Sunday, August 13, 2006

The Teeth of the Dog - Golf in Hispaniola

The Teeth of the Dog course (ranked #34 in the world) at the Casa de Campo resort in the Dominican Republic is interesting. The Dominican Republic, which shares the Island of Hispaniola with Haiti, takes some getting used to. Casa de Campo along with Cabo del Sol in Mexico are the only two courses ranked in the world top 100 located in the developing world.

The Casa de Campo resort has three courses designed by Pete Dye: The Teeth of the Dog, Dye Fore and The Links. I recently played the world ranked Teeth of the Dog, which is now the fourth Pete Dye course I have played. Pete Dye has the second highest number of courses on the top 100 list, with eight to his credit. Only Alister Mackenzie has more. Dye designed The Teeth of the Dog in 1971 and it is his most highly rated course. He has been tinkering with it on and off for years since he resides part of the year in the Dominican Republic. The term "Teeth of the Dog" is derived from the term locals give to the coral rock the course is built on. Casa de Campo means "Country House" in Spanish.

Arriving in the capital, Santo Domingo, a city of 2.5 million people, you immediately know that you have left the developed world. It is a chaotic place. The first sensation that hits you is the high humidity, followed closely by the smell of exhaust fumes. The dominant style of architecture is the tin-roofed house. Almost all the motor vehicles on the island spew toxic fumes. There are stray dogs roaming the streets. There appears to be no set traffic patterns with cars moving in all directions, criss-crossed by motorbikes and motor-scooters crossing the roads at random. The Casa de Campo resort is about an hour and twenty minute drive from Santo Domingo. As you drive through the countryside you notice a fairly heavy police presence with scattered armed troops standing guard in various towns. There are street vendors selling water, chicken, bananas and many other products by the roadside. The presidential motorcade drove past us going in the other direction as we were driving to Casa de Campo. It just seemed a bit too long and dramatic to me for such a small country. Although the Dominican Republic has a sort-of representative democracy, the place had a banana republic feel to it. I also found curiously that almost no-one on the island speaks much English. I'm not complaining per se. It is a Spanish speaking country and I don't want to be accused of being a gringo, but it did make communicating more difficult.

The Golf Course

In any event, I finally made it to the course and teed off with a caddie. As we were waiting to tee off, I was making idle chatter with him. "What month do you get the most visitors?" I asked. His reply of "Yes" set the stage for the round ahead. His English was about as good as my Spanish so we made the perfect combination. We were able to establish on the first green that either the next hole was a par five or that he had five children. I'm still not sure which.

He asked whether I had any children (I think) and I said two, to which his reply was "Baseball," a phrase he would repeat often while making a mock swing at a baseball.

As I think I have mentioned before, as a golfer who grew up in a Northern climate, I don't adjust particularly well to playing on Bermuda grass. This was especially evident to my caddie when I smashed a birdie putt on the second hole well past the hole to his cries of mucho rapido. I already think too much when playing golf. Adding in an additional factor such as which way the grain of the Bermuda greens is going just taxes me too much.

After the 4th hole he kept saying the number eight repeatedly. I'm not sure he was implying that I should have taken an eight on the previous hole to account for the lost ball or that one of his sons was eight years old. And so it went.

I began to see the merits of his language when I hit my tee shot on the 7th hole, a par three. I didn't need a translator to tell me that shouting muy bueno, meant it was a good shot.

I liked the seventh hole the best. It is a 188 yard par three with both the tee and green set in the water. Many holes in the world are right near or above the water. What makes this hole unique is that you are right at sea level. At Pebble Beach or Turnberry for example, you are up above the water. As you stand on the tee on this hole, water is crashing immediately behind you, to the side of you and ahead of you directly on the same level you are standing.

On the 8th tee, we saw a fisherman going by in his boat. I was able to ascertain that either Pete Dye himself would be fishing off this hole tomorrow or that the caddie liked fishing. Given our little language barrier, I will never know for sure.

My caddie and I were getting on quite well and I thought we were finally sympatico. Although when I hit a high slice on my second shot on the 17th hole into the water, I thought I heard him say something about a banana ball.

To recap the course routing, the first four are inland, five through eight are along the water. After playing along the water, holes 9-14 go back inland and are decent if not great holes. You again hug the ocean on holes 15 through 17 and 18 is an uphill hole away from the water. I would say that Dye has done a good job with an imaginative routing and some really great water holes. The course does have features typical of a Pete Dye design such as waste bunkers and elevated greens. Look at the sloping behind the green at the 7th hole (shown below) as an example. I do notice that in the most recent world rankings the course has slipped to a lower number and I would have to agree with that assessment. While it certainly deserves to be ranked among the world's best, I think it's ranked a bit too high at the moment. I am still agnostic on Pete Dye as a designer and would like to finish playing all his courses before drawing a final opinion.

I think part of the issue with a Pete Dye design is that he designs for the signature hole, sometimes leaving other holes lacking. I found this to be true here at Casa de Campo, where the water holes shine and the others do not. It is certainly true at TPC at Sawgrass where the front nine has three or four really mediocre holes offset by the signature 17th and 18th. Much the same at Whistling Straits.

I have traveled extensively in the Caribbean and played golf on about nine different islands. I would say this is the best course in the Caribbean, although I think the best hole in all the Islands is C.B. Macdonald's #5, the Cape hole at the Mid Ocean Club in Bermuda.

I had a scheduled 7:00 am flight out of Santo Domingo on my day of departure. Given the distance that the resort is from the airport, the car service they had arranged was to pick me up at 3:30 am so that I could get to the airport on time and through the difficult new security lines. After going through one of the little towns in route we were driving in near total darkness when the driver began to slow down. I didn't see it until he almost hit one of the soldiers, but there was a troop carrier off to the side of the road and eight armed soldiers checking any cars that were driving by. The soliers were dressed in green and brown camouflage uniforms and there were no street lights or other signs of civilization. The clock in the minivan was precisely 4:00 am. I remember this for a certainty because I thought my remaining time left on this planet was approaching rapidly. The driver had a discussion in Spanish with one of the soldiers for about two minutes. Given the language barrier, I was again unable to comprehend what it was about, although he said money. Perhaps an un-official toll plaza setup by some enterprising soldiers? Whatever it was, it is at times like this that I question whether trying to play all these courses is really a sane venture.

Would I recommend going to Casa de Campo? Well, that depends. St. Barts, this is not. I would set your expectations low, drink bottled water without ice when you are there and travel in groups. The resort itself is nice and the golf is very good. The people are friendly, the prices are reasonable and Dominican cigars are very good. The course itself was in great shape which is quite an achievement within a tropical climate.

I do strongly recommend taking an afternoon flight out if you can get one, however. Or alternatively, take a smaller plane from San Juan into a new regional airport, La Romana, right next to the resort and bypass Santo Domingo.

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