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The Player’s Paradise

With new courses and resorts opening up, golf in the Dominican Republic just keeps getting better

By Mike Offit

To a man stranded in the desert with an empty canteen, the difference between natural spring water and a trickle from the tap is hardly relevant: It’s all good. To a Northeasterner in February, his home course entombed in ice and snow, the thirst for golf is just as desperate. At times like this, the vision of a white ball sailing into the deep blue sky over the turquoise sea appears like a mirage, lingering with the faint sound of steel drums and the scent of rum, just out of reach.

Golf in the Caribbean used to rely on that winter longing, when sunburned visitors were happy to play burnt-out courses with ancient carts and jaded loopers (ever met a Jamaican caddie who didn’t tell you he’s the best in the land?). But much has changed in the past decade, and these days announcements of new courses and luxury resorts seem to come every week.

The Dominican Republic, home of the first truly magnificent course in the Caribbean, Teeth of the Dog at Casa de Campo, has seized the lion’s share of this new bounty. Long one of the West’s poorest nations, the D.R., as it’s known, is enjoying a luxury boom that will vault it to the highest echelon of golf destinations, and not just in this region. Development on the island’s eastern coast has reached a breakneck pace; meanwhile, a hidden jewel has been produced on the north coast that is among the most dramatic and spectacular layouts anywhere. A recent trip to the Punta Cana area revealed a modern airport with nonstop flights from the East Coast on major airlines, roads that have been vastly improved, and massive new mega resorts under construction at Cap Cana and Roco Ki. These newcomers join the long-established Puntacana Resort & Club to yield a collection of diverse and aesthetically thrilling golf resorts, all with a welcome focus on exquisite accommodations and great service.

Casa de Campo

The destination that paved the way for high-quality Caribbean golf, Casa de Campo, remains at the head of the pack—for now. Teeth of the Dog, the Pete Dye creation whose signature sixteenth hole illustrates many of the “World’s Top 100 Courses” lists, still has loads of bite and requires a reliable draw to post a respectable score. Dye’s ubiquitous waste areas and swarming bunkers greet you on the first four holes, and the wind and ocean join the fray at the fifth. Number eight plays to a blind green—over which, on my last visit, I boldly airmailed a shot into the ocean. When I got to the green, a local boy handed me my ball, retrieved from the surf, in exchange for a fresh dollar bill. I felt an urge to tell him about my birdie at seven to wipe the smirk off his face, but when my chip dropped in he gave me a polite round of applause, no extra charge.

The seven-thousand-acre Casa de Campo, the model for the huge new developments ninety minutes up the coast, also includes the Links Course, an inland track with lots of waste areas and lakes, and Dye Fore, which plays on the ridge of the Chavon River and sets up a number of blind shots and challenging stances, along with dramatic views and greens you might need a surveyor’s transit to read. Although neither reaches the rigor or thrill of their famous elder sibling, I have found both to be enjoyable and generally well-kept. The resort also has a world-renowned polo and equestrian center and can accommodate almost any sporting desire you might have, from shooting to tennis to deep-sea fishing. The new and stunning Cygalle Healing Spa has invigorating plunge pools and natural skin preparations cooked up on site. As an aging golfer, I never fail to use my aches and pains as an excuse to indulge in some serious pampering, and Cygalle’s eponymous manager and creator knows exactly what’s needed.

Ultimately, what Casa de Campo has lacked is a world-class hotel. That should change next year, when Four Seasons is scheduled to open a two-hundred-room facility. Until then, the main lodging option at the resort is villa rentals, and although the in-house program for them offers good properties and a range of services, you need to be careful and pick your villa or you might not like the one you’re assigned. Another option is to book through a private agency, such as Villas Caribe. You get what you pay for, and if you’ve come in search of great lodging (yes, some of the villas are beyond spectacular), it can get expensive very fast. The beach options at the resort are limited and not in the same league as those at the other resorts, but after a day spent navigating Dye’s waste areas and bunker complexes, sand is usually the last thing I want to see.

Puntacana Resort & Club

The Puntacana Resort & Club was this area’s pioneer. The brainchild of Frank Ranieri and Theodore Kheel, together with Julio Iglesias and Oscar de la Renta, the resort is virtually next door to the airport. P. B. Dye designed Puntacana’s playable and well-maintained seaside La Cana Course, which has wide swaths of waste areas and plentiful, pristine bunkering—more Scottsdale than Scotland.

As on most island courses, the wind dictates the difficulty factor at La Cana. Club selection can be a riddle at the par-three fifth, where on a recent visit a stiff breeze mandated a knockdown shot rifled seaward that carried back to a devilishly humped putting surface. This impeccable course builds to two finishing oceanfront holes, the eighteenth being a superlative par five. My caddie recommended coming in from the right side, but that was a daunting play to a horseshoe-shaped green bent around a bunker. Fortunately, his read on my par putt was outstanding. Plucking the ball from the cup, I repaired to the comfortable, modern Caribbean clubhouse, where food and drink are served on palm-shaded terraces overlooking the pool and beach just beyond.

The resort takes pride in its casual sophistication, and management focuses on sustainability and contributions to the local economy and culture. A second eighteen, set to open this winter, will help sustain the golf culture: Tom Fazio’s Corales Course works its way from some seriously reshaped headlands down to the sea. The eighteenth, an extraordinary par-four Cape hole, curls above a broad aquamarine bay, offering seven sets of tees and an opportunity to saw off as much of the dogleg as you dare, with the approach to a peninsula green playing directly into the prevailing wind. Owner Ranieri has dubbed it the Mother of All Golf Holes, but I suspect some may use a slightly racier epithet. The resort is loaded with activities away from the courses, as well, including horseback riding, diving, kayaking, tennis, and visiting a particularly elegant spa. Its Tortuga Bay hotel, offering one-to four-bedroom villas, is first-class and great for families.

Cap Cana

Also in this area is Cap Cana, the first of two massive resorts under way ten minutes to either side of Punta Cana airport. It feels as big as many Caribbean countries, and at present its vistas include an endless procession of heavy equipment along thirty-thousand acres of high ridges and oceanside flatlands. The master plan calls for at least five golf courses, a vast array of private residences (five thousand or more), and multiple hotels, restaurants and other facilities in a half-dozen or so distinct developments.

Cap Cana’s flagship course, the Nicklaus-designed Punta Espada, opened in 2006, and it’s a challenging, deeply engrossing day of golf. Every hole feels different (the Champions Tour played its first event here in April, and the course more than held its own). The long, sinuous second is a par five that plays from elevated tees to the ocean six hundred yards away, with an inlet that, together with the wind and yardage, makes it a true three-shot test. The tenth is a classic short par four, with a green that’s reachable in theory—a branch of physics that maybe a Bear or a Tiger might understand but for me means a layup fairway wood and a short iron to avoid the huge waste bunker and lake guarding the island green. I recently played the par-three thirteenth, 249 yards over the roiled sea, with a three-wood, the wind pushing my ball to the back of the green and winning me a high five from my caddie. The seventeenth provides another long carry over water to a snaking fairway, and the second shot at eighteen, along the beach, requires precision to hit a green that teeters over the water, fighting the breeze all the way. A finishing par for me here in a light drizzle was a happy segue into an eight-year-old rum and a fat Dominican cigar.

This winter Cap Cana will open the second of a planned three Nicklaus courses, Las Iguanas. The Sanctuary Cap Cana hotel, a seaside recreation of Colonial village architecture, opened last January. (The Sanctuary Spa is due to open this winter.) The two Island Suites are particular beauties, with bedrooms and baths perched above the breaking waves. The more intimate Caletón Club & Villas hotel opened early this year, its one-to four-bedroom suites flanking a lovely oceanfront club. An entirely self-contained facility with two restaurants and bars, it already rates as one of the Caribbean’s best walk-out beach hotels. The Marina Village is almost complete, and along with the myriad restaurants that will open on the property, it will have every possible amenity and activity, including a spa, the Racquet Sports Village, and several more hotels, managed by Altabella, Sotogrande, Ritz-Carlton and Trump.

Roco Ki

On the other side of the Punta Cana airport is the second big resort being developed here, the 2,500-acre Roco Ki. Its initial eighteen is the Legacy, a spectacular Nick Faldo design (see “Best New Courses of 2008,”) that is serviced by a large Westin hotel. The course is nicely routed through dunes, marsh and forest, but it opens to the sea at seventeen, a delicate par three on a headland that’s perhaps even more dramatic than Pebble Beach’s famed seventh. Coming home from the back tees on eighteen demands a massive carry over a deep sea chasm to the broad and verdant fairway, which plays uphill to the commanding concrete skyline of the new hotel. Ultimately the development will include more hotels, a casino, endless diversions and perhaps three additional courses—though the designers will be hard-pressed to surpass that lovely par three.

Playa Grande

If you’ve led a good life, the Dominican Republic’s ultimate reward for you is a round at a little-known gem on the north coast, Playa Grande. (Some may advise you to try Playa Dorada. Ignore them. It’s a pedestrian, poorly maintained budget course.) Charter a helicopter, rent a plane, hire a car: Do whatever you must to get to Playa Grande, about an hour east of Puerto Plata airport. One of Robert Trent Jones Sr.’s last executed designs, the course sits on a high plateau at the edge of a tropical rainforest. When you pull up to its simple pro shop and 1970s-era clubhouse, there is a tang of ozone in the air from the fine salt mist rising above the cliffs. The first two holes are solid warm-ups, but at the par-three third, 236 yards across an overgrown ravine, you realize something very unusual is happening here. The tee shot on the par-five fourth hints at trouble right, and your caddie points the line to the bunker at the far corner of the dogleg. As you walk over a bridge and then down the fairway, the back of your neck may begin to tingle. Opening up to your right is an immense and jaw-dropping view, the Atlantic sweeping a hundred feet below you into a long, articulated cove and to infinity beyond. The second shot is a classic gambler’s play: To gain a distant promontory green and go for eagle, you have to allow for a draw wind and aim for Europe.

The course has twelve oceanside holes, each of them remarkable and perched atop those Brobdingnagian cliffs. The view from the seventh tee, a par three across a huge cove, may be unequaled in golf, combining the sixteenth at Cypress Point and the eighth at Pebble Beach with a shot of steroids. The drive at the par-five twelfth spans another massive cove, this one receding to the left, begging you to cut the corner. At the thirteenth, great plumes of water jet from a concave cliff wall when the waves are up, a hissing geyser that requires total concentration so as not to pull your tee shot into the briny deep. At the green, the pristine mile-long strand that gives the course its name stretches ten stories below. The par-three seventeenth plays slightly uphill and straight out into the ocean on salt-burned grass that lends the hole an otherworldly aura, as if it ascends directly to heaven.

Playa Grande may not be a secret for long. The new owner, a European real estate group named Dolphin Capital Investors, has entered into a partnership with luxury leader Aman Resorts to develop a boutique hotel and villas on that fine shoreline, and has retained Rees Jones to tweak his father’s masterpiece. But as of February, the course was still in fine condition, and I saw only a handful of golfers—fellow worshippers, if you will, at the Dominican Republic’s ultimate altar of golf.