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Play’s the Thing

Offering everything from donkey polo to world-class golf, Casa de Campo is an activity addict’s paradise

Author Jeff Wallach

thefanDOMINICAN REPUBLIC – The opposing teams face off across a dusty playing field. Eyes narrow. Muscles tense. And then the ear-splitting rallying cry, accompanied by the exposure of yellowing, slablike teeth: “Eee-yaaaw!” Donkeys, it turns out, take the game of polo more seriously than you’d think.

Donkey polo is just one of the activities on offer during the weeklong multisport jamborees at Casa de Campo, a picturesque 7,000-acre resort on the outskirts of La Romana, in the Dominican Republic. There’s also hiking, shooting, fishing, horseback riding, tennis, kayaking and snorkeling.
Oh, and golf. Lots of golf.

For variety alone, the courses at Casa de Campo are hard to beat. There are four in total, comprising 90 holes, and all were designed by Pete Dye. The most renowned is Teeth of the Dog, long ranked as the No. 1 course in the Caribbean and one of the top 50 in the world.

Opened in 1971, Teeth of the Dog is as seamless a layout as you’ll find anywhere, with architecture subtle enough to blend into the background. Near the seven holes that route directly along the shore, surf crashes against dark rocks that are practically in-play. A clever figure-eight layout, meanwhile, puts the ocean to your left for the front nine holes and to your right for the back nine, challenging slicers and hookers equally. The inland holes bring Pebble Beach to mind: often wide and welcoming off the tee, then cinching tight around the greens where bunkers and steep-sided slopes repel anything less than fearless approach shots.

The windy, links-like course also features one of the best collections of par-3s on the planet. The fifth hole—which requires a bold wedge hit into the wind toward a green that looks about as big as a coconut—is matched in its intensity by the seventh, but the latter calls for a three-wood (and offers a bit more room). No. 13, at 170 yards, demands a tee shot to a green that shimmers in a sea of sand. Sixteen revisits the ocean theme, as the water sits to your right and daunting pods of pot bunkers lurk around the putting surface.

If Teeth of the Dog is the most famous of Casa de Campo’s courses, the massively scaled Dye Fore is its most challenging. Located along dramatic bluffs 300 feet above the Chavon River (where scenes from Apocalypse Now were filmed), the layout’s 6,420 yards can feel like miles, due to abrupt elevation changes, perched greens, numerous ravines and superfast putting surfaces. Playing this after Teeth of the Dog is like watching a Bruce Willis movie after “Downton Abbey.” Anyone choosing to play from the 7,700-yard back tees should seek professional help.

There are three nine-hole layouts in Dye Fore. Lagos debuted in 2011, joining two existing layouts that have long proved their ability to keep golfers on their toes: Marina and Chavon. The Marina nine starts with two inland holes before its first costume change—the backdrop to the approach to the third green is a sprawling Mediterranean-style marina nestled where the Chavon River empties into the Caribbean Sea. If you have plans to rediscover the fairways from Marina’s voluminous bunkers or sprawling waste areas, you may want to consider bringing a GPS.

On the Dye’s Chavon nine, meanwhile, nearly every hole is startling. This is especially true of the par-3s, which require forced carries over deep, junglelike ravines. Other holes use massive fairways canted toward thick brush or a precipitous drop-off, along with clandestine hazards that transport the ball swiftly from point A to point bye-bye—shots sprayed even moderately may face a roller-coaster ride down to awaiting swales. The final hole, a par-5, covers 570 yards with upper- and lower-fairway tiers climbing to a green aggressively protected by pot bunkers.

For a less spine-tingling experience, there’s the breezy Dye Links. This course features waving rough grasses, smatterings of pot bunkers and a revetted bunker fronting a par-3 fifth that you’d do well to avoid. The greens are true, thanks to recently planted paspalum grass, and the flat lies in the fairways are a welcome change from the funhouse slopes of Dye Fore. The fairways are wide and welcoming, though reaching some of them requires hitting over bunkers or water hazards that present more of a psychological challenge than a physical one.

As with many Dye designs, the really tough aspect here is the array of bunkers that mine the greens, which themselves are hugged by swales and feature narrow cupping areas atop shelves that efficiently repel attack. On the back nine, lakes surround holes 12 through 15, and missing the water won’t bring you much relief—you’ll need to muster some short-game wizardry to get anywhere near the pins from close in.

The final layout in the Casa de Campo lineup is the members’ course at La Romana Country Club, representing 27 more Pete Dye holes. While possibly the weakest of the resort’s golf offerings, La Romana is still a solid track. Caddies are required, and you may need to book tee times through a home pro.

When you’re not teeing up, you can use your personal golf cart to buzz around the resort’s other attractions. For dinner, the Beach Club by Le Cirque is a perfect place to wind down after a day of manic activity. Slightly farther afield there’s Altos de Chavon, an enchanting replica of a 16th -century Italian village complete with cobblestones; its restaurants and artisan shops, perched on cliffs overhanging the river, are the ideal backdrop for a sunset stroll.

And baseball is quite big around here, of course, so don’t miss a chance to take in a Santo Domingo Toros game, at which you can order a hamburger delivered by a man dressed as, well, a hamburger, run a beer tab and watch the bull mascot perform a wholly unforgettable dance along the first base line. Nearby is the La Flor Dominicana cigar factory, where you can watch workers hand-rolling stogies and marvel at the largest humidor you’re ever likely to see.

But, again, there’s something for pretty much everyone here, from an exhilarating hour of skeet shooting to a day spent drifting on an untroubled sea. Then there’s the polo, which ranges from the expert, horseback version to the one aimed at newbies, played with donkeys and brooms. Even if it’s not the most dignified sport in the world, it’s a heck of a lot of fun—and there’s not a terrifying water hazard in sight.

JEFF WALLACH is a Portland, Ore.–based golf and travel writer and executive editor of the websites The A Position and Golf Road Warriors.

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