Behind every great golf course is a dream. In the case of Corales, the goal was to turn overgrown, inaccessible scrubland into something special.
The lead dreamer was Frank Rainieri, who in 1969 partnered with famed New York lawyer Theodore Kheel to buy 15,000 acres at the easternmost point of the Dominican Republic. “When I came here, there was nothing, just jungle,” said Rainieri. “We knew what God had given us but we lacked the resources to develop it.”
Fast forward 40 years. Under Rainieri’s direction—and having added other partners including Oscar de la Renta and Julio Iglesias—“nothing” has become Puntacana Resort & Club, a beautiful resort community on the Caribbean Sea that boasts every manner of outdoor amenity (including 45 holes of golf), hotels and restaurants, modern villages, and the world’s first privately owned international airport, which last year welcomed 2.2 million visitors.
With the groundwork in place, Rainieri turned his attention to creating a private enclave of luxurious homes, spectacular ocean views, and a golf course to match. No surprise, he turned to Tom Fazio.
In their very first meeting, “Don Frank” said to Fazio, “Tom, you got a problem. I don’t want to be second to anybody.” Although not a golfer, Rainieri had done his homework: Just as he envisioned Puntacana becoming the finest resort in the Caribbean, he wanted Corales mentioned in the same breath with the world’s top courses.
Fueled by the owner’s vision and with nearly two miles of coastline, Fazio pulled out all the stops. The rocky shore and crashing surf come into play on six holes, the most ocean holes of any property on the prolific architect’s resume. As a result, strong breezes are inescapable, influencing the routing and design. And the course blows people away visually as well, a vibrant canvas of lush green paspalum grass, white coral and sand, and cerulean blue sky.
Besides being an eyeful, Corales is a handful, testing the player’s imagination and moxie from first shot to last. The fairways are uncommonly wide to accommodate the winds, but simply landing on turf is no guarantee of subsequent success. The real skill comes in finding, and holding, the big putting surfaces.
“More than on Tom’s other courses, if you miss the greens you’ve got work to do,” explains Director of Golf Jay Overton, who played on the PGA Tour and spent more than 30 years at Pinehurst and Innisbrook before coming to Corales in 2008, the year it opened. “Many are reminiscent of old Donald Ross greens, elevated and pitched from back to front. They are big but they are fair; you’re not going to find crazy, tiered greens out here.”
You will, however, find plenty of sand. “No matter which tees you play,” says Overton, “the placement of the bunkering makes so much sense.” Such as on hole 1, which may not be on the ocean but is close enough to offer a taste of what’s to come. There are only two bunkers on the hole, one left of the fairway near where most tee shots should land, the other short and right of the angled green. A huge waste area along the entire right side puts the emphasis on hitting the opening tee shot as far left as one dares, setting up the smarter, safer approach.
The abundance of land—Corales extends over 350 acres, three to four times the size of most courses—can distract golfers used to more obvious parameters: It is easy to hit errant shots because the playing field is almost too generous.
There are also too many greens. Holes 3 and 15, both medium-length par fours, have two greens each because someone mentioned to Rainieri that Pine Valley has such a hole (its 8th). The owner told the architect that if one of the world’s greatest courses has one double-greened hole, Corales should have two! And so it does: The greens at No. 3 are guarded by the same pond but sit at different elevations; at 15, the straightaway green is more uphill than the surface to the right, which sits in a bowl behind two deep bunkers and surrounded by a confounding complex of mounds and sidehill lies.
Both nines finish with a trio of holes not easily forgotten. The par-five 7th returns to the water, the long approach rising to an elevated green that seems to float between sea and sky. Teased by the ocean’s roar—Corales engages the ears as well as the eyes—the golfer comes to No. 8, a short par four that twice crosses spouting blowholes, jagged coral cavities stained black by salt water and sun. Another raging cauldron of spray and rock gouges into the par-three 9th, which plays to a long skinny green set perpendicular to the tee, parallel to the wind.
The back nine begins like the front, heading inland, then loops around a vast tract of land where many of the 120 homes are to be located. The houses will be big—starting at 10,000 square feet and $3,000,000; acre-plus lots begin at $1,250,000—but sited so they are barely visible from the course while looking toward the ocean.
Rainieri asked Fazio to consider what homeowner and golfer will see from every point on and around the course. The idea was to make “every view a postcard,” says Overton, who explains that’s why a panorama of flowers, palms, sand, and pond wraps around the long (265 yards from the back tees) par-three 11th. “There’s $50,000 in landscaping there and it’s nowhere in play. Most people wouldn’t have put all that money into a par three. Except Don Frank.”
The final three holes are called “El Codo del Diablo,” the Devil’s Elbow, because they bend back to the sea and put glory within reach. Number 16 points directly into the wind and is best played with a long, low, Scottish-style shot to the deep green. The par-three 17th reverses the direction of the par-three 9th: Now the crashing waves are on the right, producing a fine cooling mist sure to be appreciated by someone sweating over a short but demanding shot that must flirt with the ocean no matter which of the 10 tee boxes is employed.
Putting the exclamation point on Corales is the long, par-four 18th, which bends nearly back on itself, playing over—or for most golfers around—a final fuming inlet of sea and rock. With the wind howling off the water, the player must calculate both strength and strategy, judging how much to bite off or be swallowed up. It is possible to wage an intelligent attack, but eventually a bold shot must be struck toward a green that clings to the very tip of the island.
From the open patio of the modest clubhouse, looking back across the final holes, the course is almost empty (only 40 players are lucky enough to get out each day). The setting sun paints the scene with an ethereal glow. The roar of the crashing waves can be faintly heard, the white foam of the surf seen catching the air. One man’s dream has become the most ravishing of realities.