DORADO, Puerto Rico – Friday, 6:30 a.m. It’s barely dawn, but my gargantuan three bedroom resort condo is already bumpin’ with the country-fried rock of Seattle-based band Radio Nationals and their hit song “Golden.” Twangy Telecaster and wailing Les Paul guitar riffs provide a bold, brazen counterpoint to the mellow baritone vocals.
You found your dreams coming true
Every day is something new
Everything you need is here
Everything is golden
So hold on
And own this little town
Golden – that’s the word of the weekend. As the music filters out into the veranda, beaming sunshine gives a splendid burnished glow to the jungle covered hills standing sentinel in tableau over the practice range. It’s a glorious view across vast expanses of verdant hillsides, one that the Italian masters might have painted, or that the great American writers of the ‘50s would have depicted in their novels.
Yes indeed, everything is golden, at least here at the resort. Even its name, “Dorado” harkens back to the old legend handed down from the Spanish conquistadors. El Dorado was the legendary City of Gold. The resort bears this name partly in homage to the legend, as well as to promote the overall theme of opulence and grandeur. The resort’s founders even chose to use the ancient alchemist’s symbol for gold as the logo. You’ve seen this logo before and probably mistaken it for a pineapple, like everyone else does. It looks like a pineapple, but it’s not. (Besides, somehow “Pineapple Beach East” or “The Plantations at Pineapple Beach Resort” don’t have the same dramatic flair.)
The resort lives up to its name, as it has been the gold standard in the Caribbean for decades ever since Jones the father roamed the fairways with Laurence Rockefeller. They have four courses here – the East and West by Jones, Sr. and a Sugarcane Course and Pineapple Course – for a total of 72 holes. In their illustrious history, Dorado Beach has won a number of “Gold Medal” awards from various publications. Dozens of other resorts have sprung up throughout the region over the years, but the 1-2 combination of Dorado Beach and Casa de Campo has still never been toppled from their lofty perch.
I bring up Casa de Campo for one important reason; they are the chief competition to Dorado. Not only will this article give you a quick look at what a vacation at Dorado Beach will be like, but I will explore their position in the Caribbean golf landscape and examine 1) what they were trying to do through the restoration – renovation – “reclamation” (Jones’s word) work here, 2) how successful they were at achieving that goal, and 3) whether that was what they should have done in the first place and why or why not.
Never forget: the central job of a critic is to act as a mediator between the work and the casual observer or user. So the critic needs to be able to describe and explain the essential elements of the work, and then give their professional opinion on how effectively the work was produced and presented and whether or not it accomplished its goals. I know that brings the subtext to the forefront, but we can either discuss and analyze the issues seriously and intelligently and truly come to understand the dynamics of the situation, or we can just do a typical “oh look how pretty” hack job and say “it’s great” and move on to the food and fitness center.
If you want that, go play the dog tracks at Turning Stone Casino or watch Keeping up with the Kardashians, it’s the same thing.
So with all that in mind, in the Caribbean, there is Dorado, and there is Casa de Campo…and everything else. Although they’ll never say it aloud, we all can read between the lines and know that Priority 1 for Dorado is to make sure that state of affairs continues until either the Earth gets whacked into the Sun by a rogue asteroid, the island of Las Palmas slides into the Atlantic causing a cataclysmic mega-tsunami in the Americas, or the cauldera under Yellowstone blows and kills every living creature larger than a cat, whichever comes first. That’s the strategy –stay on top. The tactics involved are to make the engines that drive the resort the best possible. At Dorado those engines are the beaches and the golf courses.
As an aside: if they improved the tennis facilities, that would open up an enormous third dimension they could exploit, a third engine that could grow the resort’s reputation, perhaps even resulting in a WTA event – sort of like what the Concord Hotel did in its heyday in the ‘70s. Diversify, add assets, and draw more customers. But that’s a discussion for another day.
WHAT THEY DID AND WHY THEY DID IT
Dorado has a dilemma. Back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, beachfront property at pretty much every resort was not used for golf, but for the hotel and the beach clubs. So Dorado Beach has 72 holes of golf – and only one hole on the water (15 West, a par-3). 1 East plays along the beach front, but is, at its closest, 50 paces from the beach and trees and brush blocked the view.
By contrast, Casa de Campo is clifftop golf: a distinct advantage in the marketplace and the draw that brings in golfers. Moreover, new resorts are sprouting up that try to feature clifftop or oceanside golf, but either 1) their designers are not as strong as Jones or Pete Dye by any stretch or 2) the site isn’t all that grand, so the status of Dorado as #1 or 2 is not seriously threatened…yet. But the new crop of modern designers focusing on strategic principles could start exploring the region at any time, and if given the right piece of property, could build a Bandon Dunes-style Caribbean destination, and that resort could race to the top.
And God help everybody if Tom Doak comes down here. He’s done nothing short of conquering the World twice over with his clifftop and oceanside designs from New Zealand to Oregon and back. On the day “Resort X” announces, “Tom Doak will be designing our new oceanside clifftop golf course,” the CEO of every other resort in the Caribbean will run screaming out of the building like the narrator at the end of Fall of the House of Usher.
So Dorado wisely surmised that in order to a) maintain pace with Casa and b) stay ahead of everyone else, they had to keep the resort’s golf golf at the highest level it had enjoyed for these many decades. But what do you do with an inland, tree-choked penal architecture Robert Trent Jones course? After all, most of the East Course is away from the coastline and playing along the clifftops is more appealing than playing within sight of the ocean occasionally. There are 11 water holes, but the hazards are lagoons and ponds from the inland water table, not the rocky shore. How do you make a doctrine of framing, doctrine of symmetry course relevant in an age where every day modern architects show those doctrines to have been static? How can they compete with the new designs like Casa de Campo, which features thrilling cliff-top golf?
You turn the East Course into a museum piece, a shrine. You make it the quintessential example of the architecture of the great man, Robert Trent Jones. The Jones name is still one of the greatest brands in golf, and the Caribbean is still the sunniest destination in the game.
Top switch to a basketball metaphor, ***swish*** – three points.
Dorado’s solution was to accentuate their storied history. Restore the East Course faithfully – while bringing it up to date for technology – and have it serve as a memorial to the design work of Robert, Sr. – a living golf museum you could play and not only see what golfers saw for decades, but to study and understand the design concepts in vogue at the time, and in particular, those of the great Robert Trent Jones, almost universally regarded as the greatest golf course architect of his time.
In that regard, Bobby, Jr., Bruce Charlton and the rest of the design team did a brilliant job. Fairway bunkers were extended both back towards the greens and slightly perpendicular into the line of play to account for the advances in today’s equipment.
“We tried to keep as true to Trent’s vision as we possibly could,” explained Charlton. “We extended the runway tees back to add more distance, but didn’t move them or move them, and we actually reduced the number of bunkers from 84 to 76. We also pinched the bunkers into the fairway so you have to play around them, over them or short of them.”
They also made the greens smaller, as architects who came in after Jones to work on the course had enlarged them. The greens appear narrow from the fairway, requiring accuracy on the approach, even though fairways are generous off the tee. For example, the front of the third green is a mere 10 paces, and many others are between just 12-14 paces, although they may widen as they extend further back. You have room to spray the ball a little off the tee, but to hit the greens, your approaches must be accurate. You won’t get beaten up at Dorado Beach East, but you have to play good golf to score well here.
“It took me apart a little at a time,” said Tony Korologos, the writer who founded TheGolfSpace.com and Hooked on Golf Blog. “You can’t miss the greens and you have to putt well or you’ll bleed strokes slowly,” said the 2-handicapper who shot 80 in his first attempt at the course.
Korologos raises another great point. It is the greens that are the greatest feature of the East Course, and they kept their wonderful internal contours intact. Dorado Beach may feature the best set of greens 1-18 that Trent ever designed. There is almost never a straight putt, even from two feet. Some greens slope away from the player, some fall off on the sides, some have false fronts, and all have devious curves that ensure that the adventure in each hole continues upon reaching the putting surface. The course may sell the weather and the natural setting as nothing short of idyllic, and the history of the course is venerable, the greens are the beating heart of the East Course and its most estimable contribution to golf.
Finally, they cut 50 trees down and painstakingly pruned nearly every tree on the course.
“We tried to open up as many ‘picture window views of the ocean as we could, so people could see the water as often as possible,” said Charlton.
That work was sorely needed. I had the good fortune to meet several members, who have waited a long time for the East Course to reopen, and they all seem energized by both the direction and the results. Eduardo Beale, Jr., a member here for decades along with his father Eduardo Sr. and brother Angelito can’t wait for November 13 to come so he can play.
“Back before the renovation, there were so many trees and leaves, you’d spend eight minutes looking for your ball even if you were just off the fairway. It was tough,” Beale began. “But now it looks so much better. You can find your ball more easily and see the ocean more often. When I saw you writers out there, I ran as fast as I could to the phone to call for a tee time!”
“I’m really excited to try it out for myself,” echoed Javier Jalijuapa, another local who has logged close to 100 rounds on the East Course. “I absolutely love the work of all the Jones family, both the father and the son, and to have a course that will serve as a monument to the great Robert Trent Jones, who means so much to the resort and to golf in Puerto Rico, just fills me with pride and gratitude. It not only makes me proud to be a golfer, but proud for what Puerto Rico can do for golf. We always knew we were important to the world of golf, and I hope the rest of the World will come down and see what Puerto Rico can contribute to the sport we love so much…but not so many that I can’t get a tee time!”
DID THEY ACCOMPLISH WHAT THEY SET OUT TO DO?
This incarnation of the East Course may be the best ever. There are plenty of fun holes here. I like how the bunkers are now more perpendicular to the line of play and, as a result, there is much more strategy than the penal bracketing scheme Jones, Sr. employed at other courses like, for example, Crumpin-Fox or major championship venues.
Moreover, I thought I would hate the par-5 4th hole with its pond on the inside of a 90-degree dogleg on the tee shot, then a second pond fronting the green (as well as two palm trees in the fairway blocking up some airspace) but I was flat-out wrong. I really like the hole. The fairway is wide enough to not be so penal, the palm trees are off to one side so you really have to hit a bad shot to be snookered, and the wonderful green fronting Sardinera Bay that slopes off in all directions and is framed by 100-foot tall palms is a glorious setting I have never seen equaled yet in the Caribbean. To switch to a football metaphor, “after further review, the call is reversed.” I love four. It works well, despite being a 90-degree dog-leg, (which is normally a death knell for a golf hole).
Additionally, some holes feature wonderful benching effects of the greens into natural hillsides, there are elevation changes of over 100 feet over portions of the property, and the closing stretch from 14 in is terrific.
I have two pet peeves: first there is just too much inland water for an Oceanside course (fill in the pond on eight: it’s superfluous) and they must cut down far more trees because you need to see the ocean more, but the work done by the Jones team was superb. They also need to immediately cut down the ghastly trees on the left of 15 which block an entire half of the fairway dictating that you MUST hit a perfect draw or end up in a pond.
And don’t even think about trying to respond with the specious argument that “you need them for safety because the 12th hole is too close.” No, it’s not too close. The 12th green is blocked by a different stand of trees that make it all but impossible to hit, and the fairway is 90 yards left. The only possible way to get anywhere near that hole is to deliberately aim that way AND hit a goofy hook. You couldn’t hit the 12th hole from 15th tee with a guided missile and a NORAD GPS, so cut them down and give amateur players a chance, especially because there is far greater risk of penalizing a good drive with a poorly placed water hazard that the tee box points you at in the first place…that’s flat-out unfair unless you give the golfer more options. On that note it’s, “After further review, the play stands as called.” Fix that (please) and watch how the hole improves dramatically.
Irrespective of 15, the work here gets a solid “A.” And yes, they have indeed built a wonderful lasting memorial to architectural principles of Jones, Sr. that all Jones-o-philes (golfers who love the work of Jones, and there are millions) must play. But is that enough to carry the day when you consider the global dynamics of the Caribbean golf market?
Not yet – there is still one more thing they need to do to keep pace with Casa de Campo, which is about to open their fifth Pete Dye course (appropriately called “5”) and described by Pete himself as, “the best one I’ve built down there since Teeth of the Dog.”
They need to make the West Course just as much of a draw as the East Course.
That way you have a tough decision as to which to play (or you just play all 36). Right now, they have one great draw, but in the 21st century golf market, a wonderful museum piece is just not enough to keep pace, especially in a tough economy like we face right now. Golfers are learning a great deal more about golf architecture than ever before, and that has risen dramatically as a consideration when figuring out where to spend hard-earned money and precious relaxation time. Why go to an “A” when you can get an “A+” for the same price?
And in order to keep pace with Casa and keep everyone else in the rear-view mirror, they must blow up the West Course entirely – everyone already knows that, right now, at Dorado, there’s the East Course…and everything else – and they must make that course the lasting monument to the architecture of Jones, Jr.
Give Bobby money, tree-removal equipment, and carte blanche to do whatever he liked with one instruction: “Build us a Chambers Bay of the Caribbean.”
What a 1-2 punch that would be…perhaps unequaled anyplace in the World where either Jones designed. You would then have bookend world-class courses by Jones the father and Jones the son – “a royal lineage, the King and the Crown Prince,” as Javier Jalijuapa put it.
“Bobby’s architecture differs from his father’s in several important ways,” begins Bruce Charlton. “Bobby believes in finesse and strategy, while his father rewarded power and accuracy. His dad would bracket fairways and greens, but Bobby likes strategic cross-hazards you have to carry or play around. His dad made you hit it between the goal posts. Bobby lets you pick your poison.”
In a post-event interview with your author, Bob Jones, Jr. agrees. “At the height of his career my dad was often charged with exploring the required tactics that expert golfer faces in order to achieve par and score well. So he’d design with that in mind. You have to play straight between trees and hazards that bracket the fairway and hit approaches to usually elevated greens, so the aerial attack was critical. You could not use the ground game. Happily, the East Course at Dorado Beach is an exception to that. When he wasn’t designing a major championship venue, he got some more leeway to explore a little more broadly. But because clients too often asked him to design or restore major championship venues, his courses usually required the average player to lay-up, pitch on, and 1-putt for four or play for bogey. His mantra was ‘hard par – easy bogey.’
“My courses generally provide more options and a variety of interesting ways to arrive at the hole and make a par. For example – no bunkering and wide fairway like at Chambers Bay, coming from an irregularly shaped tee we call a ‘ribbon tee,’ a tee that is a part of the fairway, so the player must make choices right away from the tee. Then the fairway is wide and playable for people who can’t control the tee shot. Then on the approach, the entrances are open and low profile, almost an extension of the fairway! And the greens themselves are modest, so they are tough to hit and promote accuracy, but have sweeping contours,” he concluded.
And look what happened! When someone tells a Jones “build us a major championship venue, it doesn’t happen. ***AHEM! Cog Hill… cough cough…Cog Hill***
And when they say, “just build us something great” what happens. Chambers Bay gets the 2015 U.S. Open.
Donald Trump: are you listening?
GOLF VACATIONING IN PUERTO RICO
I have to admit, I was impressed. Puerto Rico was an option I had never considered before for a golf getaway, but I can unequivocally say you will have a great time if you come to Dorado and to Puerto Rico.
Puerto Rico is one of the largest of the Caribbean islands (roughly 100 miles west-to-east and 35 miles north-to-south) and features all the recreational activities vacationers have come to love about the region including scuba diving, snorkeling, fishing, zip-lining, rain forest exploration, and spelunking, as well as the Spanish colonial architecture and history that is an indelibly associated with the area. It also features its own unique attractions such as the Arecibo Observatory (the World’s largest telescope for astronomy) and the Bacardi Rum factory. For many decades the population has remained remarkably constant at approximately 4,000,000. The chief exports are sugar, coffee, pineapple, coconuts, mother-of-pearl, emeralds, vanilla, phosphates, rum, and middle infielders. Local flora and fauna are particularly interesting and the Dorado resort is an excellent place to see the native animals in their habitat, which features not only the ubiquitous palm trees, but such rarities as mangroves, Blood Wood, Tangled Marias, Balata, Mahogany, Eucalyptus, Balsa, Corozo, Saba, Cork, and Almond Trees.
My Dorado Beach suite is in the top four hotel/resort accommodations I’ve occupied in my life. The others are, in no particular order, Coeur D’Alene, Ventana Canyon, and The Boulders. That’s elite company. Graceful Spanish mission-style architecture on the outside, tastefully decorated in soothing tope and ecru on the inside with three baths, a washer-dryer, an enormous brand new restaurant size fridge/freezer, and state-of-the-art flat-screens, it’s as opulent as one could imagine, decadent even. Dorado Beach gets an A+ for rooms, (even without a Jacuzzi).
Depending on the season, you’ll pay roughly $860 per night/per couple (roughly $430 per person double occupancy, add about $300 per additional guest), for stay and play packages including unlimited golf and accommodations. Food is extra. Of course, as is true of any truly great resort, it snows food and rains drink. The cuisine is good, especially the beef and fish, although if there is a shortcoming, the Italian dishes are not as strong as the rest of the menu; they were a little bland. I didn’t find a good marinara-based dish, and the risotto needed much more garlic or pepper or both. Stick to the steaks and seafood until they get a paesano on staff. (I’m 100% Italian. I can use that word)
The fitness center, however, leaves a little to be desired. My morning jog brings me here for a quick steam and shower and what I hoped would be a dip in a hot tub to soothe my balky rotator cuff. I fell asleep on the couch watching baseball one night last week and it’s been aching on-and-off ever since, but not only is there no jacuzzi here either, the steam room is the size of a pot bunker: large enough for one angry bather and his wedge. Two people might fit in it, but only if they were slow dancing in each other’s arms. I’ve also never seen a steam room that needs twelve minutes to warm up before even emitting the first whispy curl of smoke, yet here it is.
The ultimate litmus test was this: I left New York harried, exhausted, frustrated, and surly. These four days/three nights were a great trip. I feel like a thousand dollars…soothed, relaxed (thank the Good Lord). Now I can face all the dark, dank, dismal days ahead between the cruel cold of winter and the freezing wastes of the practice of that concrete purgatory of a courthouse with the defiance of a vintage Neil Young or Bob Dylan. Thank you Simon Landon, kick-ass golfer Meg Godfrey, super-cool Dorado Beach Eric Christensen, and the rest of the KemperSports staff for a terrific event. Four more days here, and I’d leave feeling I could conquer the World with a horse and a longsword. If you love golf and want some beach time too, put a pin in your World golf map here and give it a long look, especially after the West Course renovations are done next fall.
Epilogue Delta Airlines – Once More, With Feeling
Sunday 7:45 a.m. “Senor! Senor!” said my new friend Erick (yes Erick with a “c” and a “k”) as he picked me up again, this time to take me home. “Did you change from Delta? You can fly Jet Blue. That way you make it home safe! Hee hee hee!”
“No,” I reply. “I’ll deal with it. I think it’ll be all right.”
9:20 a.m. I’ve checked in, passed security, and breakfasted on a sweet cream cheese croquette and a caffe latte made from the excellent, strong Puerto Rican coffee. I have now retired to the Delta terminal men’s room for my morning constitution before boarding.
I’m restfully seated, leafing through a novel when suddenly the sterile white tile of the bathroom acts like a reverberating backboard as the loudspeakers explode with sound, jolting me like someone dropped a lighted cherry bomb down my shirt…
“PASSENGER JAY FLEMMA, PLEASE COME TO THE GATE IMMEDIATELY! PASSENGER JAY FLEMMA, PLEASE COME TO THE GATE IMMEDIATELY!”
Holy three-toed sloth from ice planet Hoth! What the [expletive deleted] now??!! I pull up my slacks and then race to the counter in a huff.
“I’m Jay Flemma!” I snarl acidly. “What’s going on here?! What’s this all about?”
Bictor the Delta attendant smiles at me from behind the counter. You read that right – “Bictor” (pronounced “BEAK-tor”…hold your pronunciation on the “BEAK” part a la Ricardo Montalban to say it correctly…”BEEEEEEAK-tor”. Good gravy: What passes for names these days…) Beak-tor is holding what looks like a baggage ticket. My stomach does a dip and a roll, while my bile begins to surge. Let me guess. They sent my golf clubs to Abu Dhabi?! They broke my irreplaceable putter or Gadget Wedge?! They shredded all my black clothes in some infernal machine?! I prepare my snarkiest reply to whatever horror he might utter…
“Mr. Flemma, are you travelling alone?”
I’m not ready for that question.
“What? Yes. Why?”
“You’re in seat 33D?”
“Yes,” I reply.
“We have a family with small children that would like to travel together,” Beak-tor explains politely. “Can we please move you to a window seat in an exit row?”
I relax, but only a little. Now what? If I say no, I’m a dick, (okay, an even bigger dick…) and if I say yes, I’m uncomfortable for four hours, probably with no pull out tray on which to work or eat. I agonize for a second, but then the light bulb goes on…
“Hey Beak-tor,” I begin, “how about a free upgrade?”
Beak-tor hands me a new boarding pass. “Here you go, enjoy your flight.”
And like a rabbit appearing in a conjuring trick, there it is, right on the boarding pass: seat 6A, first class and a window to boot.
With that, I sashay onto the plane and turn left. I’m in first class! Beak-tor said so! Smooth Jazz by Samantha James plays coolly in my ears, as a slim, sassy, waitress comes by with an obsequious smile.
“How about a nice Bloody Mary?”
Well, why not? (So long as it’s made with 100% blue agave tequila, not vodka.) As they said on Seinfeld, “More anything? Why yes! More everything!”
Delta, you have staged a remarkable comeback.
So as we taxi into the friendly skies, more soft music eases me back into the plush chair with the pillow-like headrest for a quiet doze. It’s my boy Reed Waddle playing, a panacea to my weary bones.
Headed for the open road
Bought my ticket yesterday
Got a seat by the window
And like a bird I fly away
Into the blue of the sky
When the sun hits your eyes…
Shine on! Shine on! Shine on!
“Shine on,” huh? Well if you, dear reader, have no objections, thanks to Dorado Beach I think I shall.
I think I shall.