Two large pelicans hit the emerald green water almost simultaneously just as I began my downswing. The splash of the birds diving for their breakfast had little impact on my concentration as I swung through the ball.
Actually, it was hard to be distracted. The view before me was enormous. The Par 3, 4th hole at Punta Espada Golf Club in the Dominican Republic, was just another postcard moment on this Jack Nicklaus Signature course, rated No. 1 in the Caribbean and Mexico by Golfweek Magazine.
From the back tees, the 4th hole plays 190 yards over the lagoon that feeds the pelicans. It’s a daunting shot to a green guarded by a sand trap in front. There are four sets of tees at every hole so you are not compelled to play from 190. But when it’s the middle of February, the morning temperature is pushing 25C and there is a lot of snow on the ground back in Canada, it really doesn’t matter from what distance you choose to play.
The Dominican Republic (DR) has become a very popular Caribbean getaway for Canadians who want to escape the wrath of winter and bone-chilling temperatures. Sun, sand and all-inclusive resorts are attractive features of this very warm destination. Golf is also an alluring feature of the DR. There are several, very good golf courses around the island and especially in Punta Cana, on the island’s east side. Nicklaus, Dye, Fazio and Price are names that crop up on a number of course designs in the Punta Cana region.
Punta Espada, when translated means ‘Tip of the Sword”, is located in Cap Cana, Punta Cana. Cap Cana is a massive, luxury, gated, multi-use, resort destination featuring hotels, marina, golf, spa, beaches, private homes, rental accommodation, condos, etc. The privately developed property encompasses over 35,000 acres.
Eight holes at Punta Espada, a semi-private club, are laid out along the ocean where the surf pounds against the jagged coral coastline and from the other 10 holes you can see the warm Caribbean as it breaks over distant shoals.
I haven’t played many Nicklaus designs but I certainly have high praise for this one. It’s an incredible setting for a magnificent golf course that is challenging, fun, and impeccably maintained. But be assured this Par 72 layout will test your best game. It’s a course that certainly requires positional play to avoid long waste bunkers and water and with the variety of tees, you can choose your distance. From the tips it is 7,396 yards and from the very front it plays 5,052 yards. In between, the gold’s play at 6,883 yards and the blue tees at 6,314 yards.
The course opened in 2006 and in its relatively brief history has played host to the PGA’s Champions Tour on three occasions plus hosts David Ortiz’s (Big Papi of Boston Red Sox fame and native Dominican) annual celebrity golf tournament.
In 2010 Freddie Couples set the course record shooting 62 in the final round of the Champions Tour Cap Cana Championship. Couples won the event and later remarked that Punta Espada was Nicklaus’s best work.
This course is filled with highlights – its close proximity to the ocean; the stately palm trees that overlook fairways; large waste bunkers that become collection areas for stray golf balls; coral limestone outcroppings bordering some fairways; an island green surrounded by sand; the Par 3, 13th hole that brings the ocean into play; peaceful panoramic views interrupted by towering ocean spray; and a great Par 4 finishing hole where the green juts out toward the sea. There is much more but a personal visit brings it all into perspective.
The good thing is Punta Espada won’t be the Golden Bear’s last work here. A second Nicklaus Signature design, Las Iguanas, is under construction and is expected to be ready by late 2018. A third Nicklaus course will follow.
Punta Espada has full practise facilities, a sprawling and luxurious clubhouse and a well-stocked pro shop with quality rental clubs.
The price to play here is not for everyone but the club says it reflects the quality experience that awaits golfers. In high season, Thanksgiving to Easter, the green fee is $395 US. The fee includes a power cart, practice facilities, caddie and bottled water.
Efren Garcia-Estrada, Punta Espada’s Executive Director, sees the course and property as a “special place.” But, he says, in the larger scheme of things, Punta Espada has a key role to play in the island’s golf industry.
“Our goal right now is for us to help the Dominican Republic become a destination and then (we can) become a destination within the destination for luxury golfers, for people willing to play quality golf courses and spend a little extra on service. We get a lot of pressure about our rates and we understand we are an expensive experience, but we think it is worth it. We value what we have, it is a special place. In this day and age it is hard to get eight holes right on the ocean and see the ocean from several others.
So we think in terms of quality and not volumn,” he said.
In the Punta Cana region there are a number of courses such as Corales Golf Club, La Cana, Punta Blanca, and others and not far away on the south side of the island at Casa de Compo is the wellknown course, Teeth of the Dog.
Garcia-Estrada, who grew up in the U.S. and played college at the University of Rhode Island, believes golf in the DR is “in a very good spot as far as quality of infrastructure, the quality of golf courses, the quality hotels and roads and quality of people. DR people are very welcoming,” he said.
But what is lacking, he feels, is promotion. More needs to be done from a marketing perspective to get the word out to the world, he says. The DR’s main markets right now are the U.S. and Canada with increasing interest from Europe.
“Our ability to attract golfers should be better and requires more promotion,” he said. He would like to see courses pool their resources with the local hotels and have everyone pitch in. However, that concept has been hard to sell, he admits.
Having played some of the courses in the DR, the island has a good product. Hopefully, Garcia-Estrada’s thoughts on pooling marketing resources catches on so more people will hear about golf in the Dominican Republic. -end-