The Sea the Golf and Punta Cana

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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.