Review: Royal Isabela Golf Course

Links Golf + Puerto Rico = Golf Heaven
Golf began on the windswept coastline of the British Isles.  Nature designed those rugged treeless courses.  Since the origins of golf, the game has changed dramatically.  The variety of courses and equipment continue to evolve year after year.  Lush tree lined fairways, power carts and titanium drivers are common place in today’s game.  Yet there is still a place in many golfers’ hearts for true “links” golf courses.  Royal Isabela is a true “links” golf course designed by nature on the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico, it is golf Heaven. 

The location is what really makes this course perfect.  While you might expect a golf course on a Caribbean island to be flat and tropical looking, Royal Isabel is set on the cliffs overlooking the Ocean some 100’ to 300′ above the water.  It is built on rugged terrain with significant elevation changes.  It plays firm and fast and while there are some trees, it plays mostly treeless. It has a constant ocean breeze, which is also a staple of true “links” golf.  The only aspect that would be typical of a true “links” course is walking only, but Royal Isabela is not really designed to be a walking course.  I think you could walk it, but with the constant warm weather in Puerto Rico, it could get really tough.  The junior tournament that started earlier in the day while I was there walked the whole course, so it can be done, but it definitely slows things down.  Most golfers are going to appreciate the solar powered carts.  While many other true links courses are built in places that don’t get so hot, it can get steamy at Royal Isabela.  It was 90* the day I played.  They will allow you to walk, but most golfers will opt for the carts. 

We did have a caddie that took his own cart and helped us along the way with finding stray balls and reading the greens.  I am “fluent” in Spanish so I had no problems working with him, but the other 2 golfers in our group knew no Spanish, He did a pretty good job working with them, but I needed to translate a few times.  If make reservations and you only speak English, you might want to confirm with the staff that your caddie knows English well.  While caddies may not be required, everyone I saw was using one.  I think it is a good idea especially the first couple times out to use one.

After a short tour of the grounds, we headed out to play.  The front 9 is inland, and the back 9 is oceanside.  The course starts off with a bang.  A rugged par 5 that plays down into a valley and then back up to a green.  You start to get a sense of how this “links” course is going to play.   Watching your drive just bounce and bounce along the fairway is typical of the course.   On the second shot there are numerous options on how to get the ball close.  You can reach in two, but the narrow landing area along with some unpredictable bounces might make you think twice.   The options are endless.  Our threesome used three different shots to get the job done.  We had a line drive scull that sliced up the side and bounded into the middle, we had a big sweeping draw that shot off a side hill right at the green and we had a pure strike right up the middle.  They all ended up in pretty close to the same area.  Navigating the greens is key to scoring well.  There plenty of humps and bumps and subtleties that need to be accounted for.  You start getting the hang of it by hole 3 and then you have to figure out how to navigate this narrow, short, with a huge drop off par 4.  Driver will most likely get you in trouble because of the way the hill slopes toward a ravine.  It is all about club selection for the first 2 shots on this hole.  Holes 5 and 6 are some of the most interesting holes on the front side.  Hole 5 is a solid par 4 that plays downhill.  It looks out to a narrow opening in the hills to the ocean.  It is a spectacular view.  The 6th hole is designed to play either as a par 4 or a par 5.  The designer couldn’t make up his mind so he made both.  It just depends on the score card they give you at the clubhouse as to which one you will play.  They use the same tee-box for either one, but the par 4 goes straight up the hill toward the club house, while the par 5 goes to the left and sweep around the hill toward the back of the club house.  The final hole that is really interesting on the front 9 that I’m still not sure how I feel about it is the 9th.  It is an island green par 3.  It doesn’t necessarily look out of place, but it didn’t have the same links feel as the rest of the course.  The only shot is a high soft landing shot to keep it one the green, which is no easy task.

The back 9 is really where the fun begins.  The holes either look out over the ocean or hang on the cliffs right next to the ocean.  Hole 12 is the first of such amazing holes.  The tee box is right out on the edge, and the fairway comes in front the left requiring a tee shot over a gorge.  It isn’t overly difficult, just intimidating.  The rest of the hole hugs the cliff all the way to the green which is set out near the edge.  It is a spectacular hole.  The 14th hole is not on the cliffs, but it is a long par 5 that plays toward the ocean.  It is called Palmas.  It feels like you have to kick a field goal between the palm trees to hit the fairway. The trees are tall and not overly leafy so you can leak one right or left and still have a shot.  From there you will need to cross some waste area to have good layup shot and then the back of the green is set right on the cliff’s edge.  The view from this green is distracting as you can see the beauty of the coastline and ocean to the west.  The 15th hole plays along the cliffs again, maybe not as dramatic along the way, but the green is actually a double green with 12. (There is also this amazing par 3 right on the ocean cliff, but it is a practice hole for the owner, but you will see it off the 16th tee box.) The 17th hole is the crown jewel of the course.  It is a dramatic par 3 that is all carry over an ocean gorge.  The view is spectacular.  You can see the ocean to your left, more resort property low and right on the water (that will eventually become more holes) and the green.  It plays long from the back tees, around 190yards, but it did hold well struck tee-shots.  The 18th is a big sweeping dogleg left that brings you right back to the clubhouse.  There are remains of some old buildings along the way that add some character to this solid finishing hole.

Beyond the golf course itself, the other amenities are perfect.  The bar area is a giant half circle overlooking the back 9.  The restaurant “La Casa” also over looks part of the back 9.  The food is an amazing mix of Puerto Rican cuisine and American ecclectic.  We had the fire roasted pizza and it was amazing.  This building is designed after an old sugar mill like the one still left in Guayama, Puerto Rico

If you are going to Royal Isabela you need to stay in the newly (soon to be) opened Casitas.  They are luxurious and well appointed.  The views from some of them are breathtaking as you can look out over the ocean.  Each has a plunge pool, a living room and bedroom.  The best part of the Casitas might be the shower.  It is a giant double shower that you can open up to look out at the ocean as you are showering.

While I have been to the likes of Bandon and Sand Hills links courses, I think I would choose to go to Royal Isabela again first because the golf is spectacular and the setting is even better on the Island of Puerto Rico.  It is a golfer’s heaven.  I can’t wait for the other holes to open up along the beach in the lower section of land the resort owns.  If this is a 36 hole resort it would be about as spectacular as they come. It is already a golfer’s Heaven.

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Quick Hits
+Great “links” golf
+Perfect course conditions
+Excellent variety of holes
+Caribbean island cliff side setting
+Amazing amenities

–Private, but some public play is allowed at a price