ISABELA, Puerto Rico -- Royal Isabela Superintendent Dean Vande Hei considers himself the biggest critic of David W. Pfaff's unique design set upon high cliffs overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, an hour and a half west of San Juan.
Vande Hei has manipulated every blade of grass over the past seven years, watching it mature into one of the Caribbean's best golf courses. He's pushed course conditions to the limit, searching for the slickest greens and browner, firmer, faster fairways to create a links feel. He's not afraid to admit that he wouldn't mind changing the third hole, an awkward short and blind par 4 that eats up first-timers and is even more difficult to take care of, given the lack of airflow to the green sunken in a valley.
A wild array of nuances make Royal Isabela feel more like an adventure than a round of golf. Conventional rules of golf architecture don't always apply. There's an amazing number of 132 total tees, blind shots galore, a tiny island-green par 3, deep pot bunkers and even two extra holes. Taking caddies is a must just to head in the right direction. There are two holes at no. 6: Brothers Stanley and Charlie Pasarell, who are developing this environmentally conscious residential and resort community, couldn't decide between building a par 4 or par 5, so they kept both.
The "private" hole at no. 11 -- which can be played in place of another inland par 3 -- runs directly along the stunning oceanfront cliffs that accompany Royal Isabela's back nine.
"The challenge -- there is not one shot you can take off," Vande Hei said. "It's demanding. Some say too demanding."