COCO BEACH, Puerto Rico -- It's perfectly acceptable to do a little showboating when you sink a putt in Puerto Rico. This is, after all, the home of Chi Chi Rodriguez, the legendary showman and only Puerto Rican to ever have a successful career on the PGA Tour.
Home of this week's Puerto Rico Open on the PGA Tour, Trump International Golf Club has just two of a hearty collection of championship-caliber golf courses on the island. Play a week's worth of golf as I did, mixed in with mojitos, mofongos and just about anything you can put in a deep frier, and it's easy to understand why Chi Chi always seems to be smiling.
Day 1: Dorado East
Rodriguez has been a fixture at Dorado Beach since founder Laurence Rockafeller brought him to the club in 1957. Today, he serves as the club's official ambassador and still plays plenty.
'I still play two or three times a week from 6,300-yards,' said Rodriguez. 'And I break my age (76) every day I play.'
Dorado is the largest golf development in Puerto Rico with four courses, highlighted by the seaside East, fresh off a renovation project that included the installation of brand new greens and irrigation. Trump International may host the PGA Tour, but Dorado East, which demands power and precision off the tee, could easily defend itself against a pro's game, too.
With the East Course fully revamped, all efforts at Dorado have turned to the completion of a new Ritz-Carlton Reserve luxury resort. The hotel, a $343 million project expected to open at the end of 2012, will be the first six-star hotel in the Caribbean.
Day 2: El Conquistador
While Puerto Rico's seaside courses are generally flat, El Conquistador, located on the northeast side of the island beside the Waldorf Astoria resort, delivers an extreme, topsy-turvy layout full of elevated tee shots and sloping fairways.
A mix of wind, uneven lies, and narrow holes framed by woods and hillsides, punishes timid swings on this Arthur Hills design. It's unquestionably one of the island's toughest tests should you decide to tee it up from the tips with a 74.5/141 slope/rating. Views of El Yunque National Rainforest above, the sea below and leathery iguanas sharing the fairways with golfers all make for a round never short of stimulation.
Day 3: Bahia Beach
I'll look back on Bahia Beach as the 'Goldilocks' golf course during my week in Puerto Rico. Dorado East was tough and El Conquistador was severe, while the gently-rolling fairways of Bahia Beach were juuuust right. Part of a luxurious seaside St. Regis Resort, most of the course, designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr. and opened in 2008, winds through deep forest and lagoons before a three-hole finish beside the beach.
And what could be better than three oceanfront closing holes? Three oceanfront holes, including a reachable par 5, all playing downwind.
Day 4: Royal Isabela
Going on twenty years, an ambitious development is finally coming to life on the northwest side of Puerto Rico. Brothers Stanley and Charles Pasarell teamed up with former Pete Dye associate David Pfaff to construct Royal Isabela, which is well is on its way to becoming the boldest golf course on the island.
Royal Isabela will be an exclusive club but with a small stay-and-play component. Those who have the cash will enjoy the most architecturally fascinating of Puerto Rico's golf courses - and one could argue all of the Caribbean.
'Royal Isabela is about three things,' said Stanley Pasarell. 'Golf, golf and golf.' Aimed to play firm, fast and a little brown, the brothers' vision here is a 'Tropical Scotland.' The course, which features a back nine set on towering bluffs several hundred-feet above the sea to go with some wildly imaginative-but-natural golf holes, certainly evokes a pinch of Bandon with a suntan.
Day 5: Ocean Course at Rio Mar
A few minutes west of our base at Gran Melia at Coco Beach is Rio Mar Country Club, where Chi Chi worked as a pro for 12 years. Today, Rio Mar still feels unmistakably like a traditional golf club - and after playing four challenging, modern designs (or redesigns) this easy-swinging alternative designed by George & Tom Fazio hit the spot.
It's certainly more low key at Rio Mar than anywhere else we played. You won't find any sprinkler heads on the Ocean. The only irrigation comes from the clouds above. Like most spots in Puerto Rico these days, iguanas have found a home here (there is even a nest beside the 14th tee). The club's friendly staff, who stick around at Rio Mar a loyal 15 years on average, have a habit of making any golfer feel at home too.