2003: Punta Cana a sensational blend

By Rex Hoggard

Punta Cana, Dominican Republic

After three lazy days poking around the comfortable corridors of Punta Cana Resort and Club, sand, surf and sport had blended into a single sensation.

The journey, however, was just beginning. There’s another cozy resort to the west with more unforgettable Teeth of the Dog golf at Casa de Campo near La Romana.

The road from Punta Cana to La Romana is pot-marked, winding and dotted with colorful stands. Children selling live guineas (small chickens). Old women hawking hand-made cigars.

And even older men wearing tattered security guard uniforms and wielding rustic-looking, high-powered rifles.

Seventy-two hours nestled in the lap of luxury had shrouded the obvious. This is the Third World.

Call it a refreshing blast of reality. Consider it a wake-up call. Whatever the case, if you’re going to schlep all the way down to the Dominican Republic, you owe it to yourself to taste life on both sides of the resort wall.

The gritty neighborhoods of Higuey and the surrounding rural villages provide a stark contrast to the lavish accommodations and plush fairways found at Punta Cana and Casa de Campo. More importantly, the well-traveled road gives visitors a taste of the real Dominican Republic and a greater appreciation of the place and its people.

“There are no prejudices down there. They don’t know the meaning of the word,” P.B. Dye said. “It’s a true melting pot.”

Dye, the youngest of legendary architect Pete Dye’s two sons, should know: He has spent a good part of his adult life on the island.

P.B. Dye followed his father down to the Dominican Republic in 1971, the year Pete Dye carved 18 magical holes from a hillside overlooking the Caribbean Sea at Casa de Campo and put this tiny island nation on the golf map. A little more than a year ago, about 95 kilometers up the coast, P.B. put the finishing touches on what may soon become his own tropical masterpiece and gave the golf world a reason to come back.

There’s plenty of dad in P.B.’s Punta Cana. The par-3 12th is a slightly adapted, albeit friendlier version of Pete’s 17th at the TPC at Sawgrass and there are Dye-signature pot bunkers aplenty, especially on the layout’s closing holes. The overall product, however, is all P.B.

Unlike his father at Casa de Campo, P.B. Dye was not afforded the same rugged canvas with which to create Punta Cana. Other than palm trees and pristine beaches, the land that became this 7,152-yard, par-72 layout was flat and virtually featureless. Two years and 500,000 cubic meters of displaced earth later, P.B. Dye had an architectural gem.

While the par-3 fifth is the only true “ocean hole” on the front nine, it’s the par-4 seventh – at 326 yards a classic risk/reward hole – that highlights the outward loop. The remaining inland holes meander through lush palm groves before giving way to the vast blue-green waters of the Caribbean and Punta Cana’s dramatic finale.

The par-4 17th runs parallel to the beach and requires a risky approach over the sea and into the prevailing wind. The par-5 18th is a warm-weather version of Pebble Beach’s closing hole, gently curving left to an enormous, well-protected green with a large collection area separating the sea from the rear of the putting area.

“I was trying to get a completely different look than Teeth of the Dog, which I think we did,” Dye said. “There was no detailed plan beforehand. We trust the process. I’ve built almost 50 courses and I trust that sometimes I know what I don’t know, and I accept that and go with whatever happens.”

The course is the defining piece to an entertainment puzzle Dominican entrepreneur Frank Rainieri started building 14 years ago when he first opened Punta Cana. By most accounts, Punta Cana also is the spark that has ignited the region’s golf flame.

Next fall, Jack Nicklaus is scheduled to open Punta Espada Golf Course in Cap Cana, just a few kilometers down the beach from Punta Cana, and there are another two Nicklaus signature courses on the drawing board.

In addition, Dye already has completed the routing for a second course in Punta Cana, to be called Corales, and construction is scheduled to start early this year.

“The world of Caribbean golf in a few years will be here in Punta Cana,” said Olivier Brizon, the outspoken Frenchman in charge of Punta Cana’s golf operations. “Within 10 kilometers, there will be eight wonderful golf courses.”

Neither the promise of near-limitless golf nor the area’s celebrated hospitality, however, should keep travelers from the adventure that lies beyond the manicured confines of the resort.

Besides, this is paradise and the only mistake to be made is complacency. In links lexicon, that brings visitors back to Casa de Campo. While the Punta Cana region may someday become the island’s golf epicenter, no trip to the Dominican Republic would be complete without testing the original – Pete Dye’s Teeth of the Dog layout.

On your way to the Teeth of the Dog – which, with its timeless routing and quirky curves is as undoubtedly entertaining today as it was 30 years ago – take the time to smell the robustos.

Sample some freshly cut sugar cane or barter for a bottle of Brugal rum, all the while trying to avoid eye contact with the elder sentry with the vintage weapon. Whatever you do, don’t miss the real Dominican Republic. The people, as much as the golf, are what turn a relaxing respite into an exotic journey.

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