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.
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.