Puerto Rico's Return
Recovered from devastation, the island country beacons visitors back to its tropical paradise.
December 30, 2021
By Jeff Babineau
RIO GRANDE, Puerto Rico – The towering, rubber-like palm trees that dance so majestically all across Puerto Rico are far from the only living things that sway so easily on this island. Jeff Willenberg could attest to that. He was a young golf professional from Texas visiting Puerto Rico on a four-month teaching contract that began in November of 1997. He’d purchased a round-trip ticket to bounce back to Texas that following March, but he never did use the return portion. Willenberg, PGA, is Director of Golf at TPC Dorado Beach, home to one of the finest courses anywhere in the Caribbean, TPC Dorado’s decorated East Course. He loved the island so much he never left it.
“My first night here, I had dinner in the old (Dorado) hotel in what they called The Surfing Room,” Willenberg said. “I sat right in front of the ocean, the waves are crashing … Now, I had a great job in Dallas, and was about to start another as a tournament director. But I called my mom that night and I said, ‘I’m staying.’”
He just knew. This place can do that to a person. The soothing warm tropical winds, the azure waters, the fine-sand beaches, the rich local cuisine, those chilled poolside rum runners, the friendliness of residents … it forms a pretty strong package. And oh, let’s not forget the golf. As Puerto Rico celebrates a thorough recovery from the wrath was thrown at it over a handful of years – Zika virus, two hurricanes (Irma and Maria), an economic crisis, two earthquakes on the island’s southern side, and, for the last year-plus, COVID-19 to trim back operations – golf continues to play a significant role in the island’s climb back.
TPC Dorado Beach had four courses at one point in the 1970s, and it always has been the place to be for the island’s elite residents. Dorado’s East Course, one of two currently open alongside the Sugarcane (with a third course, the West, soon to rejoin the lineup) is all there in front of you. The East starts out on the old No. 10, and is an incredible way to begin the round, with a long par 5 that winds its way down the beach, next to those crashing waves that attracted Willenberg all those years ago. Be ready. The start isn’t easy.
“[Puerto Rico's] soothing warm tropical winds, the azure waters, the fine-sand beaches, the rich local cuisine, those chilled poolside rum runners, the residents' friendliness...it forms a pretty strong package.'”
The East’s greens complexes are challenging, as are the deep bunkers that have been redone, making it difficult for players not hitting greens to save their pars. As of our visit in March, TPC Dorado Beach was working diligently to bring back the West Course, which will help to ease the high demand on golf rounds at the resort. Between the pandemic that led members to get out, inhale some fresh air and play more golf, tax-lenient laws (Act 20 and 22) that incentivized many mainland U.S. citizens to purchase island property, and the return of travelers in the late winter and spring, TPC Dorado has been a busy spot. So busy, in fact, that the club recently was allowing only members, their guests and hotel guests from the property’s Ritz-Carlton Reserve (one of six world-wide) on property.
At one point earlier this year, TPC Dorado signed 90 new members in as many days. “A lot of the members coming in are serious golfers, and they’re expecting us to deliver championship golf, and rightfully so,” Willenberg said.
In many recognized rankings, TPC Dorado sits at the top of the class among the 18 courses that Puerto Rico boasts. It is finely maintained and was host to a pair of World Cups as well as a PGA Tour Champions event. Certainly, it does not stand alone. There are several quality golf properties not far from the hub of San Juan (no passport required for U.S. residents), and the offerings are set at a wide range of price points. There is the top-shelf, $10,000-a-night grand casa offered at The St. Regis Bahia Beach. One can dine at night with one’s own private chef, get biologist-led tours through the El Yunque rainforest and beckon a private helicopter onto the property for an evening aerial tour. And that’s after playing a quick 18 holes on a terrific, manicured course that finishes along the ocean. (If the Grand Casa sounds pricey, Bahia also has room options starting at $599 in non-peak season.)
Bahia Beach Head Professional Alberto Rios can remember when the property was nothing more than 18 holes, a modest golf shop and a little snack bar at the end of a long dirt road. Robert Trent Jones Jr. redesigned all 18 holes in 2006, and a beautiful property has sprung up around it. There is the upscale, 139-room St. Regis, as well as some spacious, privately-owned oceanfront villas that are available to rent. The Bahia Beach course holds Audubon International Gold Sanctuary Certification for its eco-sensitive practices. The course features a par-4 hole down the beach at 16, a brief inland jaunt for the short par-3 17th, and then a great par-4 closing hole that returns down the beach. Quick tip: Most every putt at Bahia breaks not toward the big blue ocean, as one might expect, but toward the rugged mountains of El Yunque. The overall beauty of the property and relaxed island ambience gives a player the perfect tropical experience. At Seagrapes, back toward the clubhouse, halibut tacos and a refreshing passion fruit drink serve up the day’s perfect capper.
Puerto Rico gets to shine a light on its island each February/March with the PGA Tour’s Puerto Rico Open at Hyatt Regency Grand Reserve Puerto Rico. The event first was played in 2008, and but for one year after Maria, has been contested each year since. It usually is played opposite a star-laden World Golf Championship stop (in 2022, it will be played opposite the Arnold Palmer Invitational) and is probably better known for some of its high-profile runners-up than for its roll call of champions. Jason Day, Jordan Spieth, Bryson DeChambeau are a few of the names who ran second here. The property has gone through some identity changes through the years – it was a Trump property, and known for years as Coco Beach – but quality golf has been a constant. The PGA Tour plays on one of two Tom Kite-designed golf courses, and with the island winds seldom taking a day off, the Coco Beach Championship layout presents a formidable test. The dream for islanders is to see one of Puerto Rico’s own win here. Rafa Campos nearly fulfilled that vision in March, making a great run and tying for third. As for the cuisine at Grand Reserve, it offers nice variety, ranging from Asian fusion (Nori) to a classic steakhouse, 787 Prime, where one enters past a wall of artsy bottles behind a stylish martini bar.
Campos is a great ambassador for golf on the island, familiar with all the properties. His family still keeps a condo at Rio Mar, he has a sponsorship deal with Grand Reserve, and he often practices and plays at TPC Dorado Beach, only 10 minutes from his home. Campos is a giver, and he does what he can when home to get young children on the island to interested in the game. He sees great potential both in Puerto Rico as a burgeoning golf destination and with the generation of players behind him.
“It took us a good year and a half to kind of start coming back after Maria,” Campos said at this year’s Puerto Rico Open, referring to the devastating 2017 Category 5 hurricane that delivered winds in excess of 155 mph. “Now it’s completely back to normal. You would never tell we had a huge hurricane come by us only three years ago. The tournament, for us, is huge. We thrive on tourism, and the Puerto Rico Open is a time to showcase the island, one of the biggest opportunities we have.”
The Wyndham Grand Rio Mar Golf and Beach Resort, a 36-hole facility where Campos grew up playing, fits the bill as a well-rounded family destination. (Though we traveled without children, my wife and I adored the kids’ bunk bed nook in our ocean suite.) Multiple pools, the adjacent beach, Margaritaville just next door, activities galore, a terrific variety of restaurants and a full on-site casino … those are just for starters. Golf-wise, there are two Troon-managed courses, one by Greg Norman (The River), one by Tom and George Fazio (The Ocean). The River is so named because it winds around the Memeyes River. In truth, the Ocean Course really has only one hole that elbows up against the ocean – the demanding 16th, which tips out at 238 yards. Playing it, Director of Golf Seth Henrich, PGA, says he has only two things in his mind: Make sure to walk off with no worse than bogey, and, with the beach in close proximity to the left, try to keep all sunscreen off your golf ball.
Richie’s, a legendary local bar/restaurant with an awesome view, is right around the corner, and there are nice eating options sprinkled through Rio Mar, too. Cuisine on property ranges from the open-kitchen local fare of Iguanas atop the newly renovated clubhouse to Roots Coastal Kitchen, where our group shared everything from grilled swordfish to shrimp and bacon empanadas to a tasty old vacation standby – crispy fried chicken. As for atmosphere, the most fun we had all week was teeing off on the Ocean mid-afternoon with a rowdy, festive group behind the tee at the Hole-in-One Bar offering some witty, expert swing commentary. Each airborne tee shot was greeted with great enthusiasm and raised beer cups.
Henrich, Rio’s Director of Golf, is a fun guy who hails from Iowa. How did he ever end up in Puerto Rico? You guessed it. Like Willenberg, his counterpart at TPC Dorado, Henrich left Iowa snowy one winter to teach for three weeks at TPC Dorado. Twenty years later, after a couple of other stops, here he is, still on the island at Rio Mar. What was the lure?
“So many things,” Henrich says. “Mostly it’s the pride the residents here have in their island, in their clubs, in their membership. It reminds me a lot of my fellow Iowans. Very friendly, very welcoming. Where I lived in Iowa, we drove 20 miles to the closest Walmart. So living on an island works fine with me.”
Puerto Rico really knows how to sway a guy.