Dominican Republic -- The ball arced through the air, bounced, dribbled, and settled into a divot. One stroke wobbled it, then another, yet it continued to rest stubbornly in the depression.
I kept my eyes fixed on the ball until it vanished in a flurry of horses' hooves, swinging mallets and shouting riders. A referee's whistle stopped the action, and I resumed my discussion of polo and golf with the fellow sitting beside me in the stands.
"The games are not all that different," I said, "except for the danger. Golf's pretty safe."
He scoffed. "But polo is much harder. The horses are moving at 30 mph and bumping each other."
I nodded toward the goal posts at the end of the field. "The polo ball is over three inches in diameter, the mallet head is 10 inches long, and look at the size of that goal - 24 feet wide," I said. "How can you compare that to trying to hit a two-inch golf ball into a four-inch hole with odd-shaped sticks? Besides, nobody's counting strokes on the polo field."
He fell silent, and we both took long swigs from cold bottles of El Presidente, the local beer. I knew I had him. I'd spent some time on polo ponies and, though I did not necessarily believe my hypothesis, I'd had this discussion before. It helps me justify how poorly I play golf.
I savored the remains of my first day in the only resort in the Caribbean where one can play a world-class golf course in the morning and watch world-class polo in the afternoon. The Dominican Republic's Casa de Campo is a 7,000-acre enclave with top facilities for tennis, polo, golf and sporting clays. A 183-slip marina offers deep-sea fishing, snorkeling and sailing excursions. The stable always has 100 horses in residence for trail rides, polo or lessons. And then there's the beach, and swimming pools at every turn, and shopping.
But golf has played the greatest role in Casa de Campo's international reputation. Teeth of the Dog, designed by Pete Dye and opened in 1971, is the only Caribbean course ranked in Golf Magazine's top 100 courses. In 2002 it ranked 35th in the world. Every golfer yearns to play it. And, having played it, he or she can't wait to do it again.
"Why do you think this course has ranked in the world's top 30 for more than 25 years?" asks Gilles Gagnon, Casa de Campo's golf director for more than 20 years. "As long as I've been here, I never tire of it. How many courses can you say that about? Last week I played four rounds in a row. I shot 67, 81, 69, 83 - and I didn't think I hit it that much differently. That's what this course is all about - you want to go play it again.
"It has eight holes on the ocean," he continues, "seven holes right on the coast and then another with its green near the water. Even Pebble Beach doesn't have eight ocean holes. By modern standards it's not long (6,989 yards), there's not that much rough or trees, but the ocean and the wind make it a different course every day."
TOD opens with four holes heavy on sand, with waste areas invading the fairways and heavy-lipped bunkers flanking fast, elevated greens.
The fifth tee places you on the ocean's edge, with a peninsula green 175 yards away and a wind gusting either toward the water or from it. It's the same scenario on seven, a 224-yard par-3. Holes six and eight are par-4s with ample opportunities to overshoot the green and contribute to Pete Dye's version of economic development. Local kids rescue balls from the surf and sell them back to golfers by the dozen.
Then the course veers inland, returning at hole 15 to a par-4 that segues into the signature hole, a 194-yard, par-3 on a rock-toothed cove shaped like snapping jaws. Ocean foam provides a rabid froth for the "Teeth of the Dog."
Seventeen provides spectacular sunsets over the ocean, a good reason to play TOD in the afternoon.
Awesome as it is, TOD is not the only game on property. Pete and Alice Dye's inland Links Course is a fine display of the designers' penchant for sand, elevated greens and well-placed waste areas. They use two lakes to good advantage, placing greens behind or at the perilous edge of water. No poor stepchild, the Links would be a stand-up course anywhere.
Casa de Campo's golf riches are about to multiply. In April 2003, Dye's latest creation will open on the hills above the Chavon River and new marina. The Dyes are excited about it, which is a clue that the golfing world should be excited too.
Part of the attraction at Casa de Campo is its easy access -- several daily flights from San Juan and Miami to the resort's new private international airport.
Guests who want to feel really special rent one of the many villas that come with a maid/cook, butler and private pool. Those who use their lodging to crash after a day of activity are very happy in their comfortable casitas.
Guests tool around resort paths in golf carts. It's a big place, and having one's own transportation is convenient and fun.
The resort proper has several restaurants, including the Tropicana, an open air dining area overlooking two of the resort's 15 pools. The specialty of the house is beef - and wonderful beef it is, beautifully prepared. The seafood, as befits an island, is fresh and nicely presented.
Casa crushes any oneupmanship debate with its remarkable Altos de Chavon. Built entirely by hand in the 1970s, it is an exact recreation of a 15th-century Mediterranean village, complete with cobbled streets and stone-and-iron structures. Altos de Chavon houses an artists' village associated with New York's Parson's School, and a theatre group which performs in a 5,000-seat Grecian amphitheatre.
Altos de Chavon is also home to four fine restaurants with enviable settings, including the cosmopolitan Casa del Rio and the fun La Piazzeta, with its antipasto bar and old-world Italian food.
On my last afternoon at Casa, I was again drawn to the grandstand alongside one of resort's three polo fields. The sunset cast a red glow across the field and the players moved like centaurs in the dimming light.
The fellow I'd met earlier was there. He motioned the attendant to bring me a cold one, and we solemnly clinked the frosty, long-necked bottles.
"I thought about what you said," he admitted, "and I have to say the scenery on the golf course is better than that on the polo field, even a field like this one.
"But," he paused to take a long swig, "why would you want to play a sport without horses?"
I had no answer.
For more information, visit www.casadecampo.com or call 800-877-3643 or (305) 856-5405.
December 4, 2002
Dale Leatherman is a full-time freelance travel writer specializing in golf and adventure travel. For nearly 20 years her "beat" has been the Caribbean, where she can combine golf, scuba diving and other sports. She has also written about golf in Wales, Scotland, Australia, Costa Rica, Canada and the U.S., particularly the Mid-Atlantic region.
Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.
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