As bucket-list golf courses go, I did pretty well early on. Cypress Point? Check (1982). The Old Course at St. Andrews? Check (1992). Augusta National? Check (1993). Still, there remained oceans to cross, mountains to climb. For the past five years, No. 1 on my wish list was Casa de Campo’s Teeth of the Dog in the Dominican Republic. After making a guarantee on my New Year’s resolutions for 2014 that I would knock this one off in the next 12 months, I’m thrilled to report: Casa de Campo’s Teeth of the Dog? Check.
There are plenty of logical reasons that Pete Dye’s Caribbean masterpiece ranked No. 1 for me -- and plenty of irrational ones too. It was the highest-ranked resort course in the world that I had yet to play. It was the architect’s favorite of all his designs. It had seven holes practically in the sea. And hey, I just liked the name. Teeth of the Dog is even more fun to say in Spanish: Diente del Perro.
The problem with bucket-list layouts, however, is that after years of dreaming, scheming and finally playing them, they inevitably disappoint. You spend so much time building them up in your mind that they can’t possibly live up to what you saw in a magazine or on TV. That’s why it tickles me to declare that Casa de Campo’s Teeth of the Dog not only met my lofty expectations, it also exceeded them.
I teed off late on a gorgeous November afternoon in the company of assistant pro Manuel Relancio, who looked like a player -- and played like one. My first surprise came at the 390-yard, par-4 2nd, an inland hole that resonated immediately. It opens with a drive over sand and the sharp coral rock that gave the course its name. Carry it 210 from the tips, over the widest reach of the hazard, and you’ve got a nice angle in. Carry it 253 over the longest portion of the sand and rock, and you’re now perfectly angled for the approach. Play your drive away from the trouble and you’ve still got a reasonable second, but you’ll now flirt with trees, bunkers and a green tilted the wrong way to accept the approach. It’s a classic pay-me-now-or-pay-me-later, and a sure sign that Teeth of the Dog is not only about seaside beauty. It’s also about thought-provoking yet playable golf.
My next take-notice moment occurred at the 551-yard, par-5 3rd hole, where I got my first glimpse of the sea. Later, as I was nursing a cold Presidente (the local pilsner) at the 19th hole, director of golf Gilles Gagnon, a 34-year veteran of Casa de Campo, told me the club accelerated the cutback of the quick-sprouting vegetation that brackets the property, so as to maintain those irreplaceable vistas. I could see why.
The 176-yard, par-3 5th marked the start of an unforgettable four-hole sequence. You may as well be in the sea. Just off the tee, waves lapped at the coral rocks. The putting surface appeared just visible enough to suggest the presence of a green, without confirming it. A gentle breeze stirred. I posed for a few photos, then got a 5-iron airborne that stopped 25 feet from the flag.
The 229-yard, par-3 7th is No. 5’s macho sibling. Manuel ripped a studly 3-iron to six feet, while I moved forward and produced a capable 7-wood from 188, carrying the bays and coves and sand and bahia grass. My ball settled 35 feet from the cup. Manuel explained that two weeks earlier, he was playing with John McEnroe -- golf, not tennis -- and Mac’s tee shot hit the rocks and settled on the beach. “He went down and played it, his feet in the sea,” said Manuel. It’s so like McEnroe to be so stubborn and so creative at the same time.
After we dueled with the stunning seaside stretch of 15, 16 and 17, with the rocks and waves on the right, I understood why Teeth of the Dog draws you back like a riptide. It’s a pure joy to play. Fairways are flattish and sufficiently wide. Bunkers are rarely penal. Greens offer benign contours, and are irregularly shaped, a la Dye’s work at Harbour Town. Scenery is off the charts. You’re completely engaged, for all 18 holes.
I’m not going to beat myself up because it took me until my beard turned gray (well, white) to get to Casa de Campo’s Teeth of the Dog. I’m just going to have to make up for lost time.
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