IN THE DOMINICAN REPUBLIC — actually, in all of the Caribbean — not many golf courses can challenge the legendary Teeth of the Dog course for “top dog” status. Most golfers agree only one comes close: Punta Espada. This oceanfront Nicklaus gem is located at Cap Cana, a 30,000-acre luxury resort/residential community about 10 minutes from Punta Cana International Airport.
Cap Cana proves a stunner from the moment you enter the gates. Two decades ago, when I saw the plans, I thought it was an impossible dream, but the self-contained resort community evolved into a beautifully landscaped enclave with hotel choices ranging from family-oriented to adults-only. A variety of good restaurants scattered throughout the resort serve a feast of culinary creations. Diversions include riding and polo at the equestrian center and water sports at the full-service marina.
We stayed in Eden Roc, a collection of 34 free-standing suites and villas, each with its own pool. Eden Roc is the island’s only Relais & Châteaux hotel, and everything about our 1,000-square-foot villa was flawless, right down to the outdoor shower and small pool secreted in a private garden. Each accommodation includes a golf cart for exploring the resort.
This was our first visit to Cap Cana since the opening of the Punta Espada Golf Club in 2006, and we found it matured into a tropical gem, with flowering plants accenting broad stretches of white sand and emerald fairways and greens. Measuring 7,396 yards from the tips, Punta Espada (“Tip of the Sword”) features eight holes on the ocean and views of the sea from many vantage points. The coral cliffs, abundant foliage, water challenges and constant ocean breezes are a given, but the elevation changes come as a surprise for a seaside layout. Even if you’re using the Dorado (6,883 yards), Azul (6,314 yards) or Rojo (5,052 yards) tees, you must climb up to the back tees of the second hole. As you enjoy the view to the ocean and green 611 yards away, consider it fair warning: This course proves daunting from any tee. You can count on Nicklaus for lots of risk-reward, and this is the Bear at his best.
HOLE 1 | 416 yards, par 4
The opening hole, with its tee complex set atop a ridge, vividly sets the scene for the round. From the brilliant blue bowl of the sky, the Caribbean sun bounces off the white coral cliffs and waste bunker along the left, contrasting with the deep green of the fairway and the putting surface, tucked against another wall of bleached coral. At one time this area was under water and the coral teemed with sea life, as evidenced by the skeletons and shells we could see in the rock faces. Ranked ninth in difficulty, the par 4 makes a good warm-up hole.
HOLE 2 | 611 yards, par 5
After the first hole’s scenic welcome comes the course’s toughest test, a 611-yard bully teeing off from a rocky bluff — the course’s highest point. The dogleg right, liberally bunkered, includes sand wrapping around a lake in front of the green. Unless you’ve kept to the left side of the fairway, you’ll make your approach shot over sand and/ or water to a green backed by more sand in the form of a narrow beach.
HOLE 10 | 432 yards, par 4
A large waste area runs along the entire right side of the hole, circles a lake and surrounds the tabletop green set off to the right. A deep bunker in the landing area discourages aiming right, the shortest route. This sets up a second-shot quandary, especially for women who teed off from 283 yards and may choose to hold up rather than hit a longer iron to the small, forward-sloping target. For good measure, Nicklaus placed a pot bunker in the front face of the green.
HOLE 13 | 250 yards, par 3
If the pounding waves on the left and in front of the tee boxes fail to intimidate, gusting winds can confound your club choice here. Even the 114-yard carry from the forward tees can turn into a wood shot in a head-on wind. Being bold and reaching the green doesn’t get you home free because the putting surface rises to a spine, then runs off to the ocean or two grass bunkers in back.
HOLE 17 | 358 yards, par 4
The pressure rachets up near the finish, with the sea a threat all along the right side. On the penultimate hole, a wide bay lies between the tees and the fairway, and the green perches on a spit of land at the water’s edge. The farther down the fairway your drive over water lands, the better your approach angle will be. Beware the final trap: the deep bunker set into the left front of the small, elevated green.
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