Courses by Fazios, Norman offer variety and fun
RIO GRANDE, Puerto Rico – Any trip to Puerto Rico is chock-full of sights and sounds that will linger for the long term. But the experience golfers have grown to expect from staying and playing at the venerable Wyndham Grand Rio Mar Beach Resort and Spa on the northeast corner of the “Isle of Enchantment” is truly grand and unforgettable.
Rio Mar is nestled between the Atlantic Ocean and the El Yunque Caribbean National Forest in a lush hideaway, near the town of Rio Grande and right beside the ocean. This spectacular Puerto Rico venue was born as the Caribbean’s premier destination, and – thanks to continual upgrades, remains as one of the island’s top places for golf and leisure.
Some visitors remember their trip to Rio Mar for its winding, hilly entrance road through stands of tall palms. For others, it’s likely the massive resort hotel – so full of life and music and celebration at virtually all hours, or the resort’s secluded, mile-long beach, its two oceanfront swimming pools or its Mandara Spa. Some go all in at the onsite 7,000-square-foot casino and walk out winners.
For our purposes, the two golf courses at Rio Mar – one designed by George and Tom Fazio and the other by Greg Norman – are the resort’s drawing card. The breezes that blow almost constantly in from the Atlantic range from the balmy to decidedly blustery, adding to the challenge, although the courses themselves offer their fair share of twist and turns.
Fazios hit right notes at Ocean Course
Don’t be fooled by the name – Rio Mar’s Ocean Course is not a links-style experience played along the dunes alongside the Atlantic. In fact, the track has just one hole along the beach, but it’s one of the island’s best tests and is good enough to provide the course’s moniker.
Views – if somewhat distant – of the Atlantic, the constant winds and herds of iguanas are all parts of the Ocean Course experience. The 6,716-yard layout, crafted by George and his nephew Tom Fazio in 1975 when resort golf was in its nascency in the Caribbean, is said to be the first design upon which the younger Fazio laid his now-famous signature. Its wide and forgiving fairways can be deceiving if you spray the ball, and numerous bunkers and elevated greens are other hallmarks.
The preferred shot pattern on the Ocean Course is from right to left, but the big landing areas will even handle fades. The plateaued greens will confound your short game and the putting surfaces are difficult to read. Ocean is the more forgiving of the resort’s two tracks, but don’t be surprised if you’re not as successful as you think; it will sneak up on you.
The Ocean Course, like many great resort tracks, gradually builds to a climactic close. The final four holes – highlighted by the signature 16th (a beach-hugging 238-yards par-3 rated by many as among the Caribbean’s best) – will make or break your round.
Both the ninth (a 406-yard, uphill par-4) and the 18th (a 418-yard two-shotter) end at greens directly below the resort’s clubhouse and al fresco bar, said to be the “Home of the World’s Coldest Beer.” And you might need a drink or two while trying to figure out where things could have gone better on your trip around the par-71 Ocean, which carries a 73.7 rating and a 130 slope from the tips.
Norman-designed River Course not for the timid
Rio Mar’s River Course, opened in 1997, was Greg Norman’s first contribution to Caribbean golf. The layout meanders some 6,902 yards through mangrove swamps and along the Mameyes River against a spectacular backdrop of cloud-topped mountains and the El Yunque rainforest to the south.
As always, Norman designed the layout while preserving the environment, so the natural wetlands and native foliage are always on the golfer’s mind. On River, Norman let the natural terrain determine placement of the holes.
It’s certainly tighter than the Fazio design, but the fairways are wide – a bit of a departure for the “Great White Shark” – and the greens are open with shallow bunkers and light rough. It’s an ideal course for all skill levels.
The opening hole (a 435-yard, uphill par-4) sets the stage for the ensuing 17. All demand accuracy off the tee and on approaches to greens that, for the most part, are generous in size and gentle in nature.
The 391-yard par-4 sixth is the first of five holes to play along the briskly flowing river. It moves left to right, allowing the golfer to cut off as much of the river as he dares. Two bunkers guard the landing area. The second shot drops down to a green protected right by the river and left by a trap. At 466 yards, the par-4 ninth heads leftward off the tee, with wetlands down the entire right side of the hole. Two bunkers guard the right edge of the landing area, and the green sits alongside the wetlands and is bunkered on the front-right.
The 562-yard par-5 11th is the toughest three-shotter on the River Course, playing over the river. From the first landing area, it’s straightaway to an elevated green guarded on all sides by bunkers. The river demands a heroic carry off the tee of the 392-yard 17th, which also lines the entire left side of the 448-yard 18th, with bunkers along the right catching any timid swings.
Norman designed a very good routing at the River Course, a track that rewards superlative shots without harshly punishing the merely respectable. It’s an exciting course that maximizes the aesthetic gifts of the land. The par-72 River sports a 74.5 rating and a 135 slope from the back set of four tees. It’s the annual host of the Puerto Rico Classic golf tournament, which features many of the nation’s best men’s collegiate golf teams.
Off the Course
Rio Mar’s clubhouse is a magnificent 35,000-square-foot edifice that, when built, was considered to be the centerpiece of Puerto Rico’s most prestigious country club. The stately facility now provides every amenity and service expected of a premier resort and complements the array of recreational activities at Rio Mar.
Thanks to the choice of two championship courses and multiple tee boxes, both experts and novices can play to their hearts content on their Caribbean golf vacations. After exercising your swing, relax and enjoy the rest of day at the resort’s amenities.