Swing Time Dominican Style
After a renovation that lasted almost a year, the Dominican Republic's legendary Teeth of the Dog is ready to play again. Gary Fisketjon uncovers an old hound's new tricks.
As I made my way through the newly refurbished Teeth of the Dog, at the Casa de Campo resort in the Dominican Republic, I was awestruck by what's often described as the best golf course in the Caribbean. Since opening day in 1971, the Pete Dye–designed layout has endured relentless popularity as well as the frequent hurricanes so common to the area. In recent years, this wear and tear has elicited complaints about its conditioning. The course reopened late last year after eight months of renovations (see "Sharpening the Teeth") that will undoubtedly help it maintain its dominance in the region and its rank in the top 30 or 50—depending on the list—championship courses in the world.
The renovation has resulted in changes that will be imposing even for those who knew it well. Dye once famously said that the four seaside holes on the front side and the three on the back "were built mainly by the Man upstairs." But make no mistake, it was Dye who created the tee for the par-four eighth some 30 feet out in the Caribbean, demanding a drive over water rather than along the cliff. He also added countless other human—or inhumane—touches in a stretch of golf soaked in salt spray and awash in lost balls. Now the gasp-inducing par threes are about 170 yards and Dye himself describes the first of these as "one scary-looking hole." Playing it, he says, is akin to "trying to hit a beach towel with a fifteen- to twenty-five-mile-per-hour wind blowing left to right" off the sea.
The par fours have the same terrible beauty, and what's known as Reload Alley begins with the 15th, where the drive and approach are equally terrifying—a pattern that persists through the next two holes. The 16th has been lengthened to 480 yards—you play into the wind, so even the longest hitters are at once chastened and happy to turn inland upon reaching the 17th, that is, assuming they have any balls left in their bag.
Dye came up with the name Teeth of the Dog after hearing the work crews call the razor-sharp coral they were constructing this course on diente del perro. "Almost by accident, I saw before me the most beautiful seaside location for a golf course," he wrote in his memoir, Bury Me in a Pot Bunker. "Little did I realize that my wonderful discovery would be the start of a lifelong devotion to [this] Caribbean country and its warm, gracious people." The arduous construction of Teeth is the stuff of golf legend, and in his book Dye pays homage to the local workers who made the course essentially by hand, using pickaxes, sledgehammers, and oxcarts. In its infancy, with the 1974 World Amateur Team Championship, the course schooled a great many future pros on Dye-style golf. As Gary Koch said at the time, "This course will come out of nowhere, and it will throw you down and stomp on your head." This quickly became the very experience players were looking for.
Dye first saw this stretch of coastline in the sixties, when it was known only for sugarcane. A mill was built in nearby La Romana in 1917, and everything that has happened since has been paid for, in effect, with sugar. Ownership passed from a Puerto Rican company to Gulf and Western Industries and then, in 1984, along with the resort, to Pepe and Alfonso Fanjul, Cuban-born sugar barons who hold majority interest in Domino and Florida Crystals. The Fanjuls produce 350,000 tons of sugar here annually and a great deal more in Florida.
Nowadays it is bougainvillea, hibiscus, citrus, and coconut palms that make the first impression in this lush landscape—along with polo fields, a helipad, and gargantuan houses covering terrain that not long ago sprouted only a few humble villas Gulf and Western built for executives to enjoy. Casa de Campo bills itself as the Caribbean's most complete resort and offers every activity one might imagine and a few that only devotees would bother to think about (see "How to Do Casa de Campo"). Miles of paths crisscross its 7,000 acres, and delightfully omnipresent are fleets of carritos, souped-up red golf carts used by guests to scoot around the property through sleepy intersections where staffers wait patiently to direct traffic. (A New York friend of mine recently spent the nongolfing hours of his stay at the resort hunting down carritos that his sons, en route to a world-class bar bill, had misplaced the previous evening.) This "country house," which is what the Spanish name means, is a happy and active one.
Pete Dye's home at Casa de Campo overlooks the par-three seventh, and the villa next door belongs to Herb Kohler, whose American Club (in Kohler, Wisconsin) also boasts four courses designed by his neighbor here. In both locations Dye has worked with terrain that varies widely, from lake- or seaside to inland. His second course at Casa de Campo, The Links, opened in 1976, and if it lacks the drama of Teeth it still constitutes a stern test (one that yielded my worst score at the resort). While water is in play on five holes, solid shot-making is required throughout, as the fairways swing either right or left to smallish greens with subtle, deceptive contours, each one capable of ruining a scorecard. Though not technically "linksland," the course lives up to its name, however inexplicable this seems in a Caribbean locale. Darrell Teubner, director of tournaments and special events, led me on a tour of this often overlooked second act, telling me that The Links is his choice when he needs a reminder of what the game truly requires.
Dye's unnamed third course opened in 1990, just down the road at the private La Romana Country Club. Guests of Casa de Campo are able to gain access, and many prize it for both design and impeccable conditioning, but in my view it pales in comparison to the competition. And since 2003 this has included the eponymous Dye Fore, whose views are every bit as stunning as its back-tees length of 7,714 yards. (As with all these courses, various tee-blocks offer far less daunting options.) The first nine provide glimpses of the Chavon River as it winds toward the sea, and almost immediately I found myself exclaiming to my good-natured, patient caddie how deep the greens are—in some cases a good 40 yards from front to back so that a seven-iron approach one day might be a wedge the next.
But after making the turn, I was soon rendered speechless as hole after hole falls off hundreds of feet right or, coming back, left into the river canyon, some greens virtually cut into the precipice. With the wind that day coming over the river, I weighed playing shots out over the abyss to let them blow back or else wisely bailing out well to the safe, inland side of the pins; neither tactic worked particularly well, except for a few good or lucky shots.
One expects to be astonished by the seaside holes on Teeth of the Dog, but these riverine, cliffside seven are to me just as intimidating. Finally, the par-five 18th doglegs up and down and up again toward the clubhouse, yet there is a view of the green all the way from the tee through a cut below the fairway itself—a stupid shortcut, I found out, and my miraculous par did nothing to dim the beauty of this back nine. In fact, I see only two possible quibbles with Dye Fore. First, the name itself seems a feeble pun better suited to marketing than a great course. And second, the solid front side doesn't seem to flow so much as explode into the stupendous back—but this might well be a temporary issue as Dye is preparing another 18 holes on this end of the property and could easily reweave the nines into a more unified whole.
These days, management at Casa de Campo is clearly paying particularly close attention to upgrading and perfecting the resort's courses. As well they might: Punta Cana Resort, a chic destination on the northern coast, has not only lured away Oscar de la Renta, who for years lived adjacent to Teeth of the Dog; it has also built an admirable course laid out by none other than P. B. Dye, Pete's son. Meanwhile, in Barbados, posh Sandy Lane—the resort Tiger Woods rented out for his wedding in 2004—is making a bid for the crown jewel of Caribbean golf with the Green Monkey, designed by Tom Fazio. Still, sitting with Gilles Gagnon, Casa's director of golf, at the bar overlooking Teeth's vastly altered 18th hole as late afternoon settled over the sea beyond, I couldn't help feeling that this is exactly where any golfer in these islands would choose to end a day. Despite everything else the resort puts on offer, it is golf that rules. Teeth of the Dog and its fellows will be toasted from this spot for a very long time indeed.
Greens fees: Teeth of the Dog, $232; The Links, $145; Dye Fore, $203; 800-877-3643; www.casadecampo.com.do.
Sharpening the Teeth
Pete Dye is notorious for creating spectacular-looking yet brutally difficult and unforgiving designs that bristle with railroad ties, waste areas, and other unusual hazards. The just-completed renovation of Teeth of the Dog will do nothing but add to that reputation. From the tips, at 7,400 yards, the course is now 475 yards longer than it was before. This helps restore the imperatives of distance reduced in recent years by new clubs that allow players at every level to hit the ball much farther.
Many greens have been built up on one side or the other, significantly altering both the approach shots and chips and putts. Fairway and greenside bunkers, too, have changed shape and dimension, many now with higher lips that present new challenges and, to my eye, resemble waves on a stormy sea.
Everything about the course is more challenging. Additional yardage, for example, has revised the fourth hole entirely; what had been a short, straightaway par four—which Dye called "probably the easiest hole on the course"—has become a big, right-swinging monster at 480 yards. For the critics who cry "Not fair!" (these have included a number of touring pros over the years), Dye has a stock reply: "Life isn't fair, so why should golf be?"
The Down-low On the DR
Since Pepe and Alfonso Fanjul Jr. bought Casa de Campo in 1983, it has hosted three U.S. presidents, a raft of celebrities and CEOs, and planeloads of pretty young things. Sports Illustrated shot a swimsuit issue here and the family has thrown numerous parties—including the 500-guest nuptials in 2002 of Pepe's daughter, Emilia, to private banker Brian Pfeifler. (Vogue called it the society wedding of the season.)
Casa de Campo has always been something of an anomaly in the Dominican Republic. The country, with upwards of 60,000 hotel rooms, is one of the most visited in the Caribbean, though not necessarily by U.S. travelers. "In Europe the DR is known as the place to go for inexpensive package vacations," says James Hendersen, who has covered the region for nearly 20 years as author of Cardogan travel guides in England and now serves as editor of Definitivecaribbean.com. "Nice but not necessarily the height of luxury." That's not to say there aren't plenty of exceptional places to stay here, but Casa's 7,000-acre island-within-an-island layout is unique. "It reminds me of Mustique, where everything seems to be built with an eye toward style," Hendersen says.
Some 1,400 privately owned villas dot the property, and currently the sounds of construction resound nearly everywhere as 100 more homes are being built. Some of this new development testifies to the movement of Latin American capital into the Dominican Republic, but it is also evidence of an increased interest on the part of American visitors. "U.S. travelers have been looking farther south in the Caribbean," Henderson explains. "And that has been very good news for the Dominican Republic."
How to Do Casa de Campo
Casa de Campo bills itself as a family-friendly resort and indeed there is a seemingly endless list of nongolf activities to choose from. For those on a tight schedule, the following options are particularly noteworthy.
Tennis facilities here, which some refer to as the Wimbledon of the Caribbean, are nestled in a lovely setting and feature meticulous Har-Tru courts. The deep staff includes 32 ball boys, recruited for an admirable program that encourages local kids to learn the game. Lesson, $70
Target practice at the shooting center is overseen by Shaun Snell (formerly head keeper at the Earl of Pembroke's Wilton House, just outside London). The sporting-clays course is world-class, with a 110-foot tower surrounded by some 300 stations. You can also shoot trap and skeet (the latter also at night) and live game; guides and dogs are provided. Lesson with shooting director, $295
Food and drink options abound—there are 20 bars and restaurants on the property. Two standouts are Chinois (dinner, $86), which serves Cantonese dishes and sushi, and El Pescador (dinner, $128), a more formal affair overlooking Minitas Beach and featuring outstanding local seafood dishes.
Horse lovers can go English or Western at the 32-acre Equestrian Center. There is also trail riding, jumping, dressage, polo, and "donkey polo," for everyone from kids and greenhorns to five-chukker swells. Polo game, $92; trail ride, $90
Watersports cover snorkeling and all manner of watercraft (sea kayaks, Hobie cats, Windsurfers) for rent, as well as remarkably good freshwater and saltwater fishing. Daylong deep-sea-fishing expedition, $3,200
Accommodations run the gamut, from rooms ($472–$515) to suites ($1,000) to two- to six-bedroom villas ($1,400–$2,445). 800-877-3643 or 305-856-5405; www.casadecampo.com.do
Getting there is a cinch as American Airlines runs direct flights from JFK (seasonally) and Miami to the airport at La Romana, which abuts the resort. 800-433-7300
GARY FISKETJON WROTE ABOUT LAS VEGAS IN THE NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2005 ISSUE.