The Best Budget Golf Courses in Puerto Rico

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Four plain-Jane courses interspersed among the deluxe golf resorts: friendly but challenging links, spectacular vistas, balmy and relaxing breezes, and modest charges

Puerto Rico is going links loco. Eighteen golf courses are sprinkled on the map and another nine are about to leap off the drawing board, making this lush island the premier golf destination in the Caribbean. The invasion of designer-label architects-the Tom Fazios and Jack Nicklauses-has triggered the golf boom, not to mention soaring greens fees. At the Greg Norman-fashioned River Course at Westin Rio Mar Beach Resort, for example, 18 holes in high season cost a wallet-crunching $185. It's such a yawn. These burgeoning high-end courses-all part of extravagant resorts-offer not a clue as to the real Puerto Rico. So insular and flawless and homogenized are they that you might as well tee it up at a Florida golf community. Mercifully, there are alternatives to the posh-links trend.

A number of layouts, three of which I recently played, were built years ago and have retained the charm, unspoiled beauty, and simplicity of early island golf. These are courses where the scenery, if not the amenities and turf management, rivals that of some of the game's most celebrated oceanside venues. Their architects are unknown, the grass is a bit patchy, and the clubhouses are virtual shacks. But their drop-dead views, vibrant local color, warm hospitality, and best of all, nominal greens fees, make them far more desirable than their glossy, overpriced counterparts.

I also discovered a marvelous new course that is not part of a dinero-draining resort. Three of the four layouts I am about to introduce to you are clustered on Puerto Rico's northeastern coast, within 45 minutes' drive of San Juan, which offers much in the way of aprSs-golf diversions. So pack your clubs-and some evening wear too-and join me on a tour that proves that Puerto Rico is a treasure island for savings-savvy golfers.

Bahia Beach Plantation

The birdies and bargains begin at Bahia Beach Plantation (787/256-5600, www.golfbahia.com), the most classically tropical golf course in Puerto Rico. From San Juan, go east on Ruta 3, exit at 187 and follow for three miles. The club's entrance is on the right. Carved from a former coconut grove, this enormously popular par-72 public layout, which opened in 1991, is located in the countryside just north of the town of R­o Grande. Bahia's modest greens fees belie the course's majestic scenery. A morning tee time costs $85, but that's a splurge compared to the afternoon rate of $60. Better yet, why not launch that first drive after 2 p.m., when a mere $45 gets you on course? Greens fees include an electric cart, and a free bucket of range balls sweetens the deal. The homey, friendly atmosphere at Bahia more than compensates for the no-frills amenities. The small, well-stocked golf shop is staffed with smiling faces. And the laid-back 19th hole, next to the tenth tee, features a particularly hearty and savory hamburger with chips and all the trimmings for about $6.

The numerous scenic highlights at Bahia include El Yunque, Puerto Rico's stupendous rain forest-especially riveting from the fifth tee. But the ultimate visual treat comes at the end of your round. Holes 16, 17, and 18 skirt an empty, halcyon, crescent-shaped beach straight out of South Pacific.

Berwind Country Club

One mile up the road from Bahia is the utterly bucolic Berwind Country Club (787/876-5380), where the membership is composed of Puerto Rican gentry. But never mind. The public is welcome on Tuesdays, Wednesdays (before 11 a.m.), Thursdays, and Fridays. A mere $65 (cart included) paves the way to memorable golf on a course that has more flamboyant trees than any other links on the island. In summer, the whole layout virtually turns orange. Opened in its present location in 1967 (the original club was in R­o Piedras and opened in 1930), this par-72 track is typical of the tame era before land sculpting and target golf. Flat and long (7,011 yards), it has two menacing traits: stiff winds that wreak havoc on straight drives, and minuscule tightly guarded greens. Following your game, you can kick back in the screened-in 19th hole, order from a menu that features everything from rice and beans ($2) to sirloin steak ($11), and observe the travails of other golfers as they complete their rounds.

Dorado del Mar Golf Club

To sample one of the island's newer links, visit the four-year-old, Chi Chi Rodriguez-designed Dorado del Mar Golf Club (787/796-3070), where reasonable greens fees are par for the course. From San Juan, take Ruta 22, exit at 693, turn left onto 6693, follow to the end, and turn left on Dorado del Mar. The club's entrance is on the left. While the morning fee is $90, there are several enticing options. After noon on weekdays, $75 will put you on the first tee. The same rate applies after 1 p.m. on weekends. But the real steal is the after-4 p.m. special: Play all the holes you desire for a scant $40. On Tuesdays and Thursdays women can tee off whenever they please for $40. This long (6,940 yards) par-72 layout, near the town of Dorado, is a quarrelsome test. You'll grapple with erratic wind shifts, four-inch-high rough, countless bunkers scattered across tight, rolling fairways, and tricky greens as slick as greased linoleum. But the tenth green offers a beauty bonanza that makes the trek worthwhile. From there you can gaze out over the entire sun-drenched golf course, and immediately behind the putting surface is a jagged plummet into the roiling Atlantic, which in this particular spot changes colors with kaleidoscopic intensity-from aqua to green to navy.

Cool down afterward with a cerveza and sandwich (it will set you back about $8) in the new restaurant, which serves up basic, tasty fare and a jovial ambience. Come evening, you can indulge in San Juan's dazzling nightlife, just steps from your spotless, comfortable room at Casa Caribe (57 Calle Caribe, Condado; 787/722-7139). A delightful little inn with garden setting and proximity to the beach, it has exceptional rates: $55 and up for a double during the low season (June 1 to December 14) and $75 and up the rest of the year, continental breakfast included.

Punta Borinquen Golf Club

For the final leg of your island golf adventure, head for Punta Borinquen Golf Club (787/890-2987), located on the relatively arid west coast, two hours from San Juan. Take the new expressway (autopista) and connect with Ruta 2, which leads to the town of Aguadilla, then take Ruta 110, which ends at the links. Golf doesn't get any more cheapo in Puerto Rico. At Punta Borinquen, the weekday greens fee is a to-sneeze-at $18, and walking is an option, which saves you the cost of a cart ($26). On weekends, the fee inches up to $20, and a cart is mandatory. After 4 p.m. daily, the rate plunges to a staggeringly frugal $9; carts are half-price as well. But Punta Borinquen isn't only about thrift. This par-72, 6,869-yard layout is arguably the most breathtakingly scenic and historically significant golf course in Puerto Rico. Built in the late 1940s as an adjunct to the erstwhile Ramey Air Force Base, Punta Borinquen provided frequent respite for then-General Eisenhower, who always managed to get in at least 18 holes when he flew down to review the troops. The Air Force base has since been supplanted by a Coast Guard station; planes routinely swoop in over the second hole, causing many a missed three-footer.

Punta Borinquen's turf is barely kept green by an outmoded irrigation system, but the golf course's format is as sassy as when Ike teed it up, and the vistas are unequaled in Puerto Rico. Roosting atop a massive plateau, this sleepy links has a string of eight holes that virtually teeter over the ocean.

In the breezy, strictly utilitarian clubhouse, you can tally your score while munching a media noche ($3.75), a delectable sandwich that combines pork, ham, and turkey in a sweet roll. The club's longtime cook assembles a variety of native dishes at mouthwateringly low prices. If it's late afternoon, you'll see laborers stream in from the nearby sugarcane fields for their daily round. Their ratty bags and ancient clubs notwithstanding, these hombres know how to play.

At the end of the day, hang your visor at El Faro, a handsome, oceanside parador (Road 107; 787/882-8000) three minutes from the course (rates start at $75). From your spacious room you can gaze out over glistening waters and reflect on your golf journey in the real Puerto Rico.

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