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Golfing Puerto Rico

This is both good and bad news for the visitor from North America. The good news, as Ronald Reagan might have said, is the magic of the marketplace: choice and competition.

Thanks to Costa Caribe, Coamo Springs and El Legado, you can now, for instance, opt to play south of the Cordillera Central, the chain of hills and mountains running east to west that forms the island's spine. The mountains block a lot of the rain that is carried to the north side of the island by the prevailing trade winds. In the average December, the northern city of Dorado gets 6.37 inches of rain; Ponce, in the south, gets 1.13 inches. That's a lot of washed-out rounds avoided.

The newcomers are also spurring competition. Most of the established resorts have added a new course or have given old ones major face-lifts in the past five years. The new ones feel pressed to offer something still better.

"I noticed that there were not a lot of courses in the Caribbean with fun greens," says Tom Kite, who did the greens and the bunkering for a Bruce Besse Jr. routing at the new Coco Beach complex. "So I gave this one large greens with lots of contours."

Indeed, Coco Beach has moved far from the standard that prevailed in the early days of Puerto Rican resort golf, when the tendency in green construction was to push up a little dirt, then let the Bermuda spread. But Coco's greens stop short of being cruelly severe. "It's a resort course, and we don't want to beat people up," Kite says.

Chi Chi felt the competition as he designed El Legado. It will, ultimately, be his answer to Arnold Palmer's Bay Hill, with a small resort hotel. "This is where my trophies and awards will be. It's where I'll be when I'm not in the States playing. I want to be able to say hello to everyone," he says. "But I wouldn't make it as hard as Bay Hill."

Instead, he says, it will surpass other Puerto Rican courses in details such as the quality of the turf. El Legado will have "the only California-style greens in Puerto Rico," Rodriguez says, with surfaces covered in TifEagle.

There's even now a bit of price competition. À la carte fees at established north-coast resorts can be high—up to $200 per round. As in Florida and Arizona, the fee structure at most Puerto Rican resorts is designed to extract the highest pay from the winter tourist. There are, however, lower fees for club members and locals, particularly in the off-season. In the new era, it wouldn't hurt to ask for the local rate if you're booking a round; you might get it. And the south-coast courses offer bargains to everyone.

In truth, there's enough variety in Puerto Rican golf now to justify renting a car and taking a golf-infused road trip instead of letting a hotel van drive you from the airport to a single resort. The island boasts a reliable, well-marked network of four-lane divided highways, and getting around is simple—although you may come to find that a large percentage of the vehicles you encounter have apparently got defective turn signals.

You'll notice that almost wherever you go, Puerto Rican golf is enclave golf. The courses are inside gated resorts or gated communities, and the only nongolfers you'll encounter are likely to be the iguanas at Rio Mar, the pelicans at Dorado Beach or the egrets at El Legado.

Puerto Rican golf is also, almost without exception, cart golf. Motorized play is now so entrenched that the sign on Highway 3 marking the turn to the Coco Beach course is a silhouette of a man driving a cart. The only course I found that allows walking is Coamo Springs, and that's only on Mondays.

You'll also discover that although many Puerto Rican courses include the words "mar" or "ocean" or "beach" in their titles, they mostly play inland, visiting the Caribbean here and there for a par three along the beach or a green perched on a point. The seaside property is generally too valuable for development to give all of it over to golf.

Which—finally—brings up the only downside to the growing popularity of golf in Puerto Rico. Islanders not only want to play the game, but they also want to own condos or villas on the courses. Many lovely vistas are now blocked by residential developments. If you play the oceanside par threes (numbers three and four) at the Palm course at Palmas del Mar, for example, you may lose your concentration imagining what it would be like to live in one of the condos lining the holes.

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