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Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Royal Isabela Sets A New Standard

Royal Isabella
Royal Isabela 12th Hole
Caribbean golf took a giant step forward beyond flat, ho-hum courses with beautiful views but not much challenge when brothers Stanley and Charles Pasarell created the Golf Links at Royal Isabela on Puerto Rico’s northwest coast. Their vision of a daunting links-style course opened in 2011 and is now fully mature and drawing accolades from around the world.

Your round at Royal Isabela takes you over natural dunes, deep canyons, and along breathtaking cliffs above crashing surf. Trade winds shape every shot while native grasses and sod-faced bunkers conspire to push your score over par. Fairways are wide but undulating and the greens are speedy, true, and heavily contoured. It’s a course you’ll want to visit again and again to challenge your game—or perhaps just to experience the natural wonders.

The course stretches over 7,538 yards, par 72, although an optional par 5 can make it play 7,667 yards, par 73. There are six sets of tees. From the blues, it’s a tough but playable 6,675 yards with a course rating/slope of 74.8/144.  It’s sited on 426 acres of ocean-front property that will eventually be home to other courses the brothers have in mind, all part of a larger 1,800 acre community.

You’ll want to rack up as many birdies as you can on the shorter, easier front side because you’ll find opportunities are few and far between on the incoming holes, which play along the ocean edge. The front side plays up and down hills where you’re faced with numerous blind shots and uneven lies. It also ends with an island-green par three that is loads of fun in the wind.

Royal Isabella
Royal Isabela 17th Hole
Royal Isabela really comes to life on the back nine. The par five tenth hole looks like a pushover birdie, but watch out for the green—it’s narrow and slopes strongly from front to back. Above all, stay out of the bunker left of the green or you’ll be blasting out over a sod face that’s higher than your head. There’s an optional “owner’s hole” you can play instead of (or in addition to) the regular par three eleventh. The bonus hole calls for a 125-yard wedge shot you should start over the ocean and hope the wind brings back to the green. Stanley Pasarell calls it the shortest par five in the world.

Other treats on the back nine include the 354-yard twelfth hole which starts with a knee-knocking drive off a cliff followed by a nearly vertical pitch up to a double green perched on a wind-swept precipice. You’ll see the double green again when you play the fourteenth hole. If Royal Isabela has a signature hole, it’s the par-three seventeenth, which plays from 178 to 200 yards depending on the tee you choose—all carry from one cliff edge to another. The green is steeply sloped right to left toward the ocean and has a difficult back tier just to make things more interesting.

The course was designed on site by the Pasarell brothers with the capable assistance of architect David Pfaff, Pete Dye’s original partner. “My friends and I would come out with some clubs and balls and envision the holes on the undeveloped land,” Stanley Pasarell says. “The land itself shaped the course.” The brothers worked to keep the golf course in harmony with its surroundings, using only native trees and indigenous plants propagated in an on-site nursery from seeds and cuttings gathered on the property. Aside from the greens, every blade of grass on the course is of native origin.

Royal Isabela is a semi-private golf club where guests of the resort are granted temporary membership. Currently, guests stay in expansive one-bedroom casitas with ocean views, private pools, multiple large-screen TVs, and bathrooms bigger than some Manhattan apartments. In addition to golf, Royal Isabela features tennis courts, croquet, pools, hiking, and a secluded beach that’s worth a trip for its own sake. Spa services, water sports, and just about anything else you’d like to do can be arranged by the extremely accommodating concierge.

La Casa from Royal Isabela 18th Fairway
The Restaurant at La Casa features farm-to-table dining, a wood-burning oven, and an excellent wine collection. Chef Jose Carles Fabrregas visits the property’s own River Farm and Organic Gatehouse Garden every day to create the menu, which fuses Puerto Rican and classic European cuisine. The Organic Farm itself is worked in partnership with La Tierra Prometida, a non-profit organization that assists homeless disabled men. Sale of the farm’s produce to other local restaurants supports transitional housing, food, and social services to the organization’s clients.

Royal Isabela is located about 90 minutes from San Juan International Airport or ten minutes from Aguadilla International Airport. Casita rates range from $609 to $1199, depending on season, and include breakfast and golf for two each day.

Among many other books, Dave Donelson is the author of Weird Golf: 18 tales of fantastic, horrific, scientifically impossible, and morally reprehensible golf

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