By Dale Leatherman
Photos by Donnelle Oxley
PUERTO RICO (Jan. 4, 2004) - At every turn of the road, a beautiful beach beckons like a siren's song, and there's nothing wrong with grabbing your towel and sunscreen and giving in to the urge -- but only after you've sampled some of the island's golf courses. You'll find sand there too - plenty of it - along with water, tropical foliage and some stunning views of the ocean you couldn't get anywhere else. So go armed with a full set of clubs and a willingness to match wits with some of the world's best golf architects.
What makes golf in Puerto Rico special is not only the work of world-class architects, but the diverse topography provided by Mother Nature. Rising from beautiful beaches and seaside cliffs, the land swells into wrinkled foothills, then soars into a green-clad mountain range nearly 4,500 feet high. Whether the golfer looks from an elevated tee toward an expanse of incredibly blue sea or from a valley fairway toward the rain-forested hills, the view is arresting. Layouts by Jones, Fazio, Hills, Player, Norman and Rodriguez are among the many choices.
Though avid golfers are unfazed by weather, blue skies and balmy temperatures enhance the experience. Puerto Rico will treat you to perpetual summer (83 degrees in winter, 85 degrees in summer) cooled by tradewinds off the ocean.
The island's best-known golf complex is a foursome of Robert Trent Jones Sr. courses shared by the Hyatt Regency Dorado Beach and Hyatt Regency Cerromar (787-796-8961, www.doradobeach.hyatt.com, www.cerromarbeach.hyatt.com). All four layouts bear Jones' signature runway tees, ample bunkering, and big, sculpted greens, but with the inimitable island flavoring of wind, ocean views and lagoons. The first (and many say still the best) was the East Course, a classic route that roams through hills on the front nine, then drops to the scenic coast for its second act. Dorado East and Cerromar South have been renovated and upgraded by architect Raymond Floyd, who now turns his attention to Dorado West and Cerromar North.
Two courses are on the grounds of the Westin Rio Mar Golf Club (787-888-8811, www.westinriomar.com). The Ocean Course is a 1975 Tom and George Fazio layout which was renovated during the 1996 debut of the River Course, Greg Norman's first effort in Puerto Rico. The Fazios carved the Ocean Course from mangrove forest along the coast, dodging around five lakes en route to a signature sixteenth hole right on the ocean. The wind creates almost constant mayhem here, so no distances or targets are predictable. The River Course is a watery track as well, playing a risky game of tag with the Mamayes River as it flows from mountain to sea. Norman turns up the heat with nearly 100 sand bunkers, but shows mercy on his straightforward greens.
Another golf resort with double the fun is Palmas del Mar (787-285-2256, www.palmasresort.com), the island's largest resort/residential community. In 1999, the existing Gary Player-designed Palm Course was joined by a Rees Jones layout, the Flamboyan Course. Jones freshened up the 1975 Player track, an enchanting safari trail trapped with tangles of sea grape, tall marsh weeds, and stands of coconut palms. The fourteenth hole drops 200 feet, with the ocean and Vieques Island as a backdrop. Jones outdid himself on the dramatic Flamboyan. After circling a 23-acre lake, the route crosses the Candelero River, flirts with the ocean and then climbs into the hills for spectacular views. The terrain was rife with wetlands and streams, to which he added deep (as much as 14 feet) bunkers and tall, waving grasses.
One of the island's most dramatic settings belongs to the elegant Wyndham El Conquistador Resort and Country Club (787-863-6784, www.wyndham.com/Resorts/SJUEC/). Perched on a 300-foot bluff overlooking the ocean, the resort has commanding views in all directions and a variety of lodging styles in lush tropical settings. The golf course, too, has vistas of ocean and mountains, but the layout snakes through inhospitable terrain, demanding full attention. Architect Arthur Hills made full use of elevation changes as great as 200 feet. The rise and fall of the land contributes to many blind shots and hidden pitfalls, so it's particularly tricky the first time around.
Puerto Rico's native son Chi Chi Rodriguez designed the course at the Embassy Suites Dorado del Mar Beach and Golf Club (787-796-3070, www.embassysuitesdorado.com) Opened in 1997, the meticulously landscaped layout is the centerpiece of a community, with tight fairways and enough water (12 holes) and bunkering to make you study your options carefully. The green of the signature tenth hole, culmination of an uphill dogleg par five, is a beauty right by the ocean.
Some notable courses are not part of resort properties, but are worth a spin. Local players will tell you that the fairest of all is the Bahia Beach Plantation (787-256-5600, www.golfbahia.com) in Rio Grande. National pride aside, this is a gem, with 75 acres of freshwater lakes (13 holes are engaged), and two miles of beach which come into play on three dazzling finishing holes.
In southern Puerto Rico, the only 18-hole championship course in the region is at Coamo Spring Golf and Tennis Club (787-825-1370, www.gotopuertorico.com). Architect Ferdinand Garbin, who learned his craft from Donald Ross protégé James Harrison, employed his minimalist's approach on this 1999 venture. There's no fairway bunkering or mounding, just natural rock formations, cactus and other desert flora, with careful delineation between the natural ecosystem and fairways. The course is not far from the famous Banos de Coamo, hot sulfur springs Ponce de Leon visited in his "fountain of youth" quest, and the historic inn by the same name.
Puerto Rico's embarrassment of riches is getting richer every day. In various stages of development are courses at these new resorts: Inter-Continental Cayo Largo Resort (18 holes by architect Ron Garl) in Cayo Largo, the Sol Melia Paradisius Coco Beach Resort & Casino (36 holes by architect Tom Kite with Bruce Besse of Willowbend Design) in Rio Grande, the Caguas Hampton Inn Golf Club (18 holes) in Caguas, the El Legado Golf Resort (18 holes) in Guayama, and the Hilton (27 holes) in Ponce.
Visit www.gotopuertorico.com for greens fees and other course information, as well as the latest information on new course openings.
Puerto Rico has hundreds of lodging choices -- intimate inns, elegant resorts and everything in between - and restaurants to suit any palate and desired atmosphere. There are countless apres golf diversions - exploring the rainforest; touring one of the world's largest cave systems; snorkeling and other water sports; learning the island's historical past; sampling its rich culture via art, music or food; taking a chance at the casinos, or being entertained by international performers. Or, of course, heading for one of the 300+ beaches.
Best of all, getting there is easy. Puerto Rico is an exotic destination Americans can reach via domestic flights - less than four hours from New York, and two and a half hours from Miami. The country is a U. S. territory, so U.S. citizens bypass immigration and customs at San Juan's modern international airport. The currency is the dollar, traffic is on the right side of the road, and the official languages are English and Spanish.
Puerto Rico Tourism has an excellent website (www.gotopuertorico.com) with details on lodging and activities.
Agree with this review? Disagree?
Post your thoughts at GolfBoards.com.