Storming back: Puerto Rico's oceanside golf offers breezy trips in tropical locale

TPC Dorado Beach

Storming back: Puerto Rico's oceanside golf offers breezy trips in tropical locale

Courses

Storming back: Puerto Rico's oceanside golf offers breezy trips in tropical locale

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PUERTO RICO – That board shouldn’t have been there.

Seen about 10 feet above a path winding past the Ritz-Carlton Reserve toward TPC Dorado Beach’s East Course, the board was a tiny inkling of the natural power unleashed on Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, 2017.

Property managers believe the board flew from a nearby roof that was splintered by Hurricane Maria before impaling a palm tree. The ends of the hefty board protruded from both sides of the palm’s trunk like some demonic Tinker Toy.  

Maria’s winds were a sustained 155 mph when the storm crashed into the island, leaving most inhabitants with no power or cell phone service, no internet, limited food and clean water, and an unimaginable mess. The official death toll has been the subject of debate, but the Puerto Rican government said it has reached almost 3,000. Recovery efforts took months, and 1½ years later there still are isolated patches of the island without electricity. Blue tarps still cover many rooftops in San Juan, visible to travelers on approach to Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport.

After eight hours of some of the fiercest gusts ever to make landfall in any hurricane, employees at the resorts along the island’s northeast shore near San Juan left their shelters and started picking up the pieces.

A board was blown through a palm tree during Hurricane Maria at Dorado Beach. (Jason Lusk/Golfweek)

Golf certainly wasn’t a priority on the island in the days and weeks after the storm, but getting back to business and supporting jobs was. Within weeks several courses were cleared of fallen trees and debris, and incredibly they opened to limited play as residents and club members looked for any chance to feel that at least parts of their lives were somewhat normal again.

A third of TPC Dorado Beach’s Sugarcane Course was submerged after the storm, but the turf proved surprisingly resilient as water receded. The course was cleaned up, and 76 rounds were played Oct. 7, just 17 days after Maria. The resort’s beachside East Course reopened that November as cleanup and refurbishments continued around the property.

“Most of our members returned after the storm, two or three months later when we were well on the way to recovery, and they were absolutely amazed how far we had come to getting the golf course and resort back up to normal,” said Jeff Willenberg, the director of golf at TPC Dorado Beach.

Fast forward to now and those tenuous months after the storm seem both long ago and still fresh on the minds of employees of the resort. But for a first-timer to Dorado Beach, it’s almost impossible to pick out any remaining signs of storm damage.

The island is, of course, still vulnerable to tropical storms. Hurricane Dorian passed just to the east of Puerto Rico at the end of August, raising fears of another direct hit. Dorian went on to pummel parts of the Bahamas before moving north up the U.S. coast, but Puerto Rico largely was spared.

Then there’s that inconsequential board stuck in the palm tree. In a small example of making lemonade when handed lemons, resort managers hung a lantern from the board. It’s a reminder to those who lived through Maria of a day they will never forget, but all around Puerto Rico, people and businesses have survived and moved on.

‘The new normal’ 

Across the island, 17 courses have reopened, while three – the Pineapple and West courses at TPC Dorado Beach, and El Conquistador Resort’s course at the far northwestern tip of the island – have not returned to business. Many of the resort hotels took longer than the courses to reopen, some requiring as long as a year for renovations, but most are now operational.

New, trendy restaurants are flourishing as San Juan becomes a bit of a foodie destination beyond the typical lineup of cruise-ship fare, and several locals said the slow process of settling insurance claims largely has been completed for most. There is a noticeable degree of optimism for many as the island redefines its future.

The Wyndham Grand Rio Mar in Puerto Rico (Victor Elias Photography)

“It’s the new normal,” Jamie West, the director of country club operations at Wyndham Grand Rio Mar Puerto Rico Golf and Beach Resort, said with a laugh. He was giving a tour of a new men’s locker room to a group of golf writers (myself included) who in February checked out several course operations around the island on a trip sponsored by the destination marketing organization Discover Puerto Rico. West was as eager to show off the new digs as he was to put Hurricane Maria behind him.

Rio Mar’s Ocean Course – designed by Tom Fazio and George Fazio about a 30-minute drive east of San Juan – was inundated with water during Maria, with trees down and bunkers washed out. Next door at the club’s other track, the Greg Norman-designed River Course, thousands of trees were washed down the Mameyes River from the El Yunque National Forest and came to rest on the eighth hole, requiring more than a month of cleanup on that hole alone, West said.

None of that is evident now.

“We’re almost a year and a half past the hurricanes that came through (Maria was preceded two weeks earlier by Hurricane Irma, which brushed past Puerto Rico without the same levels of damage), and the recovery has been intense,” West said. “We’ve been very busy, and business has been crazy the entire year. It’s been nice. …

“Because of the hurricanes that came through, we were able to do some capital improvements in areas that were damaged. Technically, it was within the realm of hurricane cleanup. … On the golf course, it’s amazing out there now.”

Shrimp and plantains at Wyndham Grand Rio Mar (Jason Lusk/Golfweek)

Much of the work at Rio Mar was to the 35,000-square-foot clubhouse. The pro shop was renovated, and locker rooms were upgraded with jacuzzis, steam rooms, saunas and comfortable lounge areas. The club’s restaurant, Iguanas Cocina Puertorriqueña, serves scrumptious Puerto Rican dishes from an open-window kitchen. West said $6 million was spent on renovations to the clubhouse.

Out on the Ocean Course, bunkers had been repaired and the turf had recovered. The course’s highlight was the beachside par-3 16th, with nothing but sand and palm trees between the golfer and the Atlantic. Condo towers flanked the inland side of the hole, but the trade winds were blowing 30 mph along the beach. As we waited for the green to clear, we ambled onto the sand to check for fallen coconuts.

I asked general manager Nils Stolzlechner, a former world-class ski jumper and windsurfer who was born in Austria, what was out in the distance, pointing toward what I thought might be a boat. “Spain, I think, in that direction,” he cracked. “England’s farther north, up there.”

Unsurprisingly, beach holes are a recurring theme in Puerto Rican golf. Our group played four courses within a short drive of San Juan: Coco Beach Golf Resort’s Championship Course, TPC Dorado Beach’s East Course, Bahia Beach Resort and Golf Club and Rio Mar. Each offered photo ops alongside the Atlantic while mountains climbed into the distance. A relatively short flight from the East Coast of the United States, Puerto Rico offers an easy opportunity to play alongside warm, tropical waters in a U.S. territory where English is prevalent, there’s no hassle of exchange rates and no passport is needed.

Coco Beach Golf Resort (Courtesy of Discover Puerto Rico)

We started the trip at Coco Beach, playing in the pro-am for the PGA Tour’s Puerto Rico Open. The event had been canceled in 2018 in the wake of Maria, replaced by a charity pro-am to benefit hurricane relief efforts. The Tour returned this year for what is one of the island’s biggest sporting events and a point of pride for golfing Puerto Ricans. All eyes seemed to be on Rafa Campos, a native-born PGA Tour pro who finished tied for 49th.

“This is huge for tourism, huge for Puerto Rico just able to broadcast worldwide,” Campos, who didn’t return to his apartment for three months after Maria, told Adam Stanley of PGATour.com. “It’s really big. I’m really happy this came back, and I hope it continues to come back for another 10 years.”

After an inland front nine, the Tom Kite-designed Championship Course heads toward the ocean on the back nine and reaches it at the par-4 12th, a 465-yarder that plays directly toward the Atlantic with a paspalum green perched over the sand. The par-5 15th offers glimpses through the mangroves of a small bay.

The view from the rooftop bar of the O:LV Fifty Five Hotel in San Juan (Jason Lusk/Golfweek)

TPC Dorado Beach was up next, with the first tee of its East Course mere steps from the beach. That tee box must be one of the lowest in relation to sea level anywhere in the world – we could have hit chip shots into the surf. It’s quite an opening, an oceanic invitation to enjoy oneself, much like being given a lei when arriving in Hawaii. The opening par 5 curves left along the beach before the course darts slightly inland for a few holes, with several returns to either water views or the beach itself. The back nine climbs into the hills before returning to the beach for the closer.

The East course, a Robert Trent Jones Jr. restoration of his father’s original course about 30 minutes west of San Juan, is immaculate with the best putting surfaces of the four tracks we sampled. Some of that great conditioning might actually be the result of the hurricane, which blew down overhanging trees and opened the course to more sunshine and air flow – consider it tree removal of the most aggressively natural kind.

“We lost approximately 1,200 trees on the golf course, and it did affect how the East looked, but in all reality it opened up new views to the ocean,” Willenberg said. “Many of the holes have ocean views that didn’t have them before. The turf is much healthier. … The greens are in perfect condition. Everything has returned to normal.”

St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort (Courtesy of Discover Puerto Rico)

The next day we teed off in the breezes at St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort and Golf Club, not far from Coco Beach and about 30 minutes east of San Juan. Another Trent Jones Jr. design in excellent condition, the course runs inland for 15 holes. The beach jumps into play on No. 16, a par 4 that parallels the sand for 457 yards. After an inland jog to the par-3 17th, the course returns to the beach for the 458-yard 18th.

Golf along an ocean – any ocean – is almost always better. Combined with the food, the ease of travel and the tropical winter weather, it’s Puerto Rico’s ocean holes that put the island on golf’s destination map.

(This story originally appeared in the April 2019 print edition of Golfweek.)

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