“Puerto Rico does golf better!”

And Chi Chi Rodriguez, who played golf better than anyone else in his 38 professional victories, knows both his golf and his Puerto Rico. During the recent Golf Channel broadcast of the PGA Tour’s Puerto Rico Open, now in its fifth year, Chi Chi was the spokesman for the Commonwealth’s premier sporting event, where the pros and the tourists enjoyed the amenities, casinos, and hospitality that have made the island a world-class travel/golf destination.

Chi Chi’s World
No better ambassador exists for Puerto Rico than Chi Chi, its cultural icon and a 1992 inductee of the World Golf Hall of Fame. Chi Chi played a ceremonial five holes, 14-18, before Sunday’s final round to signify his official retirement from competition, and he hit the ball straight but not far—”The older [at 76] I get the longer my drives used to be.” The reception he received at the 18th green was a hero’s welcome. After sinking his four footer for par, Chi Chi sent the huge crowd into wild applause by brandishing his putter in his famous matador’s impression of the “coup de grace.” Ole!

Available all week long to the players, the fans, the media, and especially to his cadre of junior golfers, Chi Chi promoted why Puerto Rico should be on every tourist’s itinerary. At one of his press conferences, he said, “The Open shows the world the beautiful place where I was born, my pride, my Puerto Rico. We have more than 20 golf courses—two that I have designed—set amid luxurious hotels and settings. We have breathtaking views of ocean and mountains; we have the El Yunque National Rain Forest, endless beaches, and all water sports; and we have the history in Old San Juan. We have a rich heritage, the most friendly people, and the most delicious cuisine anywhere. Welcome to my world.”

In Chi Chi’s world, George McNeill posted a 272 (-16) to win his second championship on Tour and received $630,000 from the $3,500,000 purse. Ryo Ishikawa was second at -14, one shot ahead of Boo Weekley and Henrik Stenson. The Open, which was recognized as the 2011 PGA Tour’s “Most Fan Friendly Event,” showcases the ideals of the sponsors, seepuertorico.com and the Puerto Rico Tourism Company: “We Do Tourism Better.”

Trump International and Gran Melia
Trump-14The players and many guests would agree with that slogan as they enjoyed their week’s stay in Rio Grande, a town on the coast about a half hour west of San Juan. The site was Trump International Golf Club, 36 holes designed by Tom Kite. The Championship Course at 7,500 yards was well received by the pros. “Yes, I enjoy the layout very much,” said McNeill. “It’s a challenge, especially when the wind blows. You have to have all the shots, and you have to putt well.” The International, the other 18, is also a test and is regarded as a “Best Resort Golf Course” by Golfweek magazine.

Most of the players stayed at the adjoining five-star Gran Melia Golf Resort, a 486-suite hotel that was recently remodeled and has five theme restaurants, huge outdoor pool, two open-air bars, a full-service spa, a casino, and excellent service. A very large and loquacious parrot, Macarena, greets all new guests in the lobby with an array of whistles and chatter. Pro Briny Baird said, “The Gran Melia is one of the best hotels that the Tour visits. I always look forward to my stay here.” (www.gran-melia-puerto-rico.com)

Although the Puerto Rico Open is the one week in March when the pros have their chance to savor the island, the rest of us can appreciate la isla del encanto—the island of enchantment, as Columbus and today’s locals call it—at any time all year round. Several resorts in particular offer unforgettable and luxurious vacation and golf experiences that must be considered when the next golf sojourn is discussed.

Bahia BeachPampered On and Off the Course
The newly opened St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort & Golf Club, with its 18 holes by Robert Trent Jones, Jr., is close to Trump International and is set along two miles of private beach and among 483 acres of a former coconut plantation. Of note, it has become the Caribbean’s first certified Golf Audubon Signature Sanctuary, offers the St. Regis Butler Service (guaranteed to “pamper” each guest), includes the Remède Spa and fitness center, and features chef’s Jean-Georges Vongerichten creations in its Fern restaurant, named after the resort’s logo, the fern leaf, and symbolic of its commitment to the environment. Jones’s design, his first in Puerto Rico on his own, plays to 7014 yards and wends around the lush native foliage and network of interconnected lakes. The last three holes parallel the Atlantic and complete a real treat.(www.bahiabeachpuertorico.com)

Iguanas, Tropical Delights, and 36 Holes
Rio Mar HotelA well-established golf venue and second-home community, the Rio Mar Beach Resort & Spa, a Wyndham Grand Resort, lies on the shore of the Atlantic and is only ten minutes west of Gran Melia. The island’s ubiquitous iguana is the logo and a frequent visitor on the 36 holes of golf. Therefore, Iguana’s Pub—one of 11 restaurants, lounges, and entertainment sites—with its views of the golf and the rain forest and its menu of excellent local cuisine is the ideal meeting place to discuss the day’s activities. And the activities, besides the golf, are numerous: rejuvenation at the Mandara Spa; relaxation either at the pools/Jacuzzis or in a cabana or bohio on the private beach; competition on the 13 tennis courts; exercise on the five jogging trails or at the fitness center. The 600 guestrooms with balconies overlook the ocean or the El Yunque.

The Tom and George Fazio Ocean Course is the #1 rated course in Puerto Rico by Golf Digest and plays to 6716 yards. The layout is superb and fair and rewards good shots. Just as demanding and as picturesque is the River Course, at 6902 yards, that Greg Norman designed along the foothills of the El Yunque. (www.wyndhamriomar.com)

Living and Playing on the Edge
El Con Cliff

Waldorf-Astoria’s El Conquistador Resort, 31 miles west of San Juan, is divided into five separate villages and has both a land’s end setting and a golf course like few others. The Grand Hotel, with its two villages, is perched 300 feet above the ocean and provides spectacular views of the Atlantic. Close by, Las Casitas Village has earned four-diamond status for its luxury and service; Las Olas Village is constructed into the side of the cliff and is wrapped around its own swimming pool; La Marina Village has both its own private marina and its new and expansive state-of-the-art Coqui Water Park, featuring pools and thrills for every member of the family. The resort also boasts Palomino Island, a 100-acre private oasis that offers beaches, horseback riding, water sports, windsurfing, sailing, and dining.

Arthur Hills Golf Course, a par 72 that plays to 6746 yards, is distinctive in Puerto Rico because of its striking topographical variations and dramatic vistas. Elevation changes of more than 200 vertical feet—rare among the more typical Caribbean courses—are frequent and present challenges in choosing the right club, but these changes allow for panoramic views of the El Yunque, the surrounding terrain, and the Atlantic. El Con is a great test and great fun. (http://www.elconresort.com)

Gem of the Caribbean Sparkles Anew
Dorado BeachOn the east side of San Juan about 30 minutes away, the first of the Caribbean’s great destination jewels—Dorado Beach Resort—is ready to racaeclaim its position at the top of the tiara. Laurance Rockefeller, grandson of John D., introduced the world to the concept of the “luxury island resort” in 1958 with his hotel, 1400 acres, and the incomparable Robert Trent Jones, Sr. Dorado Beach East Course that hosted numerous professional and amateur events from its inception through 2000. Three more courses by Jones, Sr. were added as the resort gained in popularity, and the lodging, dining, and amenities became the talk of the island and many points north. When the time came to renovate the property in the last two years, Dorado Beach took no half measures.

Just this year, the East Course opened after an 18-month makeover by Sr.’s son, Jr. Junior added length and many physical improvements, making it one of the best challenges in the western hemisphere. Said Junior, “It was truly an honor to restore one of my father’s original masterpieces. The restoration of the East Course has enhanced the natural beauty, playing conditions, and flexibility that my father had originally envisioned over 50 years ago.” The East Course, the first phase of a complete transformation of the campus, is once again ready to host world-class golf events. Its sister course, the West, is closed and is currently being refurbished, while the two other courses, Sugarcane and Pineapple, are open for business. The construction of a Ritz-Carlton Reserve hotel, the Ritz-Carlton Residences, and the golf townhomes should all open by late 2012 to complement the lavish housing and dining already in place. (www.doradobeachclubs.com)

Incomparable Layout and Majestic Vision
Royal IsabelaRemember this name, the Golf Links at Royal Isabela, because it is as stunning a layout as Pebble Beach, Bandon Dunes, The European Club, and Royal County Down to name a few of the world’s unparalleled cliff-hugging links delights. Designed by the well-known tennis brothers Charlie and Stanley Pasarell—also the owners—with David W. Pfaff (an associate of Pete Dye), the course curls along the 200-foot high cliffs on the northwest edge of Puerto Rico, about 90 minutes from San Juan but only 20 minutes from Aguadilla Airport. Natural elevation changes, imposing tropical flora, native sand dunes, and numerous vertical sod-face bunkers only add to the links feel. The six sets of tees can play to 7,667 yards as a par 73 or to 7538 as a par 72, depending upon whether the 6th hole is played as a par 5 or 4. Take a look at the aerial photo by well-known photographer Joann Dost—worth much more than any of my 1000 words—to appreciate the grandeur of the ocean, cliffs, and course.

Charlie and Stanley Pasarell are dedicated to creating a model community in their 426 oceanfront acres that will showcase Puerto Rico on a global stage, and they are also committed to employing environmentally sensitive practices for the protection of the indigenous plants and animals. Homesites and resort casitas are available, and membership is by invitation only. (www.royalisabela.com)

Puerto Rico is a Caribbean island with all the comforts and security of a US territory, and, as such, US citizens don’t need passports to enter. However, Puerto Rico displays resorts and golf courses and beaches and dining and luxury that are not always possible to find on the mainland. Think about a golf trip to the island, and think about seeing the 2013 Puerto Rico Open. Then, you, too, might agree with Chi Chi that “Puerto Rico does golf better.”