PUNTA CANA, Dominican Republic - One by one, the Golf Advisor staff - Mike Bailey, Brandon Tucker and I - tee it up from the tips on the 13th hole at Punta Espada ready to take on the Caribbean Sea.
One by one, our balls disappear, unable to survive the 250-yard carry to the green set upon seaside cliffs. Splish. Splash. And maybe sploosh (we're not sure where it went).
A bad day on the golf course? Hardly. We simply moved up to the tees we should have been playing, hit the green and reveled in the beauty of our surroundings.
If you haven't been to the Dominican Republic to play golf, this is the year to either get there or put it on your must-play list. The stars have aligned for the tiny nation that shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti to not only lay claim as the Caribbean's best golf destination but the premier winter golf getaway for Americans outside of the continental United States. Move over Hawaii? It's not so farfetched for Americans with a passport, especially those on the East Coast.
The Dominican Republic is most definitely a destination on the rise, buoyed by the PGA Tour, the Caribbean's newest seaside course and major improvements at several prominent golf resorts and courses, notably Casa de Campo, Amanera Playa Grande and Corales. It helps that the Dominican Republic's biggest Caribbean competitor, Puerto Rico, was knocked out cold by the devastating hurricane season last fall.
More importantly, though, the PGA Tour visits for the first time in March. Getting a tour event is like the stamp of approval that shouts, If we're good enough for the pros, why not you? The Corales Puntacana Resort & Club Championship, held March 19-25 opposite the World Golf Championships-Dell Technologies Match Play at the Austin Country Club, will provide the TV boost the Dominican Republic's tropical competitors - Puerto Rico, the Bahamas, Hawaii and Mexico's Mayakoba near Cancun - have enjoyed for years.
The addition of the new La Romana Golf Club (see review and photo gallery here) gives the Dominican Republic more than 90 holes directly on or overlooking the Caribbean Sea (on the south side of the island) and the Atlantic Ocean (on the north shore). That's almost more ocean golf than the entire eastern seaboard of the United States.
The Golf Advisor editorial team flew into the Punta Cana International Airport last December for five days of golf, caddies, sunshine and heroic shots over - and into - the sea. A relatively new highway between the two destinations we visited, Punta Cana and Casa de Campo, made travel a breeze. As golf escapes go, this is the life when friends at home are frozen stiff.
Video: Golf Advisor visits Casa De Campo, La Romana
Luxurious Casa de Campo
When it comes to the luxury in the Caribbean, nobody beats Casa de Campo, the sprawling 7,500-acre oasis in La Romana home to 81 holes of golf, a 370-slip Marina & Yacht Club, a world-class spa, a Polo & Equestrian Club, the La Terraza Tennis Center (the Wimbledon of the Caribbean) and a 245-acre Shooting Club. Each of the resort's sports facilities is considered the best in the Caribbean, although the iconic Teeth of the Dog by Pete Dye has some competition as the region's best course (keep reading).
This resort feels more like its own city. We shacked up in a $2,000-a-night, four-bedroom villa with an outdoor pool and several hot tubs. A maid assigned to our villa took care of us, making coffee for late-night work sessions and to keep things clean. Personal golf carts allow guests to zip around property (with headlights for evening adventures). Every morning or after golf, we'd race toward the Lago Restaurant near the main hotel for the breakfast and lunch buffet.
The first night we dined at La Piazzetta in Altos de Chavón, a stunning artisan’s village modeled after a 16th-century Mediterranean city. Its hand-cut stone streets lead to a church for weddings, restaurants, shops and a 5,000-person Grecian-style amphitheater for concerts, ranging from Frank Sinatra, who performed at the 1982 grand opening, to David Guetta, who rocked New Year's Eve 2017. The following evening, we ate at the new Minitas Beach Club & Restaurant, which debuted its new restaurant and beachside pool days earlier.
As for the golf, playing Dye's Teeth of the Dog remains one of the game's greatest pleasures. The entire course is an early Dye design from 1971 before he went rogue. No railroad ties. No pot bunkers. No volcano mounding. It's mostly playable, probably because the wind off the water provides ample challenge most days. We caught weather all week calm as a cucumber. Of its seven seaside holes, my favorites include the tiny par 3 at no. 5, playing to a green the size of two kitchen tables, and the short par 4 at no. 17.
The equally interesting 27 holes at Dye Fore, built in 2003 with nine more holes online in 2011, deliver more of a jungle adventure. The Chavon nine follows cliffs overlooking the Chavon River hundreds of feet below, while the Marina nine tumbles down toward the marina (home to more restaurants and shops), offering panoramic sea views on the way. The newer Lagos nine sports more water hazards. Dye Fore would be a headliner anywhere else.
New touches should only enhance the golf experience going forward. A new Dye Fore proshop was being built during our visit and should be ready to go. Next up is the new Casa de Campo Golf Learning Center that will debut later this year at the main range near the Teeth and Links courses. Charlie Epps, the longtime coach to two-time major champion Angel Cabrera, will oversee the state-of-the-art facility, featuring two hitting bays, the latest in Trackman technology, individual and group golf lessons and schools and high-tech club-fitting and repair. The entire practice facility was expanded and enhanced in 2015.
Golf and spa at Punta Cana
While Casa de Campo is one of the world's largest and most beloved golf resorts, I wouldn't consider it a sin to hunker down in Punta Cana for an awesome golf-and-beach vacation. There are lots of choices: In the past, I've stayed at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Punta Cana (see my Travelgolf.com review), playing its Jack Nicklaus course of the same name, and toured Tortuga Bay, named one of my top dozen Caribbean golf resorts. Brandon Tucker and his wife stayed at the Club Med Punta Cana in 2014. This time, the three of us unwound at the 200-room Westin Punta Cana, which opened in January of 2014.
The Westin sits right on the beach with a large pool complex and multiple restaurants. Guests get complete access to all the amenities of the Puntacana Resort & Club, including three miles of white sand beaches, 45 holes of golf, a full-service marina, nine restaurants, a Six Senses Spa, horseback riding and a 1,500-acre ecological reserve featuring twelve fresh water lagoons.
Corales, just a short shuttle ride away, was gearing up for its big stage with several construction projects, including a clubhouse expansion, and repairing some hurricane damage. The past two years, the Tom Fazio design has hosted the Web.com Tour.
Several holes are now stronger. The greens on par-4 eighth and par-3 ninth holes were raised at least 10 feet to protect them from par and against future storm surges, and 27 new palm trees guard the left side of the par-4 13th fairway. New cutting patterns created closely mown collection areas around greens throughout the course.
Corales is probably the island's best tournament venue. It's long enough for the pros (7,650 yards) and has some interesting features. Two par 4s play to separate greens that can rotate every round if necessary, providing the pros different looks. Two different teeing areas on the par-3 17th hole - part of the three-hole finish stretch nicknamed the Devil's Elbow - can do the same thing, forcing players to hit into the wind or fight off a cross breeze along the shore.
After Corales, we spent a leisurely afternoon at the 27-hole La Cana Golf & Beach Club, first dining for a tasty lunch on the clubhouse patio, where I was tempted to join the families running around at the beach and relaxing poolside. My second round playing La Cana brought a deeper appreciation of the original 18 holes by P.B. Dye. Both nines feature cool stretches along the water - nos. 4, 5 and 7 on Tortuga and nos. 8 and 9 on Arrecife. After golf, a massage at the Six Senses spa in the clubhouse was the perfect ending to a great day. We were shocked when the head pro told us we could become members for $2,500. What a deal.
Video: Part II of our visit to DR takes on Corales, Punta Espada
A grand finale at Punta Espada
To me, the best came last. As good as Corales and Teeth are, I'm not shy about my man crush on Punta Espada, a former host of a PGA Tour Champions event from 2008-10. It's my favorite Nicklaus design.
The Golden Bear didn't just lean on the ocean for scenery to prop up an ordinary round of golf. He used every seaside cove for strategic excellence. Besides the aforementioned 13th hole, golfers can just as easily sink a shot in the saltwater on six other dramatic seaside holes. Some are so close to the waves that seaspray is an added distraction on the greens and the terrifyingly gorgeous tee of the par-4 17th hole.
Punta Espada was supposed to be the first of 11 golf courses planned within the Cap Cana development. Even if a hundred more were built, I'm not sure they could top this one.
Update on Playa Grande
Lastly, while vising the island, we were surprised to hear the remodeled Playa Grande Golf Course that Bailey played in 2016 was under the knife again. The original Robert Trent Jones Sr. course, which was completely redone by Rees Jones in 2015, won't reopen until later this year. It's being re-grassed with salt-tolerant Paspalum by the Discovery Land Company to align with its other high-end golf communities, according to Jones.
Playa Grande, highlighted by 10 holes directly along oceanfront cliffs on the north shore of the island, is only available to guests of the Amanera Playa Grande, the only resort in the world in the swanky Aman chain with a golf course. As a lover of ocean golf, Playa Grande has climbed to the top of my bucket list, just as the Dominican Republic should on yours.