It had been a long time coming, a winter of anticipation, and finally we were on our way to Guavaberry. Patrons at the hotel, who had heard we were here to experience and write about the course, would pull a chair up to the table and excitedly tell us what to expect.
The Guavaberry Golf & Country Club officially opened in July, 2002. Gary Player attended, signed autographs for locals who had never seen golf before and tourists who had come from half way around the world for a chance to play one of his designs. BHD Bank owns the course, as well as the Coral Hilton, and no expense has been spared to create a golf resort, hotel combination ranking in the top three in the Caribbean.
Chris Hall, the gracious, tanned and well spoken Club Professional and General Manager, wants to make it number one. An additional 18 holes are planned and Gary Player is on site often. There are 400 lots for private villas tucked away around the course, of which 200 are sold. A GPS system is coming and Chris is constantly training all employees in the art of golf service etiquette. A planned Golf Academy is also planned and is sure to make Juan Dolio the center of Caribbean Golf.
We are welcomed many times over by sharply uniformed course employees, landscapers, greens keepers, hostesses and caddies. We check-in and once again we are impressed by our surroundings, the people, the views and the clean, expensive feel of the whole environment. The interlocking drive looks freshly swept and the various gazebo-like tiered landings are furnished with expensive leather couches, local wicker and glass end tables.
The 18 hole, 7,156 yard Guavaberry Golf Course was designed by the legendary Gary Player and combines the latest technological advances with a thoughtful course design, perfect for the enjoyment of a wide variety of visiting golfers. The course is trimmed everywhere with natural coralline rock and exotic landscaping, complete with ponds, white sand, and flat, plush, elevated tee boxes.
Later we would learn that there are over 120 employees working the course, but they are invisible in the rough, in the shade of the trees, hidden behind the back knoll of the green or somewhere near, but not on, a tractor, grass cutter, or small landscaping cart. Only occasionally one of them will appear to point out an errant ball and disappear again to the task of making the beauty look natural.
We both surprise ourselves with well-struck first balls that seem to carry further in the heated Caribbean breeze. The fairways are plush to stand on but just underneath is a firm groomed earth allowing for a bounce, a second bounce, and a true roll usually unseen in Ontario. There would be no plugged fairway balls today. The first hole is kind and there are no impossible hazards to contend with. Three traps protect the green but they are offset and allow for a roll to the fat part of the green, slightly elevated above the apron. We are on in three and then, we are off again. These greens are for real. It will take some serious concentration from the fringe for a double bogey but we manage it and instantly we know that we have just been warned of the subtle dangers that await us. A simple par 4 has beaten us and we still feel good about it, the most dangerous kind of course to score on.
The par 4, 421 yard second hole turns up the heat a notch and presents us with a beautiful pond-lake running for 70 yards down the left side, starting right at the t-box. We can't help but notice that the same very pond is protecting the third hole green yet to come, on the way back, but lets not think about that just yet. The pond really isn't in play on the left. Yeah, that's what they think. We cheat to the right just enough to eliminate the water problem but we bring the fairway trap into play, well positioned at 220 yards running for 20 yards along the right fringe. Golf is funny that way. The dangers are obvious; the solution right in front of you, yet failure is only a poor decision away. A great shot here, a penalty stroke there, a muffed sand wedge and a wonderful recovery shot and we finally find the green within site, which is small and hard to hold. It might be tough to hit a par 4 in regulation today and we issue that as a challenge to each other. Double Bogeys could be quite popular here. A couple of high fives later we manage a neat recovery and avoid triples.
Hole three, and we are determined to give ourselves a chance. The par 5 third hole turns out to be an adventure and true test of Caribbean golfing. The ever-present soothing Caribbean breeze can seem like a gale when you have a club in hand and are staring down a 539-yard paradise runway. The "pond-lake" awaits, the green playing hide and seek tucked in behind it.
Unfortunately in golf, things often work out the exact opposite of ones intentions. We both strayed far enough left that our approach shots would have to soar over the entire length of the deep blue aqua and would have to be hit high enough to land quietly on the narrow elevated green. There is no room for error on this hole and , well, we just aren't good enough for this one. We donated a couple of balls to the course and took drops on the other side.
Our favorite hole was the 15th, a 140-yard par three, which is nothing but t-box, water and green. Access to the t-box is by a pedestrian bridge over a wide leg of pond. The fairway is all water and the green is a target of velvet surrounded by blue.
Our golf experience at Guavaberry was much more than just golf. The course encompassed all the wonderful grace and beauty that is the Dominican Republic: the scenery, the people, the service and the food.
A few things did happen on the course that we found humorous and were a result of the course, and the country for that matter, being fairly new to resort golf. We didn't see the beverage cart on the back nine and when we finished we found him napping in the shade. We chuckled when we rounded the corner on the cart path and nearly slammed into a landscaping truck, with its back end jacked in the air, five workers deciding how to change the tire and three more watching. They smiled and they were our audience on the 5th hole. We smiled when the workers offered to carry our clubs from the cart back to the shuttle, approximately 20 feet away, looking for the possibility of a tip to end their shift. We carried our own clubs, and tipped them 20 pesos anyway. The extra dollar was well worth the smile.
We would golf at Guavaberry a second time before we left and it was more of the same. The beauty of the course matches the graciousness of the people and we will definitely be returning to try and break 90.
For our last day at the resort, we decided to unwind and relax before our return trip to Puerto Plata. We laze around the Caribbean Sea, soaking up the heat and sun. We listen to the chatter of the guests, watch families play in the water, and enjoy the day. We lunch at the poolside restaurant and have the hottest chicken wings I've ever tasted, with a side of seafood pizza. Washed down with an ice-cold coke, all is well.
After changing the left rear tire that had gone flat over the last three days sitting in the car park, we are energized and confident for our return drive back to Costa Caribe. We are much better this time and we manipulate the villages and cities with success. Now that we are used to it, the noise, the honking, the terrible drivers who don't have licences, the helmetless moped riders and the cars without doors just don't seem to bother us any more. In fact, we open our window to a city peddler and purchase four of the most delicious fruit and nut cookies we have ever tasted.
Once out of the cities the highway is in excellent condition, and the mountains and valleys are breathtaking. We arrive back in Costa Caribe in 4-½ hours without difficulty. Along the way we stopped at a local roadside restaurant and have a delicious chicken sandwich and fresh cut French fries. We always drank bottled water, even though it seemed fine to keep a litre of beer between your legs as you drive.
Our last two days were as good as our first and it was a shame to leave. We both agreed we would definitely return to the Dominican, its beauty, its friendliness and the wonderful golf courses that are springing up throughout the island. It was a treat we will never forget
By Lise Lacasse, Toronto Correspondent, with assistance from Kevin Van Sickle.