Golf and cigars. The synergy is unmistakable, whether it's on a $20-a-round public course, or an exclusive private club where even guest fees run into the hundreds of dollars. Given that natural nexus, the golf-and-cigars dynamic can achieve even greater heights under the perfect circumstances, rising almost to the level of the mystical. All you need is one of the world's top 100 courses, cigars that are rolled within sight of the course, and one of the Caribbean's most luxurious resorts, Casa de Campo in the Dominican Republic. That's where the 1999 Montecristo Cup was held in early December. The moment was as special as the setting.
The first annual edition of the Montecristo Cup brought together nearly 100 golfers, including celebrities and PGA Senior Tour players, for a two-day tournament on the Teeth of the Dog golf course, designed by Pete Dye Sr. and ranked 27th in the world by Golf magazine. In an era when spectacular new golf courses seem to garner all the publicity, Teeth of the Dog remains a seaside gem that endures as one of the world's truly great golf tracks. Consolidated Cigar Co., the manufacturers of H. Upmann, Don Diego, Montecristo, Por Larrañaga and other cigar brands, organized the tournament, a fund-raiser for disaster relief co-sponsored by Cigar Aficionado, General Motors, Bacardi and American Airlines. Contributors included Callaway Golf, Taylor Made, Robert Mondavi Winery and Everett Designs.
Celebrities also turned out. Radio personality Rush Limbaugh joined actor George Hamilton (creator of the Hamiltons cigar brand), actor Seymour Kassel, TV sports commentator Ahmad Rashad, hockey great Clark Gillies, baseball player George Bell and sports agent David Falk. The Senior Tour players were Jim Thorpe, Ed Dougherty, Walter Morgan, Tom Wargo, Larry Ziegler, Dana Quigley, Larry Laoretti, Jerry McGee, Harold Henning and Frank Connor.
"I smoked more cigars in three days than I have all year," said Quigley, standing in front of the tournament scoreboard. "It must have been 10 or 15 a day. I have had a ball here." Quigley finished second in stroke play among the Senior PGA players. All of the prize money was donated to the Montecristo Cup Relief Organization, a nonprofit charity created by Consolidated Cigar. That money as well as the $5,000 per person entry fees will be disbursed to charities in the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and Honduras for relief from the recent hurricanes that have struck the region.
Rashad echoed Quigley's sentiments. "On every front, from the cigars to the golf, it was just a spectacular time."
Bill Brugger, chief executive officer of Tesco Williamson and a Salt Lake City resident, wondered at first how great it was going to be. His clubs ended up in Argentina, and by the end of the tournament, they still hadn't shown up. But it didn't matter to Brugger. He took out a 5-wood from his set of rented clubs on the seventh hole, which was playing 167 yards into a very strong headwind, and lofted the ball into the hole for an ace. "I've played in 500 of these things," Brugger said, "and I had more fun here than in any of them. From the opening reception, you could tell it was going to be a ball. The Senior pros, the celebrities, have all been so gracious. They helped make it even more special. I'm going to be a regular player in this."
The tournament kicked off on Wednesday, December 1, with an evening cocktail reception held outdoors under a starry tropical sky. The golfers were housed throughout the Casa de Campo complex, some in the newly renovated casitas of the main hotel, others in rented villas. Players got in practice rounds the following day on Teeth of the Dog, and many people took advantage of the late practice-round tee times to play the adjacent Links course, also designed by Dye. Thursday night's dinner served as a pairing ceremony, with each team being assigned a celebrity for one day and a Senior Tour player the next.
The golf began in earnest Friday morning. The teams teed off in a modified scramble format, which allowed them to use their pro's drive and score. Each amateur team was given additional handicap strokes, depending on the players' combined handicap total. At the end of a windy day of play, the leading team was 20 under par.
Saturday dawned clear and calm, but the wind quickly picked up again, even exceeding the 15- to 20-mph gusts of the day before. Scores didn't suffer, however. The winning team had a combined total of 105, 39 under par.
The golf throughout the tournament was undeniably fantastic. Whether it was hitting drives across Casa de Campo's airport runway on the 12th and 18th holes, or watching the wind take a perfectly hit 8-iron and blow it into the ocean, Teeth of the Dog lived up to its reputation. The course was in perfect shape; the greens were lightning fast toward the ocean and mystifyingly slow away from the water; and each shot required careful club selection and precise location to score well.
But the week was about more than just golf. The participants got a tour of the Consolidated Cigar factory, one of the largest in the world, with production exceeding 35 million cigars a year. The sweet aroma of good cigars permeated every event and every round of golf.
Just as importantly, Casa de Campo's location and its lush tropical greenery formed an idyllic paradise of warm breezes and soft aromas of exotic flowers and trees. The resort hugs the Dominican Republic's Caribbean coastline, with many of the villas and houses perched on sloping hillsides with panoramic ocean views.
The resort also maintains a small replica of a Mediterranean village, built entirely from stone quarried around the area. It's known as Altos de Chavon, and it is perched high above a river that winds through the Casa de Campo property. Altos de Chavon is filled with restaurants and fancy boutiques, selling everything from cigars to fine jewelry. Most of the restaurants have terraces that peer down into the river gorge, which is lined with palm trees; each night, floodlights illuminate the winding waters.
By Sunday morning, and 90 holes of golf later, I was ready to go home. But not without a bit of regret. The skies were clear, the wind had died down, and the fairways beckoned as the plane rolled down the runway. There was only one consoling thought: next year.