By Jason Scott Deegan,
Courtesy of WorldGolf.com
Punta Cana, Dominican Republic — As the Atlantic Ocean surf crashed on the rocky shore all around him, Steve Niles attempted to focus on his task at hand, blasting a driver over the ocean on the 17th hole at Punta Espada Golf Club.
Niles, visiting from Toronto, Canada, turned to his playing partners and pleaded, "Can somebody please turn down the waves? They are too distracting."
Most distractions on golf courses are a nuisance — too many condos along the fairway, too many players or too much traffic on a nearby road. The distractions at Punta Espada make this 7,396-yard Jack Nicklaus course one of most spellbinding experiences in golf. Players relish the salty sprays and stunning views from eight holes that play directly along — or over — the ocean. For those who saw Punta Espada on TV for the Champions Tour’s Cap Cana Championship from 2008-10, those HD images don’t do this place justice.
Bernie Morgan, the club manager at Punta Espada, said it took him at least three rounds before he could focus on playing golf.
"How do you describe that incredible turquoise [water]?" he said. "You need to use all of your senses. You stand on a tee box or a green, and you use your nose to smell the ocean, your eyes to see the colors, your ears to hear the waves. It awakens the senses. … There are times out there when the golf is almost secondary."
Golfweek ranked Punta Espada the No. 1 golf course in the Caribbean and Mexico for 2012, just ahead of the ultra-private Querencia in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, and its chief island rival, the venerable Teeth of the Dog at Casa de Campo in La Romana. Golf Digest rated Teeth of the Dog No. 33 and the Ocean course at Cabo del Sol in Mexico No. 24, just ahead of No. 46 Punta Espada on its list of the top 100 courses outside of the United States in 2009.
Of the 350 courses credited to Nicklaus Design around the world, perhaps only a handful (private places such as Muirfield Village, Castle Pines and Sebonack and perhaps the resort Ocean course at Cabo del Sol) are better.
Add Punta Espada to your bucket list
Punta Espada is tucked inside the sprawling, 30,000-acre resort/residential development called Cap Cana. There are plans for two more Nicklaus courses inside Cap Cana. Las Iguanas has eight holes completed, but Morgan is unsure when the course will be finished. He said it will be a strong layout with some ocean frontage but admitted nothing can compare to Punta Espada.
"Once you experience Punta Espada, everything else is a step down," he said.
Punta Espada’s routing flows masterfully. The first two tee shots from the 6,800-yard gold tees ease players into the round with elevated launching pads. At the same time, these lofty tee perches introduce the scenic wonders that lie ahead. The second — a 611-yard par 5 — stares off into the ocean horizon. A bright blue inlet of water guards a green hanging precariously out in the hazard. The par-4 third ambles along the coast. The par-3 fourth turns inland, playing over another bay pool.
The 336-yard eighth is the closest thing to a drivable par 4. Standing on the nasty two-tiered green provides a gorgeous overlook of the entire property. The unique par-4 10th plays to an island green surrounded by sand.
The par-5 12th ends with a green tucked against the rocks punished by the raging seas. As good as the tee shot at No. 17 is, the best spot on the course is the back tee at No. 13. Morgan encourages all players to have a go from this tee, just to get a feel for how unbelievable it was that Nicklaus made birdie at the course’s grand opening in 2008. Players face a harrowing, all-carry tee shot over the ocean to a green perched 250 yards away on the cliffs above.
"It is a tee shot that takes a lot of focus," Morgan said. "It is something else."
The par-5 15th is a strong inland hole around a pond before the par-3 16th returns to the ocean for the stretch run. "This is ocean golf at its finest," Morgan bragged.
Niles considers Punta Espada a "bucket list" course that every golfer should play.
"It was fabulous," he said. "As a golfer who plays a lot of courses, this is very good. The conditions were good. I found it to be fair. There are a lot of golf challenges, especially on the approach."
Punta Espada Golf Club: The verdict
To call Punta Espada the "Pebble Beach of the Caribbean" would be an injustice — to Punta Espada.
Pebble Beach Golf Links is beautiful, but a wide beach and cliffs separate players from the water most of the time. Playing Punta Espada is an interactive experience with the ocean.
One wrong step, and sea spray will rain down on you. That’s how intimate this ocean encounter is.