Rater's notebook: Royal Isabela

At Royal Isabela, there is drama in the cliffs, such as here at the 14th hole.

ISABELA, Puerto Rico – Maybe the best way to appreciate the ground is to see it from the air.

The 70-mile helicopter ride west from San Juan reveals the beauty and the contradictions of the Puerto Rican landscape. The city’s modernist clutter quickly gives way to the historic setting of Old San Juan and its coastal fortress. And from there the land variously morphs into a strange juxtaposition of open farm land – mainly former sugar plantations – and small-town ramshackle homes, metal-roofed sheds and small industrial buildings. But out near the island’s northwest corner, the land takes on more dramatic form, with rolling hills and deep river valleys that blend into oceanside cliffs. It is here, on a plain perched 200 feet above the surf, that a sparkling addition to the region’s golf repertoire has come to life.

Royal Isabela has been 20 years in the making. Brothers Charles and Stanley Pasarell, native Puerto Ricans who enjoyed prominent pro tennis careers in the 1960s and ’70s before pursuing various real estate and business ventures, revived the project after it had failed in the hands of other developers. The site comprises 426 acres of cleared grazing land, tropical forest, limestone outcropping and a tunnel-like, half-mile stretch of the century-old railroad line that encircled the island until its abandonment in the late 1950s. And, of course, those cliffs – ideal for golf drama.

There’s a definite rhythm to the holes here. Course designer David Pfaff, a Pete Dye protege, has routed the front nine entirely inland, with some long views of the ocean to tantalize you but nothing on the waterfront. On the back nine, all hell breaks loose, and Pfaff conjures up every trick in the links arsenal to make you wish these holes would never end. He has fall-away greens that require a bump-and-run approach; infinity-edge putting surfaces that look as if they are suspended in midair, with only the ocean as background; massive cliff-top fairways that tempt you to flirt with the rocky shoreline edge; and one of those scimitar-shaped par 3s where you have to carry a deep ravine. “Any idiot would have found that hole,” Pfaff says of the 17th. “The job was making the others work.”

For the most part, they do. But there are some hiccups, most of them on the front nine: too much side slope to greens; an over-reliance on oversized fairway hollows with a catch basin at the bottom; and dollop-shaped mounding that feels manufactured. The Pasarells, ever the playful sportsmen, also indulge a few too many heroic tee shots from the member and championship tees that would benefit from tree removal. But almost all is forgiven on that rollicking back nine.

Immediate plans for Royal Isabela include a second 18-hole course, which is not yet under construction, 50 homesites (1-2 acres each), 100 villas and 20 resort casitas for use by international members. Preliminary plans for an additional 1,374 acres could include three more golf courses, tourism amenities and further residential development.

The island’s golf development is almost all focused on San Juan and the northeast coastline. This is the first sustained effort to tip the balance to a corner of Puerto Rico that until now has been an off-the-beaten-path retreat for a unique, laid-back culture shared by bikers, surfers, fishermen, affluent San Juanistas and Continentals, and foreigners who, despite their middle age, never quite lost their “California-dreaming” lifestyle.

It’s too much to explain in a golf course review, except to say the place has a compelling quality – like a rational version of Ireland’s Old Head.

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Rater’s notebook: Royal Isabela

1. Ease and intimacy of routing: 6

A couple of longer-than-necessary crossover walks, with the front nine feeling just a bit tight but the back nine spacious and exhilarating.

2. Quality of feature shaping: 6

Mounding and basins on the front nine seem manufactured; the back nine looks much more settled and elegant. Sod-wall bunkering adds a lot, and there are well-designed run-ups to many greens, which come in handy in the wind.

3. Natural setting and overall land plan: 7

Limestone walls and the occasional small ruins evoke the sensibility of Old San Juan. Hacienda-style clubhouse and windswept patio with a lovely outlook also give the place character. If and when the real estate comes in, some ambiance and lower views will be sacrificed.

4. Interest of greens and surrounding chipping contours: 6

Big whipsaws here and there, plus the occasional, maddening false front or overly steep fall-off suggest that a few of the surfaces are a bit much.

5. Variety and memorability of par 3s: 8

Good range of uphill/downhill, with club selection (from 6,675-yard tees) from 9-iron to 3-hybrid.

6. Variety and memorability of par 4s: 6

Considerable mix, though the front-nine par 4s convey containment and compression of landscape forms while the back-nine par 4s convey openness and release.

7. Variety and memorability of par 5s: 7

All are thoughtfully demanding and strategic on the second shot; the showcase is the linksy, banana-shaped 10th, with a dramatic second shot skirting cross hazards to a green that has to be approached gingerly on the ground.

8. Basic conditioning: 8

Bermudagrass playing surfaces (Ultradwarf Bermudagrass greens, 419 Bermudagrass fairways and tees) are well-grown; scraped-out dunes-like sand areas work well as transitional areas. Course conveys a vigorous environmental policy in the form of locally cultivated turfgrass, extensive native habitats and an organic vegetable garden for the clubhouse restaurant.

9. Landscape and tree management: 5

More selective thinning needed; only drawback is the intentional playfulness with some longer tee shots, such that trees have been left deliberately in the way to create “interest” but end up as nuisances. Some progress has been made, but more needs to be done.

10. Walk in the park test: 7

Mild front, dazzling back.

Overall vote: 6.2

Luxurious, fun and weirdly compelling despite some modest flaws, Royal Isabela surely merits inclusion in the middle of Golfweek’s Best list of the top 50 courses in the Caribbean and Mexico.

• 396 Ave. Noel Estrada, Isabela, Puerto Rico 00662

• 939-940-4150; www.royalisabela.com

• Par 73, 7,667 yards (80.3 rating/155 slope)

• Resort course open to hotel guests only; private club membership via invitation

• Walking encouraged; caddies required

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