Trip Dispatch: Golf on Puerto Rico sets a luxurious standard

By Jason DeeganMarch 19, 2014, 3:30 am

DORADO, Puerto Rico – On the island less than 24 hours, I found myself back to where destination golf began in the Caribbean.

In many ways, the Dorado Beach Resort & Club symbolizes golf on the island. Its heyday of the 1960s and 1970s under Laurance S. Rockefeller burned bright into the 1980s before a downward spiral that lasted decades. A recent rebirth – spearheaded by the renovation of its famed East course in 2011 and the celebrated opening of Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve, in late 2012 – has ushered in a new era of golf resort development on the island.

Although pockets of eyesores still plague main roads, the island’s new golf resorts sparkle. The five-star accommodations at the Ritz, the St. Regis Bahia Beach and Royal Isabela are all less than three years old.

Convenience used to be the island’s biggest attraction – there’s no passport needed, no money to exchange, no language barriers, direct flights galore from airport hubs along the East Coast and even driving a rental car is easier than every other Caribbean island. Now the destination sells itself.  

"We want to be that shining star of the Caribbean again," said Ingrid I. Rivera Rocafort, the executive director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company. "Exciting things are happening."

Puerto Rico: Change is good

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St. Regis Bahia Beach is one of many new luxury golf resorts in Puerto Rico. 

The tropical winds of change continue to blow on Puerto Rico. These swanky new resorts have forced the old stalwarts to upgrade or fall behind, the cycle of life that almost derailed Dorado.  

The Wyndham Grand Rio Mar Beach Resort & Spa, home to the Rio Mar Country Club Puerto Rico’s River and Ocean courses, is in the midst of a $500 million spending spree to upgrade resort infrastructure. The project will include $157 million for the renovation of 400 hotel rooms, the conversion of 200 rooms and 132 apartment units into timeshare units and the construction of 155 additional units. The property is ideally located on 500 acres between the El Yunque national forest and the beach.

The Bahia Beach Resort & Golf Club is tweaking two holes on its excellent Robert Trent Jones II redesign to make room for more beachfront development from the St. Regis. Royal Isabela is launching plans for a second golf course and a major beachfront hotel to complement its 20 intimate casitas. Brothers Stanley and Charlie Pasarell are building an environmentally conscious community that enhances the island’s natural beauty roughly an hour west of San Juan. Every casita features its own private plunge pool overlooking the ocean. The open air bar and restaurant share the same voluptuous view.

"These guys have a heck of a vision for this place,” said Hotel General Manager Robin Donenberg. “They have donated all the land along the cliff back to the people of Puerto Rico so no one can ever build on it."

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El Conquistador Resort, home to a Waldorf Astoria and 18 holes of golf, also has this dazzling seaside setting. 

Smaller improvement projects are ongoing to keep the El Conquistador Resort, A Waldorf Astoria Resort, looking fresh after its $120-million enhancement project finished in 2008. Of the four Puerto Rican golf resorts I’ve stayed at over the past decade, El Conquistador remains my favorite. The cliff-top vistas along the island’s northeast coast never cease to amaze.

Between the water park, private beach at Palomino Island, golf course, 23 bars and restaurants and the chance to kayak at night in the nearby bio bay, there’s never a dull moment.  

Where to play in Puerto Rico

Back at Dorado, it came as no surprise to see Chi Chi Rodriguez driving up in a tricked-out yellow golf cart. He stopped to chat and take pictures, like he does for so many other tourists.

Rodriguez honed his game at Dorado in the 1960s and even won a Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf match against Doug Saunders in 1964, jump-starting his World Golf Hall of Fame career.


Video: Chi-Chi shot goes painfully wrong on NFL Big Break Puerto Rico


Dorado, a former Champions Tour host originally designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr., and the 36-hole Trump International Golf Club, home of the Puerto Rico Open since 2008, remain the most recognizable courses on the island. They aren’t the only good ones.  

Alberto Rios, the director of golf at Bahia Beach, said golfers can easily stay at one place and explore many of the island’s 21 courses that are currently open. The West course at Dorado remains closed for renovation, and the Rodriguez-designed course at the Embassy Suites Dorado del Mar - Beach & Golf Resort was shuttered earlier this year, possibly for good.

"All (our courses) are different layouts, all with different designers,” Rios said. “You could have a week here and have a great time."


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Just west of San Juan, Dorado is Puerto Rico's original golf mecca. 


The most memorable experience of my trip came with golf and lunch at Bahia Beach, a country club experience managed by Troon Golf next door to Trump International. The news that the par-3 17th hole is moving inland isn’t great for golfers, but a secluded setting through the jungle and around lagoons for most of the round should keep its aura intact.

El Conquistador Resort Golf Course and Royal Isabela both share similar characteristics: wild holes, soaring views and firm conditions. These thrill rides are better appreciated once you’ve played them a couple times. They’re both still fun no matter how bad you score.    

Royal Isabela, in particular, bends just about every design rule. Designed by David Pfaff (a former Pete Dye associate who passed away in 2013), blind shots galore and a pair of extra holes are incorporated into the routing. Hire a caddie to navigate this minefield of trouble. They will add to an exclusive experience, where no more than 24 players tee off per day.

Royal Isabela has given Puerto Rico what it sorely lacked: an extended run of oceanfront golf. Its heroic shots along the cliffs of the back nine culminates in a tee shot over a coastal chasm on the par-3 17th hole. This is the new Puerto Rico – bold and beautiful. 

"People come for the view," Royal Isabela Superintendent Dean Vande Hei said. "There are very few places in the world that has this."


More: Ginella's Journeys visits Puerto Rico


 

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McIlroy 'happy to be back', can 'empathize' with Tiger

By Associated PressJanuary 16, 2018, 3:50 pm

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates – After a long layoff from golf, Rory McIlroy has some newfound sympathy for Tiger Woods.

The 28-year-old Northern Irishman is making a comeback at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship after ending his season early last year. He has not played a round since the final day of the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship on Oct. 8.

McIlroy, a four-time major champion who has slipped to No. 11 in the world rankings, last won the Tour Championship on the PGA Tour in September 2016. He injured a rib in his first outing of 2017 – at the South African Open – and felt its after-effects throughout the year.

McIlroy, who has seven top-five finishes in his last eight starts in Abu Dhabi, said Tuesday he felt mentally low because of his physical issues.

''Honestly, I was excited to be done. I could have shut it down after the PGA Championship very easily and taken the rest of the year off, but I didn't. I played six events after that, played OK and had a chance to win one of them,'' McIlroy said. ''But I was just excited to take that time off and get myself just sort of a re-set.''

Last week, McIlroy also revealed that he has a minor, non-threatening heart condition that needs regular check-ups.

''After that 3-plus months of a re-set, I'm very happy to be back. I felt like I needed it physically and mentally. I just felt like it was a little bit of a sabbatical. I've been out here for 10 years, and I want to get ready for the next 10.''

McIlroy compared his situation to what Woods has been going through.

''I've only been through, maybe, not even 5 percent of what he's had to go through. And you can tell from where he was to where he is now mentally, because of physically where he is ... he's a totally different person,'' McIlroy said. ''Of course, I empathize with him, and I know he was in a dark place there for a while. It's just so great to see him out of that and back and excited to be playing golf again.''

The Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship will be the first of back-to-back events for McIlroy, who is also playing next week in Dubai.

''I think the next two weeks will be a big learning curve, just to see where I'm at,'' McIlroy said. ''I'm obviously coming into the events trying to play as well as I can and trying to compete and trying to win, but I think there will definitely be things I'll have to work on going into that stretch in the States.''

The tournament, which starts Thursday, has attracted some big names, including top-ranked Dustin Johnson, No. 6 Justin Rose, No. 9 Henrik Stenson, No. 14 Paul Casey and No. 15 Matt Kuchar. No. 18 Tommy Fleetwood is the defending champion.

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Pre-tourney caution be damned: Stenson rides camel

By Grill Room TeamJanuary 16, 2018, 3:29 pm

If you were under the impression Henrik Stenson's days of engaging in pre-tournament hijinks at HSBC-sponsored events were over, then you don't know the Swedish Superman.

Ahead of this week's HSBC Abu Dhabi Golf Championship, the 2016 champion golfer of the year decided to have some fun riding (and pretend-spanking) a camel:

If you can't imagine any reason Stenson wouldn't get on a camel, we will point you to the WGC-HSBC Champions back in October, when Stenson, Dustin Johnson, Haotong Li and Hideki Matsuyama took place in this hire-wire act:

Two weeks later, Stenson revealed a rib injury, and a report from the U.K.'s Telegraph stated "that not only was the Shanghai caper to blame, but that Stenson is annoyed about being persuaded to do it in the first place."

Stenson brushed back at that report in this Instagram post, saying that his "comment about not being Superman was a sarcastic way of saying that I am susceptible to injury like any other athlete and sometimes these things happen when you least expect them. I was pleased to help promote the HSBC Champions and to continue my string of success at the event and I was never forced to do anything. HSBC is a great sponsor to golf worldwide and I am not happy to see them being made responsible for my withdrawal."

I’m disappointed to have to pre-emptively withdraw from the Nedbank Golf Challenge Hosted by Gary Player, I was looking forward to this important year-end event on the European Tour. At this point I am back home in Orlando waiting to do a scan on my ribs and get the necessary rest. I am still hoping for a quick recovery and have not ruled out playing in Dubai next week at this point. My comment about not being Superman was a sarcastic way of saying that I am susceptible to injury like any other athlete and sometimes these things happen when you least expect them. I was pleased to help promote the HSBC Champions and to continue my string of success at the event and I was never forced to do anything. HSBC is a great sponsor to golf worldwide and I am not happy to see them being made responsible for my withdrawal. The plan as of now will be to participate in the DP World Championship if my body is back to 100%. H

A post shared by Henrik Stenson (@henrikstenson) on

And it would appear he genuinely meant those comments, at least enough to get on a camel.

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Spieth, McIlroy to support Major Champions Invitational

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 16, 2018, 2:25 pm

Nick Faldo announced Tuesday the creation of the Major Champions Invitational.

The event, scheduled for March 12-14, is an extension of the Faldo Series and will feature both male and female junior players at Bella Collina in Montverde, Fla.

Jordan Spieth, Rory Mcllroy, Annika Sorenstam, Adam Scott, Henrik Stenson, Jerry Pate and John Daly have already committed to supporting the event, which is aimed at mentoring and inspiring the next generation of players.  

“I’m incredibly excited about hosting the Major Champions Invitational, and about the players who have committed to support the event,” Faldo said. “This event will allow major champions to give something back to the game that has given them so much, and hopefully, in time, it will become one of the most elite junior golf events in the world.”

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Rosaforte: Woods plays with Obama, gets rave reviews

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 16, 2018, 2:15 pm

Golf Channel insider Tim Rosaforte reports on Tiger Woods’ recent round at The Floridian in Palm City, Fla., alongside President Barack Obama.

Check out the video, as Rosaforte says Woods received rave reviews from instructor Claude Harmon.