Dec 2007

Frank Rainieri climbs into the driver's seat of his big, black SUV, which has been parked curbside in the departure area of the Punta Cana International Airport, his airport. He winds his way to the road, his road, and heads toward the Punta Cana Resort & Club, his resort, his club. "I will be closing this road," he says. "I built it, so I can close it."

He says this with confidence, but only a hint of bravado. Frank Rainieri does what he says he will do. He will move this road so that he can reconfigure his airport to accommodate thousands of additional travelers to Punta Cana, his Punta Cana.

Punta Cana, a sprawling resort area on the eastern tip of the Dominican Republic, exists because in 1969 Frank Rainieri, a Dominican entrepreneur, convinced a group of investors, including American labor lawyer Ted Kheel, that it could exist, and that he was the man who would make it so. Rainieri would get the basic infrastructure built, would build his own Punta Cana Resort, would get Club Med to build a resort and would build the airport, still the only privately owned international airport in the world.

"I think we will have 2 million passengers coming through the airport soon," says Rainieri. "You know, in 2000 we had about 13,000 people coming in from the United States. Last year, we had 600,000."

Why?

"Americans aren't so used to going to places they don't know about. But they have come to learn that this is a very nice, safe and reasonable place to come to," says Rainieri, noting that his mostly European clientele will go places they aren't familiar with. "And we now have golf. The Europeans don't care so much for the golf. But the Americans like their golf."

He pilots the SUV a couple of miles down the road to a private golf course, Corales, which in under construction. It's Punta Cana's private golf course, his private golf course. He has hired Tom Fazio to design it, knowing that Fazio's name is well known to American golf aficionados, especially those with available cash. Rainieri doesn't play golf himself, and that's almost certainly the reason that golf has come late to Punta Cana. But now the game has arrived big-time, and Rainieri has his share of it. He has his original La Cana Golf Club, which opened in 2000; the Corales club, which is scheduled to open next summer; and another resort course, Hacienda, the first nine holes of which are slated to be completed by January 2009.

Next to Rainieri's resort is the massive Cap Cana development, which opened its Jack Nicklaus—designed Punta Espada course last year and has another Nicklaus course under construction. North of the Bavaro area of Punta Cana is another huge development, Roco Ki, with a Nick Faldo—designed course scheduled to open next spring.

Golf is popping up all over Punta Cana, and Americans are showing up to play. There has to be a connection. "I think when Americans see there is golf, it makes Punta Cana more attractive to them," says Rainieri.

It was in the late 1990s when Oscar de la Renta, the fashion designer, Punta Cana investor and Rainieri friend and neighbor, suggested that a golf course would be a fine addition to the Punta Cana Resort, and that P. B. Dye, son of the iconic designer Pete Dye, would be the man for the job. Pete Dye had designed the courses at the Casa de Campo resort, about a two-hour drive from Punta Cana, and his Teeth of the Dog course has become the Caribbean's best-known tract. P. B. had worked on all the courses at Casa de Campo, lived a goodly share of the year there and loved the Dominican Republic.


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