No sport is blessed with as much wondrous variety as golf. There’s links golf in the U.K. and Ireland, cliff-top golf on the U.S. Pacific coast, Golden Age parkland golf across the country, sand hills golf in the nation’s breadbasket, and desert golf in the southwest. We build courses that cling to mountains, we grow grass in lava field, and we raise courses from swamps. There’s even golf in the ice fields of northern Scandinavia and in the blast furnace broiling heat of Death Valley. No matter the landscape, if a man can walk there, he can hit a golf ball across it.
For intrepid golfers, the Caribbean, Mexico, and Central America provide a completely different ecosystem form our sport. There’s jungles, deserts that are actually oceanside, sugar plantations, cliff-tops, mangroves – all sorts of wondrous variety you won’t find in the climates of the U.K. or U.S. What was once terra incognita for golfers has recently become well populated with solid golf courses. Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America were treated quite well by the golf boom of the 1990s and early 2000s, and where once Puerto Rico’s Dorado Beach dominated the region’s golf tourism, a Tyrannosaur hungrily feasting among the herbivores, since 1970 golf resorts – including Casa de Campo – have sprung up all across the Tropics – from Puerto Rico to the Sea of Cortez and from Bermuda to Costa Rica.
Yet despite the recent surge in popularity, Casa de Campo remains the number one resort in the region, (and many magazines and travel writers world-wide say “in the World”).
Teeth of the Dog, the flagship course at the resort, has perennially held the top spot in the Golf Magazine and Golf Digest rankings for the area since it opened in 1971, even higher than fabled Mid-Ocean Club, Charles Blair Macdonald’s timeless Bermuda masterpiece. In fact, in one magazine’s most recent rankings for courses outside the United States, Teeth of the Dog, (22) was ranked higher than Royal Troon, (36), Royal St. George’s, (32), Ballybunion (Old), (26), Royal Lytham & St. Annes (37), Royal Liverpool, (57), Valderrama, (40), Lahinch, (41), and Mid-Ocean, (47).
Stop the presses! That’s not big, it’s huge. Better than four British Open venues? That means Teeth – and therefore Casa de Campo – should be on every golfer’s bucket list.
Moreover, it’s held its own both on the rankings lists and in terms of difficulty since it opened. It has its own unique character, set in flora unlike any other golf course in the world, a “tropical paradise of bougainvilla and hibiscus…sugarcane fields, stands of cocoanut palms, royal palms, bitter orange, almond and teak trees,” wrote golf travel writer Joel Zuckerman, an expert on Pete Dye golf courses. But even more importantly, the playing angles, strategies, green contours, and bunkering make it an intelligent test of golf, not just an Oceanside walk with pretty views. Anyone can build an Oceanside golf course, but only a world-class architect such as Pete Dye could build a lasting masterpiece that has sincere architectural design value, not just a pretty face and a flash in the pan.
“You got seven holes right in the ocean!” beamed a rightfully proud Pete Dye. “Now on each side, there are two long par-4s that can stretch back to 500 yards if need be, and the par-5s are 580, 590, plus there’s good contour in those greens, so it’s tough enough as it needs to be to challenge the great players.
“You see, back when Jack Nicklaus was playing, he drove it 265 and hit a 7-iron 160. Now they drive it 325 and hit 7-irons 185-190. So we lost sixty yards off the tee, and plenty more through the bag. But even so, we haven’t needed to add all that crazy distance to trick up the golf course though at Teeth, and that’s even with a couple of short par-4s on either side to balance things out as well,” Dye explained. “Now the members and the resort guests still play the tees that are around 6,000 – 6,200 yards. They don’t need all that distance. They have enough of a time keepin’ from knockin’ one or two or even three balls in the water.
“Now here’s the other thing about Casa de Campo,” Dye continued energetically. There’s four courses there, three for the resort guests. At Dye Fore and my new one Dye Five, [Author’s Note: The resort calls this new nine the “Lakes,” but Dye, his design team, and friends all call it Five…], you’re playing all along those cliff-tops overlooking the ocean or the marina or the river. It’s like Pebble Beach or Turnberry out there! At Pebble Beach, the next golf course that’s in bounds is in Japan. At Casa, the next golf course that’s in bounds is in Venezuela.”
In fact, when asked if some holes were modeled after holes at Pebble, in particular No. 11 (or Number 2 on the “Chavon” nine), which seems to bear a remarkable resemblance to number eight at Pebble Beach, Dye responded, “Absolutely. I love the holes along the [Chavon] River and the new work I did at Five is a nice compliment. That may be the best work I’ve done down there since Teeth. I may be braggin’, but it’s different, it’s pretty, and it’s pretty wide, so you can play it, and you can see the mountains. It really ties in with the other work there. I hope to have thirty-six holes there soon.”
Indeed, with its dynamic synergy of brilliant angles and arresting visuals, one of the critical questions will explore in this series is “Why isn’t Dye Fore ranked higher, and will the opening of Five (The Lakes) change that?” Perched on high above the bluffs overlooking the winding Chavon River 225 feet below, tilted fairways, greens clinging precipitously on the edge of the cliff, with so many playing angles you can count them out from the tee box, shouldn’t that be on every golfer’s bucket list too? Further, what about the Links, which according to players, is anything but a side option? What about La Romana, that rarest of birds, an offshore Dye design?
“Now what’s interesting is that the Links course and La Romana play almost as tough as Teeth, but don’t look anywhere near as hard as Teeth. So people have options when they come here. And usually people play all the courses, they jump around from one to the other,” Dye continued. “But best of all, they come down here, and even if they knock three balls in the water a day, they go home and tell everyone who’ll listen what a great time they had, and then they come back down next year, and do it all over again. You gotta love people who love golf!”
It’s obvious Pete Dye loves golfers…although sometimes our scorecards look like he loves terrorizing golfers even more, but most of the visual tricks and exceptionally difficult, penal hazards Dye employed in his resort courses/PGA Tour stops evolved after Teeth of the Dog and the Links course, (opened 1974). Moreover La Romana, (opened 1990), being a private members club, might be milder than what you’ll find at most Dye resorts and PGA Tour stops. Happily, the powers that be didn’t tell Pete to build them a major championship venue and left him to his own devices.
Headline! “Resort owner doesn’t let ego, pipe dreams of major championship ruin his golf course before it opens.”
Leaving the design work to Dye is a good idea according to fellow architect and architecture critic Tom Doak who, in his quintessential golf travel gazette The Confidential Guide to Golf Courses called Teeth of the Dog, “one of the twenty or thirty best courses in the world” and listed it as one of his 31 favorite courses in the World.
As an aside, Doak picked 31 courses because he likes Baskin Robbins ice cream. You gotta love a down to earth guy!
Doak continued by writing, “I know deep down it’s Pete’s own favorite – ideal job description, total artistic control including choice of site….he could shape every contour by hand like the craftsman he is…if you’re headed for the Caribbean, don’t even think about going anywhere else.”
Doak may be right, in actuality. Casa de Campo rules the roost in the region. In theory, there are two other courses in the Dominican Republic that have grown to rival Casa on some rankings lists: Punta Espada in Cap Cana by Jack Nicklaus designs and Corales, (sometimes just called “Punta Cana”), by Tom Fazio. On one magazine’s list, Punta Espada is ranked 31st, (behind Teeth’s 22nd), while Corales doesn’t appear on the list at all. That list, however, is not compiled and edited by the normal architecture editor of that particular magazine. (Interestingly, that list – top 100 outside U.S. – also doesn’t include any other Casa de Campo courses, yet has seven other Caribbean/Mexico/off-shore courses such as Mid-Ocean and three in Cabo del sol, the “flavor of the month” of the region’s golf travel circles.
Another smaller magazine’s rankings actually lists Punta Espada number one in the region and Teeth of the Dog third, behind a Tom Fazio course in San Jose del Cabo called Querencia. This is positively shocking as the latest news out of Punta Espada is disconcerting at best. Money issues have seriously cramped their maintenance budget. Being a Nicklaus course, sources say they need a million dollars annually to keep the course in the conditioning Nicklaus intended, (which may be half the problem right there – sustainability has never been Nicklaus’s forte, budget busting price tags are). With such a bleak outlook, expect Espada to do the typical “percolation downward” that most overhyped courses by mega-watt designers tend to do after debuting high on rankings lists. (The same list also puts Dye Fore as 23rd in the region, while La Romana is 39th, behind several Cabo courses and, frighteningly, two hot messes by Robert von Hagge in Jamaica.)
“How does [magazine name redacted] come up with these rankings? One course has been closed for over a year, some clearly inferior courses are overrated, while far better courses languish below them,” lamented one golf architecture expert and design critic. He has a point – perhaps it’s a combination of advertising money, the designer’s big name and heavy-handed clout, and looky-loos who rate courses by how pretty they are. They see an ocean and forget how to loko at the rest of the course! It just proves that with the exception of Golf Magazine – by far and away the most consistent and trustworthy rankings list – excepting Golf Magazine, rankings tend to be like hippie cooks, they just throw everything together and then tell you how great the mush tastes. That’s the other purpose to my series of articles – you’ll have one man analyzing everything consistently, not a bunch of different people viewing everything through their own frame of reference.
We’ve already played and written about the major courses in Jamaica, including Rose Hall, Tryall, and White Witch. None of them will make my short list of top courses in the region. Too many narrow fairways, ugly, zit-like, fake mounds, head-scratching routings, ludicrously shaped bunkers, (Monkeys? Really?), and flaccid greens make for a missed opportunity to go play the good stuff. Friends don’t let friends “golf slum” (i.e. play lackluster courses). Besides, there is still a serious travel advisory for Jamaica because of the vicious “Stonecutter Gang” responsible for more murders and crime than you care to expose yourself too. If you do go to Jamaica – even though I expressly told you NOT to – do not leave your resort, and don’t trust strangers. Anyone going there seeking drugs, women, or wild parties will find that, at best, everyone at the resort knew exactly where you were and what you were doing and, worse, risks a shakedown. Even those leaving the resort on their own seeking innocent diversions may be opting for serious problems. If you think you’re getting a good deal, first count your money, then your fingers, then your relatives.
“We were told by a guy we met that he’d take us to go see Bob Marley’s house, but they took us to this alley in a slum, and we almost ended up getting jumped and mugged. Had we not booked like Usain Bolt, it would have been lights out,” said one friend. Others were not so lucky. The premiere caddie at Rose Hall was murdered when he went to a local Kwik-E-Mart for cigarettes. The Stonecutter Gang shot and killed someone in the store next to the Kwik-E-Mart, then killed everyone in the Kwik-E-Mart too – “liquidating them as a routine precaution” according to news accounts.
Meanwhile, we also played Puerto Rico’s Dorado Beach last year. While the East Course is only “pretty good” architecturally, it’s been restored to the specifications of Robert Trent Jones, Sr. by his son Bobby. It’s now a museum piece, important in the Pantheon of great courses as a shrine to Trent’s architectural principles and, combined with the resort’s rich history, should crack the top 10 courses in the region without much trouble.
The big news out of Dorado Beach is indeed colossal: word is they may take the advice I proffered in my 2011 article and let Bobby blow up the West courses and another nine holes, (either on the Plantation or the Pineapple course), and let him design a new course in the flavor of the work he did at Chambers Bay. While Bobby is completely supportive of Gil Hanse and his work in Rio for the Olympics course he’s also, understandably, sad he didn’t win the bid. Who can blame him? Nobody likes coming in second, it’s human nature.
So Bobby’s doing what any athlete who lost a championship game would do: he’s gonna bring it big time with his next course and try to beat everybody’s brains in! Right now, Bobby is doing the best work of his life. He’s “caught a lick” as we say in the music industry about guitarists. Chambers Bay was a triumph and the good ideas there are being expounded upon in his new work. He’s going to build one great course after another for quite some time. After conversation with him about his plans for the West course, it may be a game changer in the region should it get done.
But for now, it’s the Dominican Republic and Casa de Campo. It’s rich coffees and cocoas, thick enough to stand your spoon upright. It’s the frenetic beat, yet majestic motions of meringue music’s siren call. It’s middles infielders turning a bang-bang double play at the ball park – getting bowled over by the runner, but finishing the play, killing the rally and sending the game into extra innings. It’s fried yuca, the King of Starches. And it’s perfectly tanned nubile, young vixens in bikinis, Coppertone, and aviators sunning themselves by sapphire seas under azure skies.
And it’s Casa de Campo, a resort so internationally renowned that two girls I know actually got in a fight over which one of them would get to ask me to ride shotgun with me. I’m serious! My ex-girlfriend, the rather inaccurately named “Sweet Betsy,” actually threatened to mace the extremely accurately named “Crazy Agatha” in the face shouting something along the lines of, “this is a new kind of pepper spray and it really stings.”
I settled the issue by telling them both that “This is a working gig. Neither of you is going, and neither of you is getting another date with me until you learn how to behave.” (Which, knowing them, will be never, so I’m safe for a while, I hope.)
“Wait a minute!” I hear you shouting. “Didn’t you just start dating Sweet Betsy three months ago?” you ask. Yes, but 1) incidents such as the one above…well you can guess the rest and 2) I’m always on the lookout for a future ex-girlfriend. Don’t worry about me, there’s plenty of fish in the sea, and soon enough I’ll have another one standing next to me that looks just like her, (except this one will be a blond). But crazy girls that can’t take “no” for an answer and itchy trigger-fingered, pepper-spray carrying, loose cannons need not apply for the position. I’d rather date the Stonecutter Gang.