ARUBA, DUTCH CARIBBEAN - The breeze that pushes three irons toward the ocean in North Carolina and later lifts wedges into the pot bunkers of Wales and Scotland has its roots here - at Tierra del Sol Resort and Country Club on the rugged north coast of Aruba.
If golf is a game of strategy and skill - an historic battle between a golfer, the land and the wind - then the frontline of that centuries-old fight is here on Aruba, where the Gulf Stream wind is born and blows from this island north past America to Great Britain.
A challenging championship course of stunning beauty close to the shoreline of the churning Caribbean Sea, this stretch of 18 holes designed by Robert Trent Jones II is at times otherworldly. Great and memorable vistas stretch past a raw and rugged moonscape of rocky shore. Lizards duck and dodge through the tawny landscape, a desert that burns in stark contrast to the emerald green of the course. High above is a big blue umbrella sky, and all is framed by the turquoise sea.
A lighthouse is an ever-present symbol of the danger of the ocean, and for a golfer, it is a reminder of the sneaky wind that keeps the golf, even on simple holes, challenging and rewarding. What seems like a slight breeze from the tee is a fairly stiff wind up there where the ball soars. It costs the unwary golfer 20 or 30 yards of carry and probably five or six strokes per round for under-clubbed shots.
A global positioning system in the golf carts provides tips and keys to each hole with suggestions about how to each the shot. Drift one out over the traps, reads one tip, the wind will bring it back. It does, too. Pay attention to those tips.
In the past, few have come to Aruba to golf. Why would they? The place has more wrecks for scuba and snorkeling anywhere in the world. There was that wind and besides, lazy afternoons at the beach are an ever-present temptation.
Most visitors to this island about 20 miles from the Venezuelan shore also came for the casinos that are downtown or out on the north shore. They came for the glorious food, the steel bands playing in the afternoon sun, the friendly locals and for the brilliant green sea and soft sand beaches.
That is changing as Tierra Del Sol (literally Land of the Sun) develops its reputation among European, English and American golfers. Americans have already discovered this course with about eight of nine rounds played by visitors from the U.S.A. It is the only championship course on the island because, after all, one exotic golf course is enough for one exotic vacation.
Serious golfers should not scoff at this course's 6,811 yard length from the gold tees, 6,453 yards from the turquoise tees and 6,011 yards from the white tees. Most tourists tee it up from the white tees, says Tierra del Sol professional Aaron Ressler, a 28-year-old transplant from Olympic Hills Country Club in Eden Prairie, Minn.
Ressler, who is in his second year here as head pro, has seen the furrowed brows of scratch golfers in the clubhouse, guys who think that modest length will make this course a babycakes afternoon of pitch and putt. He lets them find out for themselves that Tierra Del Sol is a barracuda.
"It looks a lot easier on the scorecard. They see the 6,800 yards and think, oh, it's a short course but here the biggest misconception is playing what looks like an open shot," Ressler says. "They don't allow for the wind.
"Golfers look, think eight iron and they'll play it here because the wind doesn't seem that strong. It's never enough."
His favorite hole is the par 5 No. 14 because it probably is a little unfair and certainly is challenging enough for every golfer who gazes out at its 534 yards from the gold tees and thinks driver, three-wood, short iron, birdie.
"You have to hit each shot perfect," Ressler says. "The fairways are narrow and even if you nail your drive, and second shot, you can find yourself 190 into the green."
And yes, those are red OB stakes there just a club-length or two from the left fringe of the green.
The course meanders past the sea for the first couple of holes and then heads inland through a dusky landscape of cacti, rock and divi-divi trees, which always lean west with the wind. Look for fast but fat iguanas, some as long as your arm. Sometimes wild goats find their way onto the course, too, and then disappear into the scrub just as quickly as they arrived.
There are screeching parakeets, too, and shorebirds that play on the breezes above the Bermuda grass and fairway bunkers. The course never absolutely hugs the shoreline but the ocean is there all the time. You can hear it or taste the briny breeze on all of the holes.
The second nine twists inland past golf villas and resort homes that rent for as little as $325 per night for a two-bedroom condominium and $455 a night for a three-bedroom house that sleeps six people. Tack on an extra $50 a night for a place with a private pool.
The rent brings with it unlimited daily golf and a cart. It is an extraordinary deal. (Call 011-2978-67800 for more information or email firstname.lastname@example.org). The package also offers beach access at the nearby Holiday Inn SunSpree Beach Resort.
One of the great things about Aruba is its size. Because the island is small, barely 20 miles long and less than 70 square miles overall, getting around is never a challenge. That means attractions like this golf course are convenient - that vacationers are not spending half their time in traffic congestion as is the case on other Caribbean shores.
For those who do not want to stay in a villa and want the vacation experience of a bonified Aruban resort, the Holiday Inn Aruba SunSpree Resort on the north coast offers affordability and great proximity to many of the island's attractions. Even fine snorkeling is just down shore.
After all, one cannot golf all the time. There are plenty of options for down time on Aruba - either for weary golfers or for their families who want to see more of the island:
A two-hour horseback ride from Rancho Notorious takes visitors on an unforgettable tour of the undeveloped southeastern shore of the island, where waves crash on pristine shores and the only sound is the summer wind. Ask to ride Rocky or Sarah.
Bobby Croes launches his charter boat from the Hadicurari dock near the Holiday Inn each day and motors for the shoals six miles out where a lucky fisherman has a shot at Wahoo, King Mackerel and even Marlin or sailfish. Croes, in a New York Yankees t-shirt explodes from behind the wheel when each fish is hooked with the enthusiasm of a 12-year-old on his first fishing trip. He does this even after nearly four decades of fishing. He learned these waters from his late grandfather, who took to the sea in a 20-foot wooden boat and pulled wire hand-over-hand to bring in his catches.
If you're lucky enough to land a mackerel, Bobby will take the catch to the nearby grill at Hadicurari and there Patricia slaps the fish steaks with oil, garlic and a little salt and cooks them on the spot. Eat under the veranda and be grateful that old-time Caribbean beach grills like this one still exist, even though Aruba's luxury presses in from all sides.
Find fine dining in downtown Oranjestad at Farfalla's (maybe they'll be serving smoked salmon wrapped in snapper in a creamy mussels sauce) or at L'Escale at the Sonesta Beach Resort, where a strolling violinist and his guitarist accompanist play Sinatra's Summer Wind. Those who stay at the Sonesta downtown are zipped by boat to a private island where snorkeling is extraordinary.
Another choice for fine food is at Le Dome, where French and Belgium dishes are served under original artwork by Salvatore Dali.
Eventually, golf will again beckon and the other attractions of Aruba will have to wait. Tierra del Sol, after all, is a course that is meant to be enjoyed more than once in a lifetime.
Just ask Paul Ladwig. He is one American golfer who can't get enough of this course. The executive director of communications and marketing for Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, he has played Tierra del Sol 15 times. He has plans, too, to play it at least 15 more times in the years to come and who can blame him for that?
"Play ability is the key. From the par shooters to the high handicappers, the course is fair and a wonderful golf challenge," Ladwig said. "The scenic views on the course make it tough at times to keep your thoughts on golf. For me, it's the best island golf."
Tees Rating Slope Yardage
Gold 74.2 132 6,811
Turquoise 73.9 121 6,453
White 70.7 119 6,011
Coral 70.6 121 5,002
Tierra Del Sol Resort & Country Club
P.O. Box 1257
For information about condominiums/home rental: email@example.com