The Sea the Golf and Punta Cana

By George WhiteOctober 30, 2003, 5:00 pm
If only there were seals squawking and the cool, foggy mists of morning, this could be the 18th hole of Pebble Beach.
Instead, its the 18th hole of Punta Cana. This is the Punta Cana Resort and Club in the Caribbean, on the eastern edge of the Dominican Republic. Together with the 17th, which also curls in tandem with the ocean at Punta Cana, they are eerily similar to the great finishing hole at Pebble.
This is the essence of Punta Cana. The course is testing, yet user-friendly; difficult from the back tees (it stretches more than 7,100 yards), but eminently playable from the middle and front tees; demanding at times, yet always with a touch of intrigue. It is the latest golfing gem in the Caribbean, a course that has been in existence for only two years at this gorgeous resort.
By the time it is done, this will be nothing short of a golfers paradise. There already is one very strong course, designed by P.B. Dye. P.B.s father, Pete Dye, designed the Teeth of the Dog course just up the coast in the Dominican. And another course, even more Pebble-like, will shortly go up.
The rhythm of the course is what makes it outstanding, said the director of golf, Olivier Brizon. You start with a little par 4, then you have a stronger par 4, then you have a par 3 with water, then you have a par-4 against the wind, a par-3 against the beach the course just gets progressively more testing, but with little lulls to keep it exciting. That rhythm of play is what makes it so interesting.
Brizon himself is a very interesting study. He worked with architect Trent Jones for three years. He has worked with instructor John Jacobs. He has built 20 courses, at a rate of two course per year, and has lived and been in golf administration all over the Western Hemisphere ' Venezuela, Canada, Switzerland, France, Guadalupe, now in the Dominican Republic.
Ive always been in the golf business, he says.
While holes 17 and 18 play alongside the shore, with two other seaside holes giving breath-taking views of the Caribbean, Brizons favorite hole is, surprisingly, a par 3.
The 14th, he says ' that is a great hole.
Fourteen plays to 160 yards from the middle tees, stretching all the way out to 239 yards from the tips, but only 105 from the foremost tees. There are also tee boxes at 135 yards and 200 yards.
The hole plays from an elevated tee, looking down perhaps 20 feet to the green. The right side is guarded by a series on bunkers that extend almost the length of the hole. The green angles away from the player, showing just a portion of its surface, left side farther away than the right side.
The wind blows constantly from left to right, said Brizon. The entrance is very narrow, its really a typical Scottish-style hole. The hole has considerable elevation and movement ' its just a great hole.
Number 17 plays 413 yards for the long-knockers, 374 for most players, but only 321 from the forward tees. But its not the length that adds to the test ' its the narrow fairway. Its the tee shot which is so reminiscent of the drive at 18 at Pebble. The tee sits back at an angle to the fairway, meaning you have to flirt with the sea on your first shot. And down the right side, covering the entirety of the hole, a waste bunker sprawls.
You must start your drive over the ocean to have a chance of hitting the fairway, says Brizon. But the second shot, you are afforded a magnificent view with the green on top of the beach. There again, you have to play again over the water to bring the ball back to the green. Psychologically, its something.
And the par-5 finishing hole is a match-play hole, he says. A birdie possibility for the better player, it is a very makeable par for the average player. A second-shot try for the green will have to negotiate a very narrow entrance. And you have to play the second shot with a fade over the water, says Brizon. But you can play it safe ' a driver and a 5-iron in front of a series of bunkers which cross the fairway, then a wedge to the green.
The course is a delight to play because it is only as difficult as you make it. Each hole has five distinct tees, affording the opportunity to play as much golf as one chooses.
Everyone can play this course, says Brizon. Its fair for everybody. You can play it from the black (back) tees for tournaments, with the pins placed properly, and it is very difficult. But from the middle tees with the pin placements fairly easy, its just a delight to play. And I would say that from 14 through 17, those holes are fantastic.
The fairways are exceedingly generous on this resort course, but the test is all on the approach shots. Hitting the green isnt the problem ' the greens are vast expanses of carpet. But each one, often 175 feet from side-to-side or lengthways, is segmented into several distinct plateaus. Hit on the wrong side of a slope and you are practically assured of a three-putt. Hit onto the proper plateau and you are given a relatively smooth 20-footer.
Theres even a boat lodged up firmly in a long waist bunker. Set on hole No. 9, the old vessel is halfway down the fairway, perched at a perilous angle with days of past glory on the briny deep long behind it.
The course project, incidentally, was a huge undertaking. The land on which it sits was originally coral, solid rock. Builders had to carry two million cubic centimeters of gravel to the site, using it to create contours in the course. Then the sand was spread and the course grassed in.
The grass was Seashore Paspalum, which can be irrigated with salt water from the sea ' most grasses would be killed by such treatment ' or recycled water. The Paspalum is a conservationists dream, requiring only half the pesticide and fertilizer of grasses in the U.S.
The Paspalum grass grows vertically, said Brizon, meaning that the ball sits straight up on it. It doesnt grow horizontally, like Bermuda, for example.
And, because the grass grows straight up, you dont have nearly as much break on the greens. There are plenty of ridges and plateaus, but much of the subtle breaks (of Bermuda, rye or Bent grass) is taken out.
The resort itself comes complete with an airport. Punta Cana airstrip was built almost 20 years ago and now carriers such as American Airlines, U.S. Air, and Air France have regularly scheduled service, as well as numerous charters from Europe. New Yorks JFK, Miami, Philadelphia, Charlotte and Paris are the present gateways, with more to come in the future.
Here, 420 guest accommodations share the three miles of white sandy beach ' the longest in the Caribbean. Just recently, the Grupo Punta Cana developers have begun offering homesites for those interested in a Caribbean home.
Rates at the golf course are quite reasonable, $69 for resort guests, $93 for others during much of the year. During high season from Nov. 1 to April 30, they are still just $88 and $121. Nine-hole rates are also available, as well as several golf packages.
Photo by Enrique Berardi/LAAC

Top-ranked amateur Niemann one back at LAAC in Chile

By Nick MentaJanuary 21, 2018, 8:44 pm

Argentina’s Jaime Lopez Rivarola leads the Latin America Amateur Championship at 5 under par following a round of 3-under 68 Saturday in Chile.

The former Georgia Bulldog is now 36 holes from what would be a return trip to Augusta National but his first Masters.

"The truth is that I crossed off on my bucket list playing Augusta [National], because I happened to play there," Rivarola said. "I've played every year with my university. But playing in the Masters is a completely different thing. I have been to the Masters, and I've watched the players play during the practice rounds. But [competing would be] a completely different thing."

He is followed on the leaderboard by the three players who competed in the playoff that decided last year’s LAAC in Panama: Joaquin Niemann (-4), Toto Gana (-4), and Alvaro Ortiz (-3).

Click here for full-field scores from the Latin America Amateur Championship

Chile’s Niemann is the top-ranked amateur in the world who currently holds conditional status on the Tour and is poised to begin his career as a professional, unless of course he takes the title this week. After a disappointing 74 in Round 1, Niemann was 10 shots better in Round 2, rocketing up the leaderboard with a 7-under 64.

“Today, I had a completely different mentality, and that's usually what happens in my case," Niemann said. "When I shoot a bad round, the following day I have extra motivation. I realize and I feel that I have to play my best golf. The key to being a good golfer is to find those thoughts and to transfer them into good golf."

Niemann’s fellow Chilean and best friend Gana is the defending champion who missed the cut at the Masters last year and is now a freshman at Lynn University. His second-round 70 was a roller coaster, complete with six birdies, three eagles and a double.

Mexico’s Ortiz, the brother of three-time Tour winner Carlos, was 6 under for the week before three back-nine bogeys dropped him off the pace.

Two past champions, Matias Dominguez and Paul Chaplet, sit 5 over and 7 over, respectively.

The winner of the Latin America Amateur Championship earns an invite to this year’s Masters. He is also exempt into the The Amateur Championship, the U.S. Amateur, U.S. Open sectional qualifying, and Open Championship final qualifying.

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McIlroy gets back on track

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 21, 2018, 3:10 pm

There’s only one way to view Rory McIlroy’s performance at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship:

He is well ahead of schedule.

Sure, McIlroy is probably disappointed that he couldn’t chase down Ross Fisher (and then Tommy Fleetwood) on the final day at Abu Dhabi Golf Club. But against a recent backdrop of injuries and apathy, his tie for third was a resounding success. He reasserted himself, quickly, and emerged 100 percent healthy.

“Overall, I’m happy,” he said after finishing at 18-under 270, four back of Fleetwood. “I saw some really, really positive signs. My attitude, patience and comfort level were really good all week.”

To fully appreciate McIlroy’s auspicious 2018 debut, consider his state of disarray just four months ago. He was newly married. Nursing a rib injury. Breaking in new equipment. Testing another caddie. His only constant was change. “Mentally, I wasn’t in a great place,” he said, “and that was because of where I was physically.”

And so he hit the reset button, taking the longest sabbatical of his career, a three-and-a-half-month break that was as much psychological as physical. He healed his body and met with a dietician, packing five pounds of muscle onto his already cut frame. He dialed in his TaylorMade equipment, shoring up a putting stroke and wedge game that was shockingly poor for a player of his caliber. Perhaps most importantly, he cleared his cluttered mind, cruising around Italy with wife Erica in a 1950s Mercedes convertible.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

After an intense buildup to his season debut, McIlroy was curious about the true state of his game, about how he’d stack up when he finally put a scorecard in his hand. It didn’t take him long to find out. 

Playing the first two rounds alongside Dustin Johnson – the undisputed world No. 1 who was fresh off a blowout victory at Kapalua – McIlroy beat him by a shot. Despite a 103-day competitive layoff, he played bogey-free for 52 holes. And he put himself in position to win, trailing by one heading into the final round. Though Fleetwood blew away the field with a back-nine 30 to defend his title, McIlroy collected his eighth top-5 in his last nine appearances in Abu Dhabi.

“I know it’s only three months,” he said, “but things change, and I felt like maybe I needed a couple of weeks to get back into the thought process that you need to get into for competitive golf. I got into that pretty quickly this week, so that was the most pleasing thing.”

The sense of relief afterward was palpable. McIlroy is entering his 11th full year as a pro, and deep down he likely realizes 2018 is shaping up as his most important yet.

The former Boy Wonder is all grown up, and his main challengers now are a freakish athlete (DJ) and a trio of players under 25 (Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm) who don’t lack for motivation or confidence. The landscape has changed significantly since McIlroy’s last major victory, in August 2014, and the only way he’ll be able to return to world No. 1 is to produce a sustained period of exceptional golf, like the rest of the game’s elite. (Based on average points, McIlroy, now ranked 11th, is closer to the bottom of the rankings, No. 1928, than to Johnson.)

But after years of near-constant turmoil, McIlroy, 28, finally seems ready to pursue that goal again. He is planning the heaviest workload of his career – as many as 30 events, including seven more starts before the Masters – and appears refreshed and reenergized, perhaps because this year, for the first time in a while, he is playing without distractions.

Not his relationships or his health. Not his equipment or his caddie or his off-course dealings.

Everything in his life is lined up.

Drama tends to follow one of the sport’s most captivating characters, but for now he can just play golf – lots and lots of golf. How liberating.

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Crocker among quartet of Open qualifiers in Singapore

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 2:20 pm

Former amateur standout Sean Crocker was among four players who qualified for the 147th Open via top-12 finishes this week at the Asian Tour's SMBC Singapore Open as part of the Open Qualifying Series.

Crocker had a strong college career at USC before turning pro late last year. The 21-year-old received an invitation into this event shortly thereafter, and he made the most of his appearance with a T-6 finish to net his first career major championship berth.

There were four spots available to those not otherwise exempt among the top 12 in Singapore, but winner Sergio Garcia and runners-up Shaun Norris and Satoshi Kodaira had already booked their tickets for Carnoustie. That meant that Thailand's Danthai Boonma and Jazz Janewattanond both qualified thanks to T-4 finishes.

Full-field scores from the Singapore Open

Crocker nabbed the third available qualifying spot, while the final berth went to Australia's Lucas Herbert. Herbert entered the week ranked No. 274 in the world and was the highest-ranked of the three otherwise unqualified players who ended the week in a tie for eighth.

The next event in the Open Qualifying Series will be in Japan at the Mizuno Open in May, when four more spots at Carnoustie will be up for grabs. The 147th Open will be held July 19-22 in Carnoustie, Scotland.

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Got a second? Fisher a bridesmaid again

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:40 pm

Ross Fisher is in the midst of a career resurgence - he just doesn't have the hardware to prove it.

Fisher entered the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship with a share of the lead, and as he made the turn he appeared in position to claim his first European Tour victory since March 2014. But he slowed just as Tommy Fleetwood caught fire, and when the final putt fell Fisher ended up alone in second place, two shots behind his fellow Englishman.

It continues a promising trend for Fisher, who at age 37 now has 14 career runner-up finishes and three in his last six starts dating back to October. He was edged by Tyrrell Hatton both at the Italian Open and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in the fall, and now has amassed nine worldwide top-10 finishes since March.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Fisher took a big step toward ending his winless drought with an eagle on the par-5 second followed by a pair of birdies, and he stood five shots clear of Fleetwood with only nine holes to go. But while Fleetwood played Nos. 10-15 in 4 under, Fisher played the same stretch in 2 over and was unable to eagle the closing hole to force a playoff.

While Fisher remains in search of an elusive trophy, his world ranking has benefited from his recent play. The veteran was ranked outside the top 100 in the world as recently as September 2016, but his Abu Dhabi runner-up result is expected to move him inside the top 30 when the new rankings are published.