DORADO, Puerto Rico -- Chi Chi Rodriguez remembers the glory days of this oceanfront paradise.
He was part of it all. Rodriguez worked at Dorado Beach Resort & Club during its heyday in the early 1960s. Laurance S. Rockefeller opened his new resort in 1958, throwing a grand opening party for 150 friends, celebrities and dignitaries -- all millionaires, legend has it. They came to celebrate his hotel and golf course, the East and West nines designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr.
Rodriguez, whose World Golf Hall of Fame career includes eight PGA Tour wins and 22 more on the Senior Tour, beat Doug Saunders in a Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf event held at the course in 1964.
"This was the place," Rodriguez, now 76, recalled.
Eventually, the heady days faded, leaving Dorado stuck with only its storied past. Hyatt abandoned the hotel complex near the course in 2006. Those were the darkest of days.
Like a Phoenix, Dorado is rising from its own ashes. The course that introduced the Caribbean as a bold, beautiful golf destination is back, more stunning than ever.
An 18-month restoration by Robert Trent Jones Jr. has breathed life back into Dorado Beach Resort & Club's East Course. It officially opened Nov. 13, 2011, as the star of the four original RTJ Sr. courses. When the Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve, opens in December 2012, Rockefeller's vision of a luxury Caribbean escape will come full circle. It will signify what Eric Christensen, the CEO of Dorado Beach Resort & Club, calls "The Road to Six Stars." The Dorado Beach Resort & Club is currently managed by KemperSports.
"The history here goes way back," Christensen said. "This was the birth of luxury resorts in the Caribbean. It was one of the first tropical golf resorts. ... It's been a great place to live (and play) for a long time."
Restoring Dorado Beach's East Course
The East Course boasts an impressive legacy of tournament golf. It hosted the 1963 Canada Cup before RTJ Sr. returned to expand the East and West Courses to 18 holes apiece in 1966. The East went on to host eight Senior/Champions Tour events, most recently the Chrysler Senior Match Play Challenge in 1999-2000. Jack Nicklaus has always maintained the course's famous "Z" hole is one of the best par 5s in the world. The fourth fairway bends like a backwards Z as it winds around two ponds to a green perched against an ocean backdrop.
The restoration was all encompassing. The clearing of trees and overgrown vegetation opened up ocean views on 15 holes, especially on the first, fourth, ninth and 18th. It's no longer a "claustrophobic" golf course. Instead, it's open and inviting, playing to a brawnier 7,192 yards.
Bunkers were repositioned and reshaped. In some places, these hazards cut the fairway diagonally but angle away from the tee, allowing higher-handicap players to hit safely, while better players must contemplate whether to carry them or throttle back. Overall, though, the bunker count shrank from 84 to 76.
Fourteen of the 18 green complexes feature new collection areas, making the course more playable for resort guests and tougher for pros should a top tournament ever return. "We wanted shot variety," said Brad Boyd, the resort's director of agronomy.
These shaved zones work well with all the course's elevated greens, a signature of RTJ Sr. designs. The elevated greens at the par-4 No. 6 and par-5 14th are not only demanding strategically but scenic as well.
Pod tees added during previous renovation work were reversed back to RTJ Sr.'s signature runway tees. Length was added where possible, notably on the eighth and 10th holes. The mammoth runway tee on the par-4 10th stretches 150 yards from front to back.
True to Rockefeller's vision that led to the eco-tourism movement, recycling played a big part in the project. Removed trees became mulch spread alongside the course's wider fairways. All the golden bunker sand was mined and washed on property. New ultra-dwarf Champion Bermuda grass blankets the greens, a first in Puerto Rico.
Bruce Charlton, the president/chief design officer of RTJ's firm, said the project meant a lot to his boss. "He wanted this to be a museum of (his father's) golf course architecture," Charlton said. "He said let's do things that if his dad were here, he would be smiling."
The club is even bringing back caddies to mirror its commitment to service. Some caddies and forecaddies will come from the club's junior program. Dorado is 1,100 members strong. Native Puerto Rican celebrities Carlos Beltran, Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez and Ricky Martin regularly visit the resort.
Chi Chi Rodriguez calls the new East Course "gorgeous."
"I think Mr. Jones (RTJ Sr.) did a wonderful job. He's maybe the best architect who ever lived," Rodriguez said. "I think his son did even better (with the changes)."
When I played Dorado East in 2007, it was a forgettable round. The conditions were lousy, and the course looked like an overgrown jungle. Today, it's a well manicured paradise that stands among the best courses in the Caribbean. The par-5 fourth and 14th holes are the most memorable.
More polishing on tap for Dorado Beach Resort & Club
The 1,400-acre resort is still in a state of transition with tons of construction. The Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve, will eventually be an intimate escape with 115 rooms spread throughout 53 buildings in a lush jungle setting. The five-acre Spa Botanico will feature a rainforest "treehouse" for treatments and will use fresh local herbs, spices and botanicals in all its healing remedies.
The Ritz-Reserve Residences, featuring 2- to 4-bedroom condos, will be built just steps from West Beach. Further down the shore will be the five-bedroom East Beach Villas. The East Beach Golf Residences will be 2- to 3-bedroom, two-story residences on the East and West golf courses. There are long-term plans to renovate Dorado Beach's West course, possibly starting in 2012, and give the resort's other courses -- the Plantation Sugarcane Course and Plantation Pineapple Course -- more TLC.
There are plenty of amenities ready for vacationers right now. The Plantation Resort Residences offer Mediterranean-style condominiums for rent. These spacious three- and four-bedroom condos come with full kitchens, four bathrooms, porches or balconies, full laundry facilities and, best of all, golf carts to explore the resort. Children will gush over the $12-million Watermill, a private water park/playground complete with water slides, multiple pools and a lazy river, all patterned after a Puerto Rican sugar mill.
The 8,000-square-foot Dorado Beach Fitness and Wellness Center opened earlier this year next door to the water park with all the latest fitness equipment and a full roster of classes. The best place to exercise, however, is along the 11-mile Rockefeller Nature Trail, a running/walking path along the beach and ocean. It's a lasting tribute to Rockefeller's vision all those years ago.