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The most interesting course in the Caribbean

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Royal-Isabela-Golf-14
            This double green is shared by the 12th and 14th holes at Royal Isabela in Puerto Rico

ISABELA, Puerto Rico – There's a new kid on the northwest coast of Puerto Rico that's already becoming legend. It's called the Golf Links of Royal Isabela, and it's perched on the cliffs above the Atlantic. The golf course actually has 21 holes, although you play 18 at a time to make up the round.

That's right; there are optional holes, and it totally works. Royal Isabela is definitely the best golf course in Puerto Rico, very likely the top course in the Caribbean, and possibly the most interesting golf course in the world.
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The 426-acre golf course and development is primarily owned by two of Puerto Rico's favorite brothers, Charlie and Stanley Pasarell. After years of trials and tribulations, the Pasarells are finally seeing their dream come to fruition, and what a dream it is. Royal Isabela, which was designed by the brothers and architect David Pfaff, is located on one of the most striking locations on the planet.

Pfaff, who was the associate architect on Pete Dye's famous Teeth of the Dog Course at Casa de Campo in the Dominican Republic, guided the two former professional tennis players through a design process that followed the natural contours of the land -- even on the greens. Royal Isabela is Scottish links and Caribbean weather and scenery all wrapped into one. Set on meadows, dunes and cliffs that rise some 350 feet above the surf, the course really routed itself.

'There are all types of bunkering, all types of greens,' said Stanley Parasell, who also serves as president. 'It's just what the setting allowed it to be. Most of the features we found there and just utilized them in the course.'

Depending on which holes you pick to play, it's either a par 72 at 7,538 yards or a par 73 of 7,667 yards. From the tips, or the Natural tees as they are called, we're talking a rating/slope of 80.3/155 -- especially evident if the tradewinds are strong. But don't let the difficulty scare you. It gets a little easier, and just as beautiful, from the other five sets of tees.

And it's more than length that presents the challenge. Players must be precise off the tees, hit the right spots on the greens, have a deft short game and putting touch and not be afraid to lose a ball. With native vegetation bordering the holes and cliffs awaiting poorly struck tee shots and approaches, the chances for lost balls are numerous. It's not uncommon for a player to duck into the club's modest golf shop after nine and buy another dozen -- and do it with a smile on his face.

The obvious signature hole is the 17th, a 200-yard par 3 from one cliff to another, with the green perched a couple hundred feet above the rocks. But there are so many other great visuals on the course, too, including a double green that shares the 12th and 14th holes, also backed up against a cliff over the ocean.

The truth is, though, that there's not a boring hole on the course, whether we're talking about the treacherous false front on the par-3 fourth (nicknamed Tear Drop), the hellish sod-faced bunkers on the 10th that were inspired by the Old Course at St. Andrews or the green complexes similar to Carnoustie.

One of the unique aspects of the course is the options. The sixth has two greens and fairways -- one of which is a par 4 designed by Stanley; the other is a dogleg-left par 5 designed by Charlie. There's also an optional par-3 11th that runs along a cliff and a short par-4 extra hole, perfect for settling playoffs.

Forecaddies are required and necessary for first-timers. Not only are there several blind shots, but knowing how to approach the greens in terms of landing it short, long or to one side is also critical. Future plans also call for a walking caddie program.

If you're wondering how to get an opportunity to play Royal Isabela, well, it isn't easy. The club will be a high-end retreat for the captains of industry and those who buy lots and build homes on the property.

Carefully screened candidates are getting sneak previews of the course right now, but there will be a limited resort aspect to Royal Isabela as well. Construction is feverishly underway on 20 casitas, a restaurant and other amenities that will have the Royal Isabela up and running as a resort by this summer. Similar to Pebble Beach, golf opportunities will be reserved for members and those who stay at the resort with rates running somewhere in the neighborhood of $600 to $1,000 per night.

Long-term plans call for more incredible golf -- as many as four more courses -- and other amenities such as a spa, tennis courts and more. For more information, check out RoyalIsabela.com.