ISABELA, P.R.–It was one of those magical nights that would only have been better if a beautiful woman had been beside me. High on a rocky cliff-top overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, the air perfumed by violet, maga (Puerto Rico’s version of hibiscus), tropical lilies, fragapane, banyon, avocado,and countless other fragrant flora, I bask in one of the great pleasures of tropical golf…stargazing.
What’s the line rocker Mike Doughty sings to Madeline in his hit song?
I can give you the constellations, Lay down here and we’ll count them all.
And there they are, blossoming one by one over Royal Isabela Golf Links. Orion and the Big Dipper are prominent, of course. But November in the Tropics region of Northern Hemisphere also brings such rarities and the Great Square of Pegasus, Andromeda, Leo, Pisces, and the burning ember of angry Mars, unmistakable in its burnished glow as it sits amid a backdrop of Sagittarius the Archer, whose bow and arrow pulsate with a pure, Silmarilic light. As the minutes pass, more and more of the lazy haze of the Milky Way materializes: an arc of infinity, entrancing us with its immensity, iridescence, and ineffable beauty.
Thanks to conservationist and naturalist brothers Stanley and Charlie Pasarell’s embracing UNESCO’s Dark Sky Initiative – a light-limiting, night sky conservation movement – this is the moment of grace, the peace and heart’s ease that define a world-class vacation destination – not the amenities, (although they are sparkling – it snows food and rains drink at Royal Isabela). Not the accommodations, (though one might think they were royalty for the duration of their stay, the casitas are so large and well appointed), and not the golf, (though Royal Isabela is destined to take its place alongside Casa de Campo as a premiere Caribbean golf destination).
No, the defining moment of a vacation is when the rest of the World fades away, when all cares and stresses dissolve. It’s that solace you find when you escape the traffic of the World – when it’s just you, your loved one, and the strange staccato tenor of the tree frogs as they chirp in the trees, the soft trill of the mockingbird, (who never sings the same song twice), and a long bell’s lonely ring chiming its sad song in reply to the soft rumble of the deep blue waves as they crash into the white surf.
Daybreak will bring the mountains in silhouette, and as the sun stretches its rays like arms embracing us we will see the very edges of the World Golf Map. And much like Columbus redrew the map of the World with his journeys, Royal Isabela is a voyage of discovery for an adventurous golfer. Gratefully, there are so many wonders to explore.
Located in the Caribbean Sea east of the Dominican Republic and west of the Virgin Islands the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, an unincorporated territory of the U.S., consists of one main island and several much smaller islands. (Think Jupiter and its satellites.) Shaped like a nearly-perfect rectangle with the southeast corner torn off, Puerto Rico’s center lies in 18°15’ north, 66° 25’ west. It extends roughly 110 miles from east to west at its widest point and about 40 miles from north to south.
Puerto Rico is an oceanic island, not a continental one; it rose from the depths through volcanic eruptions rather than breaking from the mainland in tectonic upheaval. Thus, most of its indigenous flora and fauna are unique to itself, though close relatives exist elsewhere. The legendary sapphire blue of its waters and gargantuan surfing waves are derived from its location: the Puerto Rico trench, the second deepest place on the planet, behind only the famous Mariana Trench deep in Oceana.
Originally referred to as “Borinquen” by the indigenous Amerindian inhabitants, (called the Taino), Puerto Rico was claimed for Spain by Columbus during his second trans-Atlantic voyage in 1493, and it remained a Spanish Protectorate until 1898 when, as a concession of the Treaty of Paris,(which ended the Spanish-American War), it was ceded to the U.S. In 1917, the U.S. granted citizenship to Puerto Ricans, in 1948 they were given the right to elect their own governor, and in 1952 they adopted and ratified a local territorial Constitution, although Puerto Ricans are still subject to the plenary jurisdiction of the U.S. Congress. As of 2014, Puerto Rico remains a U.S. territory, although a 2012 referendum showed a majority, (54% of the electorate), in favor of a change in status, with full statehood the preferred option. With around 3.6 million people, Puerto Rico ranks third in population among the group of four islands that comprise the Greater Antilles. San Juan is both its capital and largest city. It’s time zone is one hour ahead of U.S. EST.
Due to its relatively small size as an island, its lack of natural resources used to produce raw materials, and its dependence on imports, (as well as its suzerainty to the United States which controls its foreign affairs in freehold while exerting trading restrictions, particularly in its shipping industry), Puerto Rico prospered until 2006 before stagnating under a combination of economic and political factors. Its economy is driven mainly by the manufacture of pharmaceuticals, textiles, petrochemicals and electronics as well as service industries like finance, insurance, real estate and tourism.
Despite this downturn, don’t believe what you hear about Puerto Rico being poorer than Mississippi and 41% of its population being below the poverty line.
“I think that’s a myth that is propagated to sell an image. With all the coastal real estate, travel, and pharmaceutical companies booming, most Puerto Ricans are a thriving cash business under the table,” explained one prominent investment banker/entrepreneur who spoke on condition of anonymity. “You should see the malls – there’s a million of them, and they’re always packed. And on top of that, we have Sam’s Club and Costco. People from the other islands come here and load up before going back home, so everyone prospers. There is a strong middle class that is bourgeoning. You should see their kids! They all wear $200-$300 soccer outfits to school.”
American businesses and corporations are especially welcome as significant tax breaks are given to businesses that move to Puerto Rico. As one law may expire, another will take its place, and American ex-pats grow legion as each year passes.
When you think about it, can you blame them? A sign at the airport reads “Welcome to Paradise,” and that’s as accurate as it gets. Due to its location – well within the tropics – Puerto Rico has the quintessential tropical climate: hot all year-round. The average temperature hovers between 82 and 83 degrees F., (28 C.), and varies merely six degrees or so between winter and summer. Coastal water temps are a balmy 75°-85°, so the sun-dripped beaches are heavenly.
Baseball, basketball, soccer, golf, boxing matches, road races and marathons, scuba diving, kayaking, spelunking, and zip-lining are all popular diversions athletically, while meringue, salsa, dance, opera, and literature are all cultural treasures, as are the myriad wondrous Catholic churches that grace the country with their gorgeous architecture. Mass in Spanish is an aural treat as a rotund Friar Tuck-looking priest booms out in stentorian tones, “Credo in uno deo!”
Other diversions include verdant botanical gardens, ancient lighthouses and stargazing observatories, one of which features the world’s largest radio telescope.
When it comes to food, Puerto Rico has everything. Beef and pork are plentiful, as is poultry. Savory, delicately oiled sausages called longaniza, are a local delicacy, as are starches such as yucca and plantain. As is expected of an island nation, Puerto Rico boasts a galaxy of different fresh seafood and shellfish. Coffee and rum compete with each other for the unofficial title of national drink, the former being strong yet refreshingly smooth, featuring the wonderful slightly burned taste indicative of the freshest ground blends, while the latter, when properly aged, (over one year), is smoother and far more palatable than the best whiskies or bourbons, lacking the gaseous headiness that rudely assaults the tongue when one drinks even the finest wheat distillations. Try Brugal, Atlantico, Pyrat, or any other fine Puerto Rican or Dominican rum and you’ll find its flavor far more civilized. [Author’s Note: Anyone from Dublin, Edinburgh, or Tennessee who feels the need to disagree may lodge a complaint by dialing my message receiving service at 1-899-462-4355, so long as they leave their home phone number. Inquiries will be robotically responded to between the hours of 2 and 5 a.m. their local time.]
Located in the far northwest corner of the island, two hours from San Juan airport, (but just half an hour from the Aguadilla terminal), Royal Isabela Golf Links and the accompanying resort sit 200 feet atop the rugged, rocky Atlantic Ocean coastline. It’s one of the more visually arresting destinations in golf. At this edge of the World, you truly feel like an explorer visiting a terra incognito. The entire property spans a gargantuan 2,000 acres of land.
The present-day 21 holes [as of December 2014] stretch across a portion of the coastline, but also explore the adjacent farmlands, (a total 80 farms from 50 different owners), along with verdant mangroves, forest-fragrant hills, and stunning caves with secret grottos. It’s a wonderfully lush and variegated ecosystem, and at times it’s tremendously beautiful.
It’s a terrific nature walk with your golf clubs.
“Wait a minute: 21 holes?” you ask? Great question. Let me explain: Right now, Royal Isabela is an ever-morphing work in progress, so prepare to be confused: There are two sixth holes, (which run in different directions and have different pars, one a 4, the other a 5), there are two 11th holes, (both par-3s, one public and one private), and there’s a mystery hole tucked between holes 9 and 10, (a 235-yard uphill par-4), that has a tee and a green, but no fairway yet. While the public can pick and choose which sixth hole they wish to play, (the player with the honor gets to choose…after he hits his drive…), the private 11th hole, a par-3 on the cliff edge – is the entranceway to co-owner Stanley Pesarell’s seaside home. (That’s why it’s private.)
He can play his way into his own front door! How’s that for living the dream?!
Now to confuse things more, they have grand plans for the future at Royal Isabela. There is enough land for 90 holes of golf, so ideas are quickly solidifying for a new course to open as early as 2017 – however the 18 holes that comprise the present-day resort course in existence right now will be split up when three new holes in the sand dunes open and become holes 6-8 of what exists right now. Another eight holes may be routed around and among inland water tables, probably not too dissimilar to what you find at the East Course at Dorado Beach.
David Pfaff, one of the earliest design associates of the great Pete Dye, routed the first 17 holes, but suffered a fatal heart attack last year, leaving the Pesarells to finish building the course on their own. The Pesarell brothers each routed their own respective sixth holes: Stanley’s being the uphill par-4 with the center-line bunker, Charlie’s being the par-5 that curves like a scimitar around a canyon and features a heaving sea fairway. (Charlie, by the way, holds the record for longest tennis match in Wimbledon history.)
The 18 holes that comprise the official course run the gamut from world-class to head-scratching, but the good far outweighs the perplexing. Two…maybe three…holes need simple changes that will improve them dramatically. The rest are fine, in places even brilliant.
Royal Isabela’s two greatest attributes are its terrain and its green contours.
“Wait a minute: what about the gorgeous natural setting?” you ask. Another great question – remember that when evaluating a golf course, natural setting only counts for between 20-25% of a total score, while 66-70% is the design of the golf holes themselves.
Otherwise rankings lists become nothing more than a battle of bottle blondes.
THE GREAT IDEAS
At Royal Isabela, some holes have split fairways with multiple angles of attack, such as the drive on the par-5 first hole, and the second shot on the par-5 sixth hole, (presuming you play that hole…). Other greens and fairways cling breathtakingly to cliff-tops with diagonal angles of attack, (holes 12 and 16), while still others, (the par-4 third and fifth holes), cascade like a ski run through tumultuous hills before finishing at greens with picture window views of the Atlantic.
The green contours are all outstanding, not a single one is an afterthought, nor are any flat. Many fairways bleed seamlessly into the greens themselves, so you have a wide variety of options – bump and run, pitch and check, lob wedge, putt – on most holes you can be creative as your lie and angle allow. Architecturally, the greens are the other showstopping centerpiece of the golf course.
And yes, the course is beautiful. Several holes on the front (1, 3, 5…), offer views of the ocean though a notch in the ridge, while the back nine takes you thrillingly to the edge of the precipice, seemingly the edge of the world, (12, 14, 16, and 17). As such, David Pfaff did a masterful job of pacing the round of golf so excitement builds to a crescendo by the time you reach 17, a par-3 with a 200 yard carry to a green clinging precariously to the cliff edge.
But better still, the movement in the terrain, both vertical and horizontal, is magnificent. Some holes dog-leg sharply so golfers are required to shape shots. Others tumble down hills before rising to plateaus. Happily, you’ll 18 level lies during the day – one on every tee box.
The course that exists today will ultimately morph into a member’s course, so some of its quirk – and here me mean “quirky interesting,” a compliment – some of its quirk such as knolls in front of greens, blind shots, and center line hazards will bee seen as positives, as they should be.
IDEAS THAT NEED RECONSIDERATION
However some of the quirk is the wrong kind of quirk – “quirky weird” – and that is almost universally caused by trees and overgrown bushes. Whether it’s palm trees scattered across the 13th fairway like prison bars, a curtain of trees blockading the 10th green, (and that’s after a “hit it between the tree gates” tee shot), or brush grown so high and so close to the tee box that you really have to loft your drive so that the net of branches and leaves doesn’t snag your ball like a shortstop eating up a line drive, you see that an amateur’s hand was at work finishing the golf course. No professional golf course architect would have left trees that have no architectural purpose whatsoever blocking the airspace of the golf hole, nor would they require the optimum shot into the green to be a goofy hook which still needs a lucky bounce to get on the green. Width is everything at the highest levels of golf architecture.
The error is particularly egregious on the 10th hole where not only does the curtain of trees force all golfers to play the hole the same way, but the trees are all dead, blown over by a hurricane, and they are kept there solely because the Pesarells like the way it looks.
Keeping dead trees in play trades aesthetics for playing angles and airspace, and trades target golf for strategy, and that makes course easier for expert golfers, but harder for amateurs and resort guests/members. Indeed, the biggest problem globally is air space – they need more of it at Royal Isabela. It’s one thing to have to fade your drive around a tree on the short and sexy par-4 third hole in an effort to drive the green, or draw one around a specimen tree at the great par-4 fifth of seventh – that’s a take your breath away moment! But it’s another altogether to hit a perfect drive on 13 and be snookered by some random palms that actually pepper the fairway completely cross its width.
“It interjects luck,” some say. No it doesn’t – it manufactures luck artificially, and that’s the difference between a great hole and a bad one. That’s also the difference between a professional architect who knows where the line is between clever and campy, and an amateur hand that is learning as he/she goes. David Pfaff was the associate of Pete Dye. Knowing Pete, David would probably not have let the Pesarells leave those trees on those holes. And if it were Pete himself, the minute the Pesarells stepped off campus for a taste of southeast Asia at 110 Thai Restaurant in Aguadilla, they would have returned to find those trees burning in a pile and a defiant Dye waiting for them.
As it should be. See “Kohler, Herb” on that score.
“But those palm trees were here before. You wouldn’t want us to disrespect the prior land use, would you?” some may ask. Yes, I bloody well would…for the good and welfare of the golf course. You can keep one, maybe two without the hole becoming a crapshoot. It’s bad golf design when two guys can split a fairway with perfect shots and one gets punished – from the middle of the fairway he just split with a laser beam – even if he’s inches from the other player’s ball. You punish a poorly struck golf ball, not a good shot, and you certainly don’t let pot luck be the line of demarcation – not at the highest levels of golf design.
Likewise, 10 is one of those dictatorial par-5s where you must club down off the tee with an iron or hybrid, then 3-wood to carry a water hazard. This dictatorial target-style of architecture has been roundly rejected by golf architects and knowledgeable critics for the past 25 years. The strategic school has ascended back to prominence while the dinosaur of penal architecture has become, gratefully, extinct.
On other holes, 16 and 18 for example, the bushes in front of the tee have grown so high, they might snare the drives of players with a low ball flight. In particular, these impediments more frequently affect the average golfer rather then the expert, but as experts find Royal Isabela difficult as it is – demanding at every phase: driving approaches, and short game. Mere mortals are taxed to the extreme at times.
As indelibly memorable a golf experience as Royal Isabela is, the owners have to understand, they can’t save every tree. It turns the sublime into the ridiculous. Every superintendent will tell you – including the excellent Royal Isabela super Dean Vande Hai – trees and golf run at cross purposes. The old adage rings true throughout centuries: You can grow tees or you can grow grass.
We all love the Pesarells for their class, charm, and Old World, downright Continental social graces. But no rater or critic worth his job allows charm to get him to reconsider solid golf architecture principles. Since no living person has yet been able to convince the Pesarells that the course will get much stronger by removing just a fistful of trees and trimming a few bushes, let’s try the words of an undisputed immortal, Donald Ross who both said and wrote:
“As beautiful as trees are, and as fond as you and I are of them, we must not allow our sentiments to crowd out the real intent of a golf course, that of providing fair playing conditions. If it in anyway interferes with a properly played stroke, I think a tree is an unfair hazard and should not be allowed to stand.”
Try as they might, and as noble and admirable as their motives are, and admitting that usually the meaning of art is found within the abstractions, the trees creates an architectural disconnect in enough places to keep the course from being spoken of as one of the greatest on the world, but it’s nothing a chain saw, machetes, hedge clippers, and a little strength of will can’t fix.
Though penal in some places, (and all but impossible to find a golf ball that goes into the high rough due to thick grasses and fire ant nests), on the whole, however, the present-day course is quite excellent, superlative in many places. And if they ever get a chain saw and a machete, they could rival Casa de Campo for top spot in the Caribbean. The par-4s at 12 and 14 are perfection, vying for places among the greatest seaside holes on Earth, the former featuring a cliff-edge drive to a diagonally situated fairway before ascending to an oceanside double green which it shares with 14, the latter ascending majestically to the same green.
At the ninth hole, Pfaff designed an island green, perhaps as a nod to his former employer’s work at 17 at Sawgrass. This green is much larger than its Ponte Vedra counterpart and has a most unusual denizen, Agatha the Giant Iguana, (named after a girl who keeps stalking me). She’s big and scaly, with a wicked tail, a forked tongue, and bulging eyes…kind of like what my mother looks like when the Pittsburgh Steelers are losing a football game.
Some raters who are preconditioned, afraid of change and only like things they have seen before may see some of the blind tee shots as a negative, but any rater/writer worth the job is not so intransigent.
“Yes there are blind shots, but that’s just fine,” said resort guest Ben Rich, who brought his pregnant wife Ariel to Royal Isabela on a babymoon. “That’s the way golf is in the U.K. Moreover the course is eminently natural. It almost looks untouched.”
Yes the minimalist approach is a great positive, (though 126 tee boxes – an average of a whopping seven per hole), might be overkill. They only moved between 200,000 to 250,000 cubic yards of earth to build it – next to nothing by today’s standards.
The climax comes at 17 with its green clinging to a precipice on the edge of the Atlantic. For the faint of heart, one can aim at a tree on the right – appropriately called a “Chicken Tree” to signify that you chickened out at going for the pin.
But for right now, the courses at Casa and the Dunes Course at Diamante are much stronger 1-18 as there are no glaring architectural errors, and their natural settings are equally strong.
Royal Isabela is a big, juicy ribeye steak, but not the chateaubriand and double porterhouse that Casa and Diamante are because the fatty excess needs to be trimmed. Just like even the best writers need editors – someone with both an objective eye and a depth of talent and expertise to ruthlessly delete the excess – so too does an amateur architect need the guidance counsel and advice of the seasoned expert to avoid simple yet glaring mistakes.
And I’ll tell you something else – the first person to bring Tom Doak down to the Caribbean will instantly have a game changer on their hands…as long as they listen to him.
Moreover, with Bob Jones in the process of designing what will essentially be “Chambers Bay Caribbean” at Dorado Beach West, no one can sit on their laurels for long and stay competitive. Golf Travel has become a “What have you done for me lately business at the highest levels, and mistakes like 10 and 13 are the difference between topping a rankings list as opposed to merely making it.
It’s snowing in Syracuse. It’s a sideways blizzard in fact…on November 13th. That’s an ominous sign – we could be in for a long winter in the North Country. Night will close swift and dark and early for the next four months.
It’s so bad, even Swifty’s, my standby watering hole, is closing early. Exquisite Jamie, incomparable in all her blindingly gorgeous cover girl beauty, has already shut the cash register as I sidle up to order a Don Julio blanco, (the only blanco to drink), and unpack my handy new Toshiba 2 in 1 laptop/tablet to start this article.
Yet I’m still warm, metaphorically. First the Sun, blazing like an arclight, shone from the hilltops to the city as we blistered in the heat of the noonday sun. But as day declined a glad day melted into a golden sunset. Then the moon itself cried “don’t make me come down!” as meteor after meteor wheeled overhead, gleaming more brightly than the most precious jewels.
Slowly, as furtive as scouts within the encampment of their enemies, the tree frogs again materialize, singing their mysteries to the orchids and banyons, the owls and the hermit crabs, while the everlasting music of the ocean provides a poignant harmony.
Buddhists believe if you walk long distances to holy places, it purifies the soul; the longer and more difficult the journey, the greater the depth of purification. A trip here to this distant, lonely spot is an elixir to the soul, a restorative. The days ahead may be long and cold and dark, but even the depth of winter fades just thinking about Puerto Rico and Royal Isabela. And that will dispel winter’s chill long enough until I return, gladness in my heart, a spring in my step, waiting with baited breath to once again see this far greener country.
This article also appeared at Cybergolf.com