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Golfing Puerto Rico

The history of golf in Puerto Rico is brief enough that if you look, you can find an individual who remembers nearly all of it. One such man is Juan Gonzalez, the professional at a club called Coamo Springs. Gonzalez is short, wiry and green-eyed, and he carries a line in his tanned face for every year of his golf career, which began in 1950.

That was in the first era of Puerto Rican golf, the era of the military and the fake hole in one. Gonzalez lived in a tough, poor neighborhood in San Juan called, without apparent whimsy, La Perla ("The Pearl"). Not far from there, the U.S. Army built a nine-hole course, with sand greens, around the walls of a Spanish colonial fortress, El Moro. The course has been gone for years, but that was how golf came to Puerto Rico—with the American military.

Gonzalez became a caddie. Caddies were paid from ten to twenty-five cents a bag in those days, so they were eager for tips. If a golfer declined to tip, they had a way of getting back at him. One of the holes at El Moro was a blind par three over the fortress walls. There was a golfer whose name Gonzalez recalls as Tom. He was a tightwad and never tipped. So, every now and then, the forecaddie at the blind hole over the wall would pick up Tom's ball and place it in the cup, assuring that he would have to buy drinks for everyone that day.

"When I was caddying there he must have made sixty holes in one," Gonzalez remembers, all but giggling.

A caddie could play for free on Mondays, and Gonzalez did. At first, he had one club, a wedge, and played all nine holes with it. He skipped school to play. His father would beat him for that. But within a year, he was a skilled golfer.

That prepared him for the second era of Puerto Rican golf, the era of the resort and the trick shot. In 1958, Laurance Rockefeller opened a resort about twenty miles west of San Juan near a beach town called Dorado. It was a luxurious place. The low-slung guest rooms were in brick casitas, strung along the ocean. If you were sailing a few hundred yards offshore, you might not know the resort was there.

Rockefeller hired Robert Trent Jones to design a golf course with grass greens and sea views. The course needed pros, and the resort hired Gonzalez and another former caddie, Juan Rodriguez, whose friends called him Chi Chi.

Chi Chi would, of course, go on to fame on the U.S. pro tours, but in those early years at Dorado Beach, he and Gonzalez played a role akin to that of the tummler, the social director in the old Catskill resorts of New York.

"We had to entertain the guests," Gonzalez recalls. "Chi Chi was a showman, and we developed trick-shot routines." Chi Chi and Juan would hit shots out of paper cups. They would hit shots sitting and kneeling. They would hit shots off tees two feet high. They would take a five-iron and hit one ball down the left side and fade it and then, very quickly, another ball down the right side and draw it, so the two balls would cross in flight. They would hit shots off the toe of the club and stop them on the practice green.

"It's easy," Gonzalez says. He gets up from his chair near the clubhouse at Coamo Springs and walks over to a concrete apron where carts are parked. He drops a ball. He takes a wedge and turns the face so that it's aimed at his shoes. The toe of the club is pointing at the ball. He swings. The toe makes crisp contact with the ball, which soars to the eighteenth green and plops down, stopping about thirty feet from the flag. Gonzalez is apologetic that it isn't closer. "I haven't practiced it in a while," he says.

He worked for decades as a resort pro while golf spread along the island's north coast: from Dorado Beach to Rio Mar to El Conquistador to Palmas del Mar. Then the third era of Puerto Rican golf brought him to Coamo Springs.

In the third era—in which we now live—golf is no longer just a tourist diversion. Puerto Rico, Gonzalez estimates, has about 40,000 golfers. The game is decidedly chic with the island's growing business elite. In the past decade, the number of courses has roughly doubled to meet the demand.

The new courses don't necessarily belong to North American resort chains. The Serralles family, maker of Don Q rum, owns the twenty-seven-hole Costa Caribe Country Club. A real estate developer, Hector M. Torres, owns Coamo Springs, where Gonzalez figures 85 percent of the rounds are played by locals. And Chi Chi owns a new course he designed called El Legado. Every Puerto Rican course of note operates as a semiprivate facility, dividing its tee times among local members, daily-fee players and tourists. Puerto Ricans are taking the game brought to them by the military and the tourists and making it their own.

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