Waiting for Cuba to open up? Go to the Dominican Republic now! The golf, the food and the folks are the best in the Caribbean.
I checked into one of the 300 newly redecorated rooms, with a private balcony overlooking the golf courses. The surrounding grounds were alive with rivers of bougainvillea, fuchsia, alamanda and hibiscus. My room was a spacious and soothing blend of mahogany furniture, tropical water-color fabrics, tile floors and shuttered windows. At night, the trade winds coated the windows with salt air so heavy that by morning, the glass was opaque.
The resort also has access to about 150 private, stately villas scattered throughout the hills and countryside, and along the sculptured, oceanside fairways of Teeth of the Dog. The stone-masoned homes perched above the Chavón River, in particular, appear to have been airlifted from the hills of Tuscany. It's a good place to imagine yourself a sugar baron in repose.
Everything about Casa de Campo is maxed-out for hedonistic pleasure. In this 7,000-acre tropical theme park, there's not just one but three Pete Dye courses; not just tennis, but the La Terraza Tennis Center, with 13 courts, 10 lighted for night play. Horseback riding on the beach wouldn't suffice, so the resort hired Indian Prince Maharajah Jabar Singh, a world renowned polo champion, to breed and train polo ponies for the equestrian center. It has a sport-, trap-, and skeet-shooting range; sailing and deep-sea fishing charters; swimming pools all over; plus every fashion of watering hole, to and from which shuttle bus service is provided. But you really need to rent a personal golf cart to see it all.
I stayed up past midnight the first night to get a glimpse of Sophia Loren in Scandal in Sorrento, and so arrived on the first tee of Teeth of the Dog the next day expecting something bad and beautiful, inimitable and exciting. Is it a stretch to compare a golf course to an Italian sex goddess? Considering the torrid beauty that surrounded me, no stretch at all.
What's left to be said about the treachery of Dye, whose trademark mounds and hollows give fairways the look of rolling, wind-driven seas? His artful layouts confound the pros, and punish dilettantes to the brink of stripping their enthusiasm for the game. Tour player-cum-commentator Gary Koch once walked off Teeth of the Dog, muttering: "This course will come out of nowhere, throw you down and stomp on your head."
But there is something about Dye's wildly swooping designs. "Anybody can play weird," jazz great Charles Mingus once said, "that's easy. What's hard is to be as simple as Bach. Making the simple complicated is commonplace. Making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that's creativity." Though I somehow doubt that Dye has listened to much Mingus, he seems to have embraced his philosophy when he created this course.
The design seems almost minimalist. Maybe because it was built by hand-with pickaxes and ox-carts rather than bulldozers-it's less intentionally tricked-out than many of his best courses, such as the TPC terrors at Sawgrass and PGA West. On the spectacular seaside holes, it's almost as if he threw down a little dirt here, and leveled out a tee, dumped a pile of sand over there, and rolled out a green.
Its playability may be one reason why, after 30 years, it's still one of Dye's favorite courses. That, and the fact that he keeps an oceanfront home there, and showers the sort of attention on it that Donald Ross paid to his adopted turf at Pinehurst and that Alister Mackenzie did his beloved backyard Pasatiempo in California.
The opening holes of Teeth of the Dog (a local nickname for the island's jagged-edged coral reefs) lull you into a false sense of confidence as they roll down to the sea. After the fourth, the easiest hole on the course, you pass through a bosk of cashew trees and suddenly you've arrived at the precipice of one of the most majestic sights in all of golf: seven holes set hard against the crashing waves and heavy winds of the Caribbean Sea.
The sad news for us was that No. 5-a 157-yard par 3, the first of the three signature holes-was closed, still recovering from the saltwater ravages of Hurricane Georges two years ago. It has since reopened.
Heavy dramatics? Oh, yes. Envision No. 7, a 224-yard carry over rocky shoreline with no bail-out on any side of the green. Or No. 8, a trouble-packed par 4 with a tee box built on a cape 10 yards into the sea. The surf here literally sprays your legs as you stand over the ball. Or the 16th, a glorious par 3, usually played into the wind, to a bunker-shrouded green, the right of which hangs over the cliffs.
After your initial run at the coastal holes-trust me-you'll be happy to find one of the enterprising ball dealers who lurk around the tee boxes all over the course, offering plastic bags of 15 balls recycled from the coral reefs. Price? Perhaps 12 bucks.
The 15th tee is bordered by the ocean on the right, and naked supermodels behind. Or so a friend who played there 10 years ago had promised. The villa adjoining the tee, as it turned out, is now the former residence of fashion designer Oscar de la Renta. But in the high-flying '80s, you could stand on the tee and gaze upon the divas of haute couture, sunbathing in the buff.
A stimulant of another sort was had on the 12th tee. The 446-yard par-4 hole requires a 200-plus yard carry over the airport runway. Frequently, play is held up while a Gulfstream III screeches down past the tee. It's a weird rush, crush-grooving a drive through the trail of jet engines, then racing your cart across an airport tarmac.
Casa de Campo is a good place to feel like an unchained sugar daddy because the resort, in fact, sprang from the brow of such a man, Alvaro Carta. He came over from Miami in the late '60s and, backed by Gulf & Western, turned the South Puerto Rico Sugar Company of La Romana into the largest single producer of sugar in the world. Charles Bluhdorn, the late CEO of Gulf & Western, coveted a lush executive retreat with a world-class golf course. Into this fantasia walked Dye. The first of Dye's many propitious choices was to nix Carta's original site near the Santo Domingo airport. He went looking for land that excited him, and 40 miles east of the capital he discovered "the most beautiful seaside location for a golf course I had ever seen," Dye noted in his autobiography, Bury Me in a Pot Bunker. Not everyone would look at that expanse of coral and limestone bluffs, and the adjacent acres of jungle brush, guinea grass and cactus, and envision a beautiful golf course. But few men, then or now, have Dye's vision.
That sense of florid storybook design continues at Altos de Chavón, a replica 16th-century Mediterranean village erected on a nearby hilltop. Hand-built entirely of stone in the late 1970s, this resident artists' village, affiliated with New York's Parsons School of Design, has the feel of a studio backlot. As well it should: It was designed and constructed under the eye of Italian cinematographer Roberto Copa. (And if the Chavón River, which winds through a tropical gorge beneath the cliffs looks familiar, you've probably seen Apocalypse, Now one too many times. Francis Ford Coppola used the river for one of the helicopter battle scenes, borrowing a fleet of Vietnam-era choppers from the Dominican defense department.)
While there are a week's worth of excellent restaurants to choose from at Casa de Campo, an evening or two at Altos de Chavón is de rigueur. The exquisite Casa del Rio features French/Caribbean cuisine. Its reputation and dramatic setting mean it's almost always packed.
The food is equally refined at La Piazetta; we joined a group of American golfers at a table for 10, and everyone happily raised their cholesterol that night. The desserts, especially the tiramisu, were so remarkable, we left wondering what scandalous back-story led the chef here, instead of Rome or New York.
Between rounds, a distinguished place to load up on gourmet carbs is the Lago Grill, which overlooks the 9th and 18th holes. The thatched-roof, open-air buffet offers a glorious, 180-degree view, meats smoking on the grill and a full bar. All in all, a fine place to wind down and mentally rip up your scorecard.
While nobody with a serious jones for the game would be satisfied to come here and not play Teeth of the Dog, there are two more Dye courses at Casa de Campo, and a fourth under construction. If you're a connoisseur of great golf architecture, try a round at either La Romana Country Club or the Links.
La Romana is members-only, but talk to Casa de Campo golf director Gilles Gagnon about a weekday round; a guest can sometimes finagle his way on for $135. The private course gets far less traffic than the two resort courses, and is in better overall condition. Maybe it was the tides that seemed to suck balls out of my bag when I wasn't looking, while at Teeth of the Dog, but the fairways and greens on La Romana struck me as being much wider. It's a broad-shouldered course-full of character, movement, imagination.
If putting is your game, the Links course boasts the most challenging greens of the three. To me, they have the least amount of contour, and the subtlest breaks. Not only are they a bitch to read, but when the wind's up, it'll blow your lags all over the bermuda. A 40-putt round is not out of the ordinary for even the hottest flat-stick jockeys. And where Teeth of the Dog is all at sea level, the Links takes you up into the green hills and back.
Simply select where you want to play, find a tee time deal, and golf now!