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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.

"You can have a house in the Dominican Republic for under a million bucks with live-in help and the weather is flawless," says P. B. Dye. "I've lived here for 35 years and I can't think of five days when it rained all day. And the rain is warm, so who cares anyway."

Dye will never forget his first meeting with Rainieri. Rainieri loved the long expanses of beach and the great stands of coconut palms that lined them. While he understood that the allure of golf next to the sea was important, he also didn't want to disturb the natural landscape. Dye knew that some of the landscape would have to change to get the course down to the sea. He also knew that Rainieri was a pilot. "I said, 'Frank, you are asking a golfer to play around all these coconut trees,'" said Dye. "'It's like asking a pilot to land a plane with a 300-foot wingspan on an airstrip which is 200 feet wide with coconut palms on both sides.' I said, 'Frank, we are going to have an accident.' And then the lightbulb came on. I said, 'We can take these trees and move them 100 yards inland and take the white sand you love so much and create a feeling of the beach between the golf holes and the housing lots. These people are going to be looking at the coconut trees, the white sand, a manicured lawn and the Caribbean, and you are going to own the oceanfront forever and produce money for your great-grandchildren.'"

The job was Dye's.

He completed the La Cana Golf Club construction in 2000, doing much of the bulldozer work himself, running a backhoe to build some of the bunkering and supervising the movement of hundreds of coconut palms. The result is a very playable course in a very desirable setting with a lovely clubhouse that contains a beach club and spa. It was Rainieri's stipulation, with the advice of his closest adviser, his wife, Haydee, that the clubhouse be sited next to the sea and that there would be a beach club there. Dye wasn't certain that would work, with the noise that beach clubs can produce. "[But] he was absolutely dead right about that," says Dye. "The two elements coexist perfectly."

The son's work takes obvious cues from the father's. The course has its dramatic elements, an island-green par 3 and an island-green par 4, the latter surrounded by sand, not water. The layout touches the sea briefly on the front nine, then plays hard against it over the last two holes. There is some severe bunkering, quirky mounding and confounding greens. It is what you would expect from a course with a Dye name on it, and it's great fun.

The par-4 seventh has a green and a pot-bunker dimpled approach area that are surrounded by a moat of sand. Dye calls the pot-bunker minefield Hecklebirnie after a purgatory of Scottish lore. It's a short, drivable hole, yet danger lurks everywhere. The long par-3 14th has a green surrounded by an Alps of mounding and a Sahara of sand. At 239 yards from the back tee, to a green that's almost out of sight, the tee shot is a knee knocker.

The par-4 17th begins the long run along the Caribbean. The approach area to the green is elevated from the driving area of the fairway and is supported by the wooden sleepers that the elder Dye is famous for. The back of the green seems to fall off into the beckoning sea. The 18th is a long par 5 with a set of church pew bunkers on the approach to the green. It's a very appropriate and satisfying conclusion to a round.

Fazio's Corales course, being built in the area where Rainieri has his lovely beachfront home along with those of de la Renta, attorney Kheel, singer Julio Inglesias and dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, will have Caribbean frontage, a seaside clubhouse and 140 housing lots, a number of which will be oceanfront or ocean-view. A look at the course during construction last May reveals it to be typically Tom with holes dug down into the landscape to provide isolation from each other, edgy bunkering and greens shouldered by mounding. Fazio hates cart paths and as always has taken care to conceal them.

Corales will be a significant addition to Rainieri's portfolio. He points out where an outdoor bar will be, at a spot where he used to come to dream. "Whenever I needed to think something out, I would come and sit here," says Rainieri of the little cove where a finger of the Caribbean roils. Now he's turning the Corales development over to others, like the proud father he is.

He's also quite proud of Tortuga Bay, a two-year-old oceanfront boutique hotel that is smack in the middle of the La Cana Club course area. It's an assemblage of two-story yellow stucco buildings, an oasis of tranquillity that allows easy access to the golf course. With rooms running $769 a night and up, the hotel is at the high end of the Punta Cana Resort's offerings and delivers substantial luxe. A round of golf, a dip in the Caribbean and a cocktail on the beach make for just the sort of experience that Rainieri has been giving to people for more than 30 years.

But now he has some stiff competition. The Hazoury family, Dominicans of Spanish and Lebanese descent, are backing the huge Cap Cana project next door to Punta Cana Resort. The immensely wealthy Hazourys, who are involved in road construction, private schools, hospitals and resorts, have ambitious plans for the 30,000-acre parcel. They have built a European-styled marina that would do Monaco proud with room for 200-foot yachts. Enormous homes are going up, and Donald Trump has attached his name to one of the upscale housing developments. And of course, there is the highest quality golf.

The Punta Espada seaside course at Cap Cana has all the elements of drama and style that are associated with Nicklaus's design work. If you have been to his Punta Mita course near Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, then Punta Espada will seem very familiar. Nicklaus was given substantial seaside land to work with and took full advantage of it. "Cap Cana is a spectacular piece of property," says Nicklaus. "You have the Caribbean, you have great views and you have this unique fault line running through [the] property that allowed us to do some different things with the design and strategy."

No more is that apparent than on the back tees of the par-5 second hole. Here, where the limestone has been raised by an ancient upheaval, the views are breathtaking of the course, the sea and much of the project. The connection with the water couldn't be closer than the par-3 13th, which is mindful of Robert Trent Jones's oceanfront par 3 at Mauna Kea in Hawaii. The hole requires a carry over the Caribbean to a green planted on a ledge above the water. From the back tee this is a 250-yarder, and the prevailing winds are often in your face.

The pros of the Champions Tour will get to test this brute in April when the first senior tour event is held at Cap Cana. It will carry a $2 million purse and a $300,000 first prize, among the largest on the Tour. The Cap Cana people are making a big push for golf, having advertised on U.S. and British Open telecasts this past summer and put up millions to stage what they hope will be a very classy event. "We'd like it to be considered something like the Masters," says Sam Logan, general manager of the golf club. "We will be doing everything to a very high standard. That's the way this project is being done and that's the way the golf is being done."

"We are very proud of Punta Espada," says Nicklaus. "It fits nicely into their menu of amenities at Cap Cana. They have created perhaps the Caribbean's largest marina [Nicklaus is a huge fisherman] and have a beautiful beach club. Combine that with the golf course, and these are just among a number of things that make up a special amenity package."

The project's first hotel, the Sanctuary Cap Cana, is scheduled to open in December. A brochure describes it as five-star-plus. Given what has gone into the stunning marina and the condo and housing construction, there is no reason to believe the hotel will not live up to its own expectations. Cap Cana calls itself "the world's next great destination," so there isn't a lack of ambition.

The same could be said for the Roco Ki project, which is about 45 minutes northwest of the Punta Cana airport on a grand piece of property that boasts a remarkable four-mile stretch of beach, a stunning headland and a sweeping lagoon as well as vast acreage of mangrove wetlands, some of which is being converted to golf and to housing, but most of which will be left to nature. Roco Ki, in the native Taino Indian language, means "honoring the land," and to the extent that any large construction project can do so, the developers vow to honor that philosophy.

The developers have chosen Nick Faldo as their golf course architect. "It's a very exciting piece of property and a very exciting project," says Faldo, the six-time major winner who has become CBS television's chief golf commentator as well as a frequent contributor to The Golf Channel. "It has a nice diversity of the seaside headlands, the mangroves and a sandy area where we have done some holes around a lake we have created. From my first visit, I knew this was going to be a special place."

There will be nothing more special than the 17th and 18th, which hold the rare distinction of being consecutive holes that can be played off the same tee. The 17th is a short par 3 that is mindful of the seventh hole at Pebble Beach, just raised higher off the water. It has its own separate tee, but the tee markers can also be placed on the teeing area for the 18th. Hit your shots to the 17th green, drive down the hill to putt, and drive back up and play the 18th, a par 5 with two carries over water to get home. "Yes, that will be a very exciting finish, won't it?" says Faldo. "The 17th is really a short pitch hole, though it will be quite interesting in the wind, just like the seventh at Pebble. Those carries on the 18th look a little farther than they are, but it's a challenging hole. I think it's a really great finish."

A Westin hotel, spa and conference center is taking shape, as are residences that vary from condos to villas to a property described as "JungleLuxe" bungalows. The first units should be ready in March. There are also plans for individual beachfront homes. It is a project worth watching.

While all this work swirls around him, Frank Rainieri isn't standing still. He has P. B. Dye doing another golf course for him, called the Hacienda, and there will be considerable housing going in there as well. "The Dominican Republic is such an affordable place to have a second home," says Dye. "It's so easy to get to now. It's what, less than four hours from New York. They are getting more flights from the States all the time."

Now Rainieri pulls the SUV in front of his charming home. "It's my little indulgence, my little gift to myself and my wife," he says. He has given a small tour of what he is building and what he has built. And he talks of things to come, of all the possibilities. The man made it all possible to begin with, and although golf is not his game ("takes too much time and I am terrible"), golf is on the map in Punta Cana because he put it there.

"This is my whole life, the life of my family," says Rainieri.

What a good life for golf it is.

Jeff Williams is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.


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