After a return to the Caribbean island, contributor Jeff Babineau questions why such trips to play golf, soak up the sun and enjoy the lifestyle are not more frequent
RIO GRANDE, Puerto Rico — Every time I venture to Puerto Rico to play a little golf, catch a little sun, peer out across the azure blue waters, sample the local plantain mofongo and sip a little rum, without fail, a singular thought always bubbles to the top of my brain: Given the ease of direct travel to the island from my home in Orlando, why don’t I get here more often?
The beauty of the island never does disappoint, and the people of Puerto Rico are a kind and resilient bunch, having persevered through a litany of natural challenges ranging from natural disasters to the pandemic.
Slowly, steadily, life in Puerto Rico has been getting back to normal, and tourism, the lifeblood of the island, is picking up again. The golf in Puerto Rico is sleepy good (there are 18 courses) as the PGA Tour has discovered over a decade-plus run at what is now known as Grand Reserve Country Club, host to the annual Puerto Rico Open.
Island courses range from luxury resort to municipal and are spread throughout Puerto Rico, though several are clustered near historic San Juan. Oceanside views, coconut trees, mountain and rainforest vistas frame their settings. Price points, terrain, layout style and related amenities are varied.
Traveling to the island is convenient as it is the air hub of the Caribbean. Further traveler friendliness is found in Puerto Rico’s bilingual culture and U.S. currency. Also, no passport is required for American citizens.
Here’s a look at some solid golf and accommodation options within an hour’s drive of San Juan, nearer to Rio Grande, on the island’s northern coast:
TPC Dorado Beach (East)
TPC Dorado Beach gets your attention from the very first swing, opening with a par 5 that runs right along the ocean. Breathtaking. In fact, the first few holes — which used to play as the back nine — offer a strong start to what is a terrific golf experience. The East Course is a Robert Trent Jones design that was renovated a decade ago by Robert Trent Jones Jr.
You could hold any tournament you’d like to there. The East has played host to PGA Tour Champions events as well as two World Cups. The greens are complex and interesting, and part of the renovation directed by RTJ Jr. to make the bunkering more dramatic. Shortside oneself in one of the East’s big, deep bunkers, and escaping with bogey can be a challenge. Superintendent Karla Cora has the East in fantastic shape, and it sits tournament ready. The West Course is undergoing its own extensive renovation and will be needed, as the club added 90 new members in the first two months of 2021. Golf is memorable here, as are the accommodations at the lone Ritz-Carlton Reserve in the Western Hemisphere. To play the course, one must stay on the property.
The St. Regis Bahia Beach Golf Course
Much like TPC Dorado Beach, the views at Bahia Beach can be absolutely stunning. This is another classic design from Robert Trent Jones Jr., not overly lengthy, but demanding of some sound strategy and course management. The course eases in nicely with three shortish par-4 holes, and picks up momentum as the round moves on. The par-4 sixth hole has bunkers and water left and views of the majestic El Yunque rainforest in the background.
There’s a nice variety at Bahia Beach. The 10th hole plays a shade under 300 yards and offers golfers a chance to go at the green with a bold tee shot. The back nine builds to a terrific finish, with the 16th and 18th holes running alongside the beach. Photo ops abound. No. 16 is a brute — 442 yards, with four bunkers staggered right of the green adding to a demanding approach. A great day can be capped off with halibut tacos and a cool passion fruit drink at Seagrapes, not far from the crashing waves.
Wyndham Grand Rio Mar Golf and Beach Resort
The Rio Mar has played host to top U.S. collegiate men’s and women’s teams for years, and boasts 36 holes, the Ocean (George and Tom Fazio designed) and the River (Greg Norman designed). The two courses offer a very different experience. The Ocean gets most of the attention, but the River is a consistently good test, weaving around the Mameyes River across the lower part of the property.
The highlight of the Ocean is the demanding 16th hole, the signature hole, a stout par 3 that borders the beach and ocean. The winds usually are whipping here, and there is no bailout to the right of the green, so it’s not uncommon for shots to find the beach with little possibility of a second shot.
Up the hill from the golf course, the Rio Mar resort offers a terrific combination of fun, food and family atmosphere. There are multiple pools and restaurants, a full-service spa, and an array of activities and amenities, ranging from yoga to wind surfing. If you are looking for top-notch, local-fare dining, then the Carribean influenced Roots Coastal Kitchen is an appealing option. It was opened by executive chef Ramón Carrillo, in collaboration with Top Chef finalists Jeff McInnis and Janine Booth, and offers such dishes as grilled swordfish with coconut curry rice, shrimp and bacon empanadas, and chili mango hot wings.
There is a large pool that kids will love, and our ocean suite even had a small nook featuring bunk beds. Oh, and once the kids are asleep, there’s an in-house casino to visit.
Hyatt Regency Grand Reserve
The resort and its two 18-hole courses have gone through several identities over the years. It was a Trump-managed and branded property for a spell, and it was known for many years as Coco Beach Golf Resort. Now that it has been purchased and renovated as a Hyatt Regency, the brand and related amenities are cohesive and compelling. The Championship Course plays host each year to the PGA Tour’s Puerto Rico Open.
Tom Kite designed the two courses at Grand Reserve, with the International Course being the other option. Twenty-seven of the 36 holes were in play during a recent visit. The Championship Course that the PGA Tour pros play boasts several breathtaking ocean holes, with players putting out next to the glistening sea and the peaceful soundtrack of rolling waves.
The pros who head to Puerto Rico for a first time expecting a easy island pushover get brought to their senses quickly; the course is an excellent championship test, with strong ocean winds almost always adding to the exam. The golf here is quite reasonable, running as low as a $50 surcharge to guests in certain parts of the season.
The off-course attractions at Hyatt Regency Grand Reserve are as appealing as the golf — a luxury spa, multiple restaurants, pools, beaches and water sports.
There’s a spacious open-air bar just off the welcome lobby, offering one more great view of the frolicking ocean, leaving a chance to order one more umbrella drink as you ponder the never-ending thought pounding through the head: Why don’t I get here a little more often?