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.