“From the roaring oceans to the majestic lakes, the rushing streams and quiet ponds and burns, water adds a test to golf that entrances.”
–Robert Trent Jones, Golf’s Magnificent Challenge
Now that the Neptune of golf course architects has spoken, I’d like to pick up on my previous theme. It wasn’t so very long ago that golf in the Caribbean was an afterthought. Sun-baked pastures grazed by goats and shaggy-haired nine-holers laid out by recreation-minded hotel managers were the coin of the realm in the islands years ago. The relaxing pace and serene beauty of the islands more than compensated for these lackluster links, especially to casual players for whom golf was just another vacation activity. Make a hip turn on a 30-foot putt to bounce it across a broom-bristle green? No problem!
In point of fact, the Caribbean simply didn’t exist for serious golfers until quite recently.
Today, dozens of worthy golf courses occupy coral rock and volcanic isles that stretch in a 1,500-mile arc from the southern tip of Florida to the northern coast of South America. I give full credit to visionary developer Laurance Rockefeller and peripatetic architect Robert Trent Jones, who teamed to build first-rate resorts in Puerto Rico, St. Croix and the Bahamas between 1956 – 1967. It was they who legitimatized the Caribbean as a golf destination.
But it wasn’t until Pete Dye, a former insurance salesman from Indiana, arrived to build his seaside masterpiece at Casa de Campo in the Dominican Republic nearly 45 years ago that golf travelers stood up and took notice of the islands. Curiously, Casa became a brand unto itself. No one associated it with the Dominican Republic, much less the island of Hispaniola, which the D.R. shares with Haiti.
Fine shoes and good cigars are handmade, but few golf courses built in the post-War era share that distinction. Because the importation of earthmoving equipment was prohibitively expensive, Teeth of the Dog was built with manpower, not machinery. Dye’s charm and twangy Spanish, coupled with his extraordinary will and imagination, inspired the Dominican work force to build a subtle, refined course from very balky materials.
Teeth of the Dog was well-received by early visitors, but it achieved acclaim in 1974, when Dye’s hand-crafted links hosted the World Amateur Team Championship. On the U.S. team were future PGA Tour stars Curtis Strange, Jerry Pate, Gary Koch and George Burns. While the initial design measured under 7,000 yards, only three sub-par scores were recorded among the 590 rounds played in the competition. The blustery seaside finish blew away many of the amateurs, who nicknamed the home stretch “Reload Alley.”
I do not feel any of the Golf Road Warriors will echo what Gary Koch said about Teeth after shooting 76 in the World Amateur event. “This course will come out of nowhere and…throw you down and stomp on your head,” he whimpered.
Here’s why. Even if you don’t much care for Dye’s take-no-prisoners gulags at Whistling Straits or Kiawah’s Ocean Course or PGA West (Stadium), Teeth of the Dog from the blanco tees at 6,015 yards is a walker-friendly gem that gets my vote as the most enjoyable resort course in the world.
When high-tech equipment outmoded the original hole lengths for top players, Dye, who can’t sit still when he’s on property, put the Dog on the rack and stretched it to 7,471 yards in 2005. No warrior has any business going back there except to take a picture. Ditto the dorado markers at 7,077 yards. On a typically breezy day, even the blue tees at 6,485 yards are a stretch for the GRW contingent. This is especially true on the all-or-nothing par 3’s. If strategy is the soul of the game, Teeth, when the wind stirs, is the James Brown of golf courses.
I expect Ms. Draycott, by the way, to perform admirably from Teeth of the Dog’s red tees at 4,906 yards. Each was hand-placed by Alice Dye, Pete’s wife, an accomplished amateur who has collaborated with Pete on all his major designs.
Here’s what: Just as Mark Twain never saw the need to rewrite Huckleberry Finn, Dye, while compelled to unmuzzle the Dog and sharpen its teeth from the tips to retain its challenge for top players, hasn’t significantly tinkered with the design of the holes. I admire his restraint.
Herbert Warren Wind once noted that the ideal practitioner of golf course architecture needed to have “the soul of an artist, the brain of an engineer and the heart of a golfer.” One round on any of Casa de Campo’s courses, but especially Teeth of the Dog, is proof enough that no living designer fits that description better than Pete Dye, the indefatigable 87-year-old who’s “still digging,” as he likes to say, and whose design legacy at Casa spans five decades.
Two final notes. I envy each warrior’s ability to start the day at Lago Grill, an open-air, thatched-roof restaurant overlooking the 18th hole on Teeth of the Dog. Here players can help themselves to a splendid buffet of fresh tropical fruits, excellent fruit smoothies, made-to-order omelets and traditional Dominican breakfast fare.
I also love the unassuming clubhouse set directly behind the ninth green on Teeth of the Dog. Built in the early 1970s, this wood, stone and plaster edifice, shaded in front by a huge tamarind tree, has a cozy little golf shop, wooden-floored locker rooms cooled by ceiling fans, and a modest, open-air 19th hole deck with painted tables, wicker chairs and a fine view of the sea. Presidente, the D.R.’s beer of choice, is available on draft. So are fine Dominican cigars and smooth Dominican rum.