While I enjoyed fellow ‘A Position’ contributor Larry Olmsted’s tribute to the Green Monkey at Sandy Lane in Barbados, for me it occupies the ‘B position’ in the Caribbean.
Don’t get me wrong. I toured the course while it was still under construction and can appreciate the fact that this $60+ million engineering extravaganza—the ‘Green Money’ course?–is probably the greatest layout ever built in and around a rock quarry. With its sheer limestone walls, mammoth bunkers and yawning abysses, not to mention its gamboling green monkeys, the course is a feast for the senses. I also salute Tom Fazio for taking off the gloves and grafting a gorilla-like backbone to the Green Monkey. From the tips at 7,389 yards, this might be the most challenging and inspired creation on Fazio’s long resume. But ‘The Best Course You Never Heard Of,’ much less the top golf course in the Caribbean? Not for me.
What with blogs and tweets and a 24/7 cycle of cyber-babble, there are very few places in the world of golf where the path to a special course has not been beaten. Yet a truly great layout remains relatively undiscovered on the north coast of the Dominican Republic an hour’s drive from Puerto Plata. This is Playa Grande Golf Course, reputedly the last project Robert Trent Jones actively worked on. Completed in 1997 after a protracted series of fits and starts—Jones is reported to have wept when it finally opened–this 7,046-yard stunner has 11 holes perched on bluffs and headlands 100 feet or more above the turquoise-blue sea. Roger Rulewich, a long-time designer for Trent Jones who worked on Playa Grande and who is not given to hyperbole, describes it as “one of the greatest settings for a golf course I’ve ever seen.”
The majestic layout, named for a mile-long crescent of sandy beach set far below the clifftop 13th hole, bears all of Jones’s trademarks: Runway tees, wide fairways, cloverleaf bunkers and giant rolling greens, most of them left open in front to accept bump-and-run approach shots, a good option given the ever-present wind. From the tips, better players can choose to bite off as much of the gaping ocean coves as they dare, notably on holes 3, 4, 7, 12, 14, and 18, the last a sharply angled, do-or-die par five bent around a wave-tossed cove that ranks among the most heroic holes Jones ever built. The forward tees offer much less perilous routes. Unlike many championship-class courses, Playa Grande was not designed solely for professionals and low handicappers. Played from the correct set of tees, the course is readily manageable by the average golfer. Targets are wide. Bail-out areas are generous. The layout’s versatility adds greatly to its appeal.
So does its cost: instead of the bloated $385 required to arm wrestle the Green Monkey, Playa Grande is $65 for walkers after 11 A.M. This best-kept secret is also a tremendous bargain.
There are many, many first-rate holes at Playa Grande, which like Pebble Beach has an elongated figure-8 routing, although the holes here change direction more frequently. The long par-three third skirts a U-shaped cove, the ocean waves pounding the boulders far below an undulating green the size of a skating rink. The fourth is a fishhook-shaped par five that swings around the cliffs, the 187-yard seventh calls for a tee shot over a turquoise-blue cove, the par-four ninth dares champions to play a risky tee shot over the corner of a thickly wooded barranca to find the fairway.
The incoming nine, which skirts a few sinkholes–players can peer through a hole in the ground to an ocean tableau below–builds in drama and interest as it weaves to and from the cliffs. The 17th, a 220-yard par three, occupies its own promontory and calls for a solid shot into a stiff onshore breeze. The target, a two-tiered, 40-yard-deep green, is projected on an arm of rock high above the thrashing sea. The 18th, as mentioned, is a memorable finale, its tumbling fairway bent in the shape of a shepherd’s crook around a thumbprint in the coast, the pale blue water often crashing into shore. These two holes account for one of the most exhilarating finishes in the sport, yet Playa Grande, eclipsed by Teeth of the Dog at Casa de Campo on the island’s south coast, appears on no “Top 100” international list.
Wedged between a jungled mountain ridge and the sea, this reclusive beauty offers something more than a worthy test in an intoxicating tropical setting. Playa Grande is, to quote the caddies, “Mas bonito lugare”–the most beautiful place. It has a wild grandeur all its own, the lush hills flattening into a plain that ends abruptly at the sea-blackened cliffs. In an age of manufactured venues, there is very little evidence of earthmoving or artifice. In the hands of a master, the hills and bluffs yielded golf holes framed by swaying palms that range from excellent to unforgettable.
In sum, Playa Grande is my favorite Trent Jones course in the world. I like it better than Spyglass Hill, Mauna Kea and Valderrama. The golf course, which has bounced from owner to owner and has been treated like a forlorn stepchild since its debut, is reportedly seeking a buyer to take over the existing course and perhaps build a second venue.
I’m up for it. I’ll even sell my car and mortgage my house. Any takers?