Casa de Campo – A Caribbean Paradise

By Ron Driscoll

LA ROMANA, Dominican Republic – The story of Casa de Campo, the stunning resort on the southeast coast of the island of Hispaniola, is as much about resilience as it is about the Caribbean setting and the heroic golf landscape.

Before the Latin America Amateur Championship arrived this week – indeed, before Frank Sinatra, Oscar de la Renta, the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue and Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf heralded its virtues – the region was home to the largest sugar mill in the world, and not much else.

Gulf+Western, an American conglomerate of companies that included Paramount Pictures, owned the sugar mill. Alvaro Carta was brought in to manage the mill, but he also saw the potential for tourism in the spectacular region.

Carta commissioned course designer Pete Dye, and with hand labor provided by some 300 local workers, Dye produced a golf course with seven dramatic holes along the Caribbean Sea that he considers the best of the nearly 200 courses that bear his stamp. It was christened “Teeth of the Dog” after Dominican workers were overheard referring to the sharp coral rock as “diente de perro.”

“They brought in oxen, dirt – everything was done by hand with rakes and shovels, no bulldozers or earth movers,” said Gilles Gagnon, longtime director of golf at Casa de Campo. For several years, the course and adjoining villas served as a retreat for Gulf+Western executives, but it soon evolved into Casa de Campo (“Country house” in Spanish), a resort that featured 36 holes of golf (with the addition of Dye’s Links Course in 1979), as well as tennis and polo facilities, fairway villas and an adjoining airstrip.

“The course has changed a lot through the years,” said Gagnon, who arrived in 1980, shortly after the resort had added its second course, The Links. “Hurricane David wiped out a lot of it in 1979. Then in 1998, Hurricane George really did a job on us. It destroyed homes and villas and ripped trees apart. I thought we were finished.”

Within three months of George’s devastation, the resort had reopened some of its rooms, and it was on the way to becoming the sprawling, 7,000-acre property of today, with 90 holes of golf – all designed by Pete and Alice Dye – as well as Altos de Chavon, a cultural landmark designed by Dominican architect Jose Antonio Caro and Italian master designer and cinematographer Roberto Coppa and handcrafted by local artisans.

It has also become a lot easier to get there, with a direct highway connection to Punta Cana International Airport.

“When I started, you had to fly into Santo Domingo, followed by a death-defying, two-hour drive to get here,” recalled Gagnon. “It was a narrow, two-lane road that had several one-way bridges, and during harvest season, the sugar trains were constantly crossing the road.”

In 1974, Casa de Campo landed its first major golf event, taking on the World Amateur Team Championships when travel to the original country chosen to host, Malaysia, became problematic. The USA handily won both competitions, with the men’s team of Curtis Strange, Jerry Pate, Gary Koch and George Burns gradually increasing its lead each day to defeat Japan by 10 strokes and Brazil by 13 in a field of 35 countries. The team was captained by Hord Hardin, who had been president of the USGA two years earlier and who would go on to the chairmanship of the Masters Tournament for 11 years.

On the women’s side, Cynthia Hill of the USA was the only player to break 80 all four rounds in leading her side, which included Debbie Massey and Carol Semple, to a 16-stroke victory over Great Britain & Ireland and South Africa. The GB&I side included Mary McKenna and Tegwen Perkins (later Matthews), both of whom would go to play for and captain the GB&I Curtis Cup Team multiple times.

Casa de Campo’s allure was enhanced in the early 1980s with the introduction of Altos de Chavon, a replica 16th-century Mediterranean village with a 5,000-seat amphitheater, an archeological museum, church, shops and restaurants, with dramatic views of the Chavon River and the Caribbean. The amphitheater was christened in 1982 with the “Concert for the Americas,” a made-for-TV event that featured Sinatra and Buddy Rich along with rockers Heart and Santana. The world-class Altos de Chavon School of Design, which is affiliated with the Parsons School of Design in New York, debuted here in 1983.

When Gulf+Western chairman Charles Bluhdorn, a major booster of Casa de Campo, died suddenly in 1983, the company sold the resort to its current owners, the Fanjul family. The resort gained a Latin flair with a more international clientele, not to mention spaces designed by native de la Renta. It received a major boost when Teeth of the Dog earned “bucket list” status in several golf publications, and the course has been featured in a 1994 Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf match between Raymond Floyd and Fred Couples, as well as a season of Golf Channel’s Big Break series in 2010 and the 2014 and 2015 DR Open, a PGA Tour Latinoamerica event.

Casa de Campo not only survived Hurricane George in 1998 – along with several dips in the economy – it has thrived in the ensuing years. Cruise ships have made it a port of call, its marina bustles with shops and restaurants, and Dye has added his signature touch with the Dye Fore course, recently expanded from 18 to 27 holes.

The arrival of the Latin America Amateur, a regional championship for South and Central America as well as the Caribbean, is a perfect fit for this resort that so proudly displays its Latin heritage.