Dorado East emerges from renovations

Hole No. 16 at Dorado Beach East

Hole No. 16 at Dorado Beach East

DORADO, Puerto Rico – The East Course at Dorado Beach arguably is the most historic course in the Caribbean, and for decades was considered one of the best. 

It was designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr. as part of a seaside resort developed by Laurance Rockefeller’s RockResorts brand. Eight Champions Tour events and the 1964 World Cup of Golf have been played on the East Course. 

When I first visited Dorado Beach in April 2008, however, both the resort and its East Course looked tired. The property’s old Hyatt hotel was an eyesore waiting to be demolished, and the East Course and much of the resort needed extensive landscaping to clear out overgrown trees and foliage so that residents and guests could enjoy the chief attraction: the Atlantic Ocean. 

In July 2010, the resort announced an ambitious redevelopment project, thanks largely to backing from the government’s Tourism Development Fund. The heavy equipment churning away behind construction fencing is evidence that the $342 million first phase is well underway. The most tangible sign of progress is the East Course, which reopened in late October following renovations by the firm run by Robert Trent Jones Jr., whose memories of the property date back to his high school days, when his father was building the original 18 holes.

I’ll have more about the entire Dorado Beach redevelopment project later, but wanted to relay a few thoughts specifically on the East Course. 

The key takeaway after seeing the renovated course: It’s back. While the routing has remained intact, the course has changed dramatically. The course I saw in 2008 had a damp, dreary feel because of thick stands of trees and foliage that made the ocean, which lines the first hole, little more than a rumor. An extensive tree-management program over the past year has opened views of the ocean and other holes, enhanced playability, created more shot options and, perhaps most importantly, enhanced turf conditions, particularly on tees and greens. 

“Not only from (a playability) impact standpoint but also from an aesthetic standpoint, I’d say the tree work was the single best thing we did,” said Brad Boyd, the resort’s director of agronomy. “It was very claustrophobic and closed in. . . . (We got) sunlight, air circulation – grass doesn’t grow in the shade, especially Bermuda.”

Bruce Charlton, president of Jones’ design firm, said when he first “walked along the ocean holes, I just saw this overgrowth, kind of weed growth.” Workers cleared the seaside overgrowth; then as work moved to inland holes, more chopping and pruning was done. Don’t misunderstand: The East Course hasn’t become the Chambers Bay of the Caribbean. Trees define this parkland layout; in fact, each hole is named after a different species. But by my count, the ocean now is visible from at least 15 holes.

“When we did that, we saw playability (improve),” Charlton said. “We saw more avenues, more air space for players to maneuver their balls.”

The East still has the runway tees that Jones Sr. loved, including one on the 10th that extends 150 yards. Bunkers were made more visible from the tees, but pushed back “so they’re really only affecting the better players,” Charlton said. 

Those same playability considerations also were a factor around the greens, which now often accommodate run-up shots.

“Every green had become pretty aerial,” Charlton said. “We just tweaked the greenside bunkers and created some avenues coming in. It produced a lot more fairway area around the greens. That brings some of the creativity to the players’ short games.”

One of the ironies of golf in Puerto Rico is that bunker sand often is of poor quality, and having good sand shipped in is prohibitively expensive. Boyd, who had been planning for this renovation since arriving at Dorado Beach in 2005, mined sand from the property. He found a machine to screen out larger particulates, then washed the sand to get it up to U.S. Golf Association specifications. The new bunkers are fluffy, though they’ll probably firm up over time.

The result of all of this work is a new lease on life for the East. It went from being the best course in the Caribbean when it opened 50 years ago to No. 46 on Golfweek’s Best Caribbean and Mexico Courses in 2010. It fell off of that list this year while closed for renovations. I’d be surprised if the renovated East Course doesn’t rocket back up those rankings as Golfweek’s raters have a chance to visit it.

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