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Golfing in the Caribbean | Bahia Beach

A Diamond From the Rough

Robert Trent Jones Jr. carries on the family tradition of great golf in the Caribbean.

By Wayne Mills

Celebrated golf course achitect Robert Trent Jones Jr. has created family symmetry in his first design effort in Puerto Rico at Bahia Beach Resort & Golf Club. By coming to the island where his father, legendary golf course architect Robert Trent Jones Sr., essentially created the notion of the Caribbean golf resort in the 1950s, Jones Jr. has now completed the circle.

“The developers chose Robert Trent Jones Jr. to design the golf course because his environmental philosophy matches perfectly what they wanted to accomplish at the resort,” adds Jorge Rendon, executive director of the Bahia Beach Resort & Golf Club. “Nature will be the protagonist at the property. They let Mr. Jones work freely—the only request was to respect and preserve the spectacular natural setting of the resort.”

Bahia Beach Resort & Golf Club is the centerpiece of the 483-acre tropical maritime forest enclave, located just 25 miles east of San Juan in Rio Grande on Puerto Rico’s northern coast. The land, including a pre-existing golf course, was purchased by BBP Partners and the development was complemented with the extraordinary St. Regis hotel and residential products. The combination of St. Regis and BBP Partners was a perfect match according to the developers, who were looking for a premium brand that would bring the same quality of service and attention to detail to both the resort and golf course.

Taking on the redesign of the 1991 J. Burton Gold layout presented its own set of challenges for Jones. “It was a very ordinary golf course with some nice, open land. But our project wasn’t just about the course, it was about incorporating a great new golf course into an overall master plan for a lush, upscale tropical resort,” he says. “One of our challenges was to use some of the existing hole corridors of the previous course located on the site, but to expand and greatly improve the quality of the layout. We gave golf holes over to new development and created new holes elsewhere on the site that still blend naturally with the rest of the new course, thus improving the playing experience.”

Golfing at St. Regis

The St. Regis and Bahia Beach Resort & Golf Club are uncompromising in their pursuit of creating captivating experiences, and the golf at Bahia Beach is fully involved in that quest. It is a classic test of strategy and adaptability. Thick canopies of native tropical forest, natural lagoons and ocean breezes—the invisible hazard—all come into play. Greens feature gentle contouring and are protected by bunkers with large flairs. The drama builds toward the three climatic finishing holes stretching right along the ocean and offering a memorable grand finale.

As environmental protection and the preservation of ecosystems have become increasingly important aspects of golf course design and construction, Jones was able to provide his expertise in that area. “This was an opportunity to introduce our sustainable design philosophy in a spectacular part of the world,” he says. “Protecting habitat is always part of our design plan, and Bahia Beach ensures a memorable interaction with the natural world for people who appreciate the gorgeous Puerto Rican landscape.”

The use of spectacular oceanfront land for the three final golf holes at Bahia Beach Resort & Golf Club is highly unusual in modern resort development. That land is often much more valuable for lodging or other resort facilities, but at Bahia Beach that was not how BBP prioritized its land use.

“At Bahia Beach we are focused on the experience of our guests and the lifestyle of our residents,” Rendon explains. “These three unique holes enhance every golfer’s experience playing at our spectacular golf course. In our concept, this wasn’t considered a sacrifice.”

Located in the sandy soils between the mountainous El Yunque National Forest and the blue waters of the Caribbean, the course was created around a network of lakes, which Jones took full advantage of in his design. Covering more than 80 acres in area, 15 of the 18 holes are framed by water that ravenously swallows up wayward shots. “Bahia Beach will be a haven of golf that will challenge but also delight your soul and spirit,” Jones says.

Bespoke Services

Bahia Beach is the first resort course of its caliber in Puerto Rico to offer a special set of family tees on each hole that play at a modest 3,014 yards. In a wonderful accommodation for traveling families, the Bahia Beach Resort & Golf Club offers free golf after 3 p.m. for any junior golfer playing with a paid adult.

The facility also offers a substantial practice range with separate teeing areas and five target greens, making it an ideal place for passionate golfers of all ages and playing abilities to sharpen their skills.

Troon Golf Management, a worldwide leader, handles the golf operation under its private club banner, Troon Prive. The club offers memberships as well as resort and public play. Private individual lessons are available and group lessons can be customized to any needs. For roving golfers wishing to avoid the expense and inconvenience of managing their clubs through airports, full sets of Callaway clubs and shoes are available for rental at the pro shop. Bahia Beach Resort & Golf Club also offers a tempting mosaic of dining options for those heading off the green: Relax and enjoy casual Mediterranean-influenced dining at Molasses Restaurant, located in the golf clubhouse, for instance.

Navigating the Green

While golf is a sport, it is also a business that requires the golf course to meet the needs of the owners and operators as well as their guests. Some golf courses are created to be tournament venues and test the world’s best golfers; others are there for the enjoyment of the more recreational player.

“While the course is part of the very lovely St. Regis resort, we wanted to create a layout that works for resort players but is simultaneously challenging to more experienced players—and we wanted it to be interesting and fun,” Jones says, adding that no two holes are the same. The course features a wide variety of shot demands with holes playing in different directions, with long and short holes, elevated greens and vistas.

Not particularly long by today’s standards, the golf course plays just over 7,000 yards from the back tees, although the ubiquitous ocean winds will make it play much longer at times. From the middle sets of tees, which most resort guests will play, it is much more a shot-makers course where placement is the key rather than length.

“We used the cooling breezes in the design,” he adds. “A lot of the greens are open to run-up shots—while they’re not heavily contoured, they are receptive to thoughtful chipping and putting.”

More than 60 bunkers are spread throughout the course, but they tend to be more directional than penal; however, the combined difficulties of the hazards translate to hefty slope ratings—145 from the tips and 141 from the 6.412 yard member tees.

With five sets of tees, the course can play down to just over 5,000 yards from the forward tees. The playing areas of the golf course feature modern turf grasses such as Bermuda 419 on the fairways and roughs, Zoysia on tees and the incomparable Tifdwarf on the putting surfaces. Not only do these grasses possess great playing characteristics, but they require much less maintenance and water usage. The green speeds at Bahia Beach rival any in the Caribbean.

Since its opening in November 2010, The St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort has quickly assumed a position at the pinnacle of Caribbean luxury destinations. As the newest jewel in the Caribbean, it is nestled in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico just half an hour away from San Juan.

Golfweek magazine recognized the golf course as one of the best in Mexico and the Caribbean in 2011, and in June 2012 the resort received the coveted AAA Five Diamond Award, the only resort in Puerto Rico to receive the prestigious designation.

These accolades say a lot about Robert Trent Jones Jr.’s design and vision behind the Bahia Beach golf course. His exquisite attention to detail, with the course’s distinctive holes and deliberate ocean views, are sure to give every golfer an unmatched experience time and time again.