Island Golf: The Dominican Republic

I'm in the back seat of a '92 Chevy rolling westward through a muggy tropical downpour early one evening on the crumbling coast highway between La Romana and Santa Domingo.

My mission? ¡Merengue!

You can't go twenty feet in any direction in this country without hearing music. Even at Casa de Campo, the legendary banana-republic playground I'm staying at, the frantic, chirping Ciguas sparrows compete for air time with the chambermaids, bellmen, caddies, executives, and golf pros -- everybody seems to be whistling or singing the latest plaintive little bachata, or speedy little salsa, or turning a quick little two-step. Hell, if you look carefully at a map of the DR you'll see it pulsating.

And even if the security at Casa de Campo makes it look that way sometimes, the Dominican's not a scary place. The nasty old dictatorial days of the DR are long gone, for one thing, the enemy having been eliminated ("We have no Communists in Dominican Republic. They were all killed," as one woman says.) There's still an intriguing whiff of the shady -- whether it's cops pulling over foreign drivers by the side of the road to collect cheap bribes (one guy reported paying 300 pesos, a little less than 2 bucks, to get out of a "speeding ticket") or the grey market in stuff that's illegal in the US (except drugs, which will get you in big trouble) -- one nurse from Arizona staying at the resort wouldn't say just what special surgery she'd traveled down there to assist.


But the roads suck, and between the pouring rain and the rutted highway it's starting to look like we won't get to Santo Domingo before midnight, jeopardizing my plans to implement what I learned in six hourlong dance classes at the 14th Street YMHA, perhaps with some loose-moraled Italian or Peruvian heiress. One mile-long detour we take through San Pedro de Macoris involves half an hour of jockeying over a spent minefield of a road along with a fleet of massive, rusting trucks, darting Kias and Toyotas, and dozens of little 175-cc motorcycles, some carrying three or four passengers under plastic bags. At night the only light comes from the neon of the all-inclusive resorts or the dingy, unwalled roadside pool halls, and with the rain you can't travel faster than around 40 MPH without risking an axle-breaking pothole. You can forget about traffic laws -- everyone else here has: red lights are taken as a violation of personal rights, using seatbelts is a sign of weakness, and the passing lane is whichever side the guy ahead of you is dumb enough to leave you room on.

So, I decide to drop anchor in Boca Chica, an hour short of Santo Domingo, mostly out of sympathy for Oscar, my driver, and soon we're picking our way down a soggy, dilapidated sidewalk in the direction of blaring Carib tunes, which turn out to be recordings pumping out of empty bars. I'm beginning to feel almost as desperate as the streetwalker who's started following us, whose only secret is whether she's an alarmingly aged 29-year-old, or an inspiringly well-preserved senior citizen.

After drying off and having a quick, flat cerveza in a nearby hotel -- a kind of fire trap with an attached casino filled with British and Dutch tourists -- I flee to the parking lot to rouse Oscar in the car.

He grins at me. "Señor, there is dancing over there," he says, pointing across the street, where a big auditorium has been set up as a dance hall... and where inside, I'm going gaga checking out the talent: youthful, dark, full-lipped, beautiful senoritas spinning, giggling, sashaying to the beat of a little Dominican stage band, nothing more than a couple of percussionists, a pretty decent sax player, and a guy on mini-vibes banging out irresistable tattoos.

My mouth drops open when one Kahlua and cream-colored gamine approaches me.

"Señor, would you like to dance?"

Well, corn my beef, if it ain't Sadie Hawkins Day in the Dominican! I lead her for about two seconds before she takes over, which is okay since my knees have turned to glue with reverence for this luscious Latina.

"What's your name?," she says.

"Ray. Uh, Rafael." It's even getting hard to speak English, watching her spin her slim brown curved little tubetopped body. "And what's yours?"

"Lahaia!," she says before somehow inducing me to lead her into a little step-in twirl. Soon she explains that one of the hotels has set up this place as a sort of complementary taxi dance service for tourists, stocked with local high-school kids like herself. An hour later, I stagger out, spent, awestruck, and ready to change citizenships.

Next morning I'm ready to get bit again by Pete Dye's Teeth of the Dog, which is definitely in my top five of golf course names. (Divers christened it after getting cut by the sharp coral offshore.) On the other hand, if there's such a thing as the 20th best golf course in the world, which is where one magazine has it, I wouldn't say this is it -- fair enough, since Teeth probably wouldn't call me the 20th best writer. But it's definitely a great course, especially since Casa de Campo's done a swell job of avoiding "resort rot" -- what happens when visiting golfers who can't break 100 at home start to whine 'cause they can't break 110 on vacation, and so extort liberalized mowing, slowed greens, and shortened tees from the owners. (Credit the presence of the Dog's own dentist, architect Pete Dye, who's got a villa beside the 6th hole.) When the damp, swirling wind is down, it's not an especially hard course to drive, so long as you avoid the temptation to cut off the exceptionally well-marked doglegs on the four seaside par-4s. Even in still conditions your approach game has to be crisp and distance-perfect if you want to avoid the hellish greenside bunkers. The moist air sometimes adds a half a club or more to approach shots: from the blues you'll have just the kind of long-iron shots you want from a tough course.

Greens are mostly small, crowned, and sometimes fronted with malicious beaker-lipped indentations that will pour a short approach into a sand or grass bunker. Surfaces tilt subtly so that the Bermuda grain moves putts more than the fast, delicate slopes -- best to take along one of Casa de Campo's friendly, courteous caddies, but if you can't speak Spanish make sure you get one that speaks English. What the hell -- may as well make a friend -- I nearly got onto an all-night deep-sea fishing trip with mine (rain canceled it).

While the other course at Casa de Campo, called the Links, is a pleasant little pick-me-up of a resort course -- more "hair of the dog," you might say -- a third Dye course, under construction on the banks of the river, looks much more promising.

This sprawling 7,000-acre resort lacks for nothing, so should if something unforseen happen to your golf jones -- or hers -- there's windsurfing, skeet-shooting lessons (despite the best efforts of my patient instructor, Eugenio, I was only 5-for-50 -- including one that broke falling on a fencepost), tennis (Casa de Campo now hosts a mini-tour event), and horseback riding and polo at the Equestrian Center. And when you get hungry, you can take the resort bus up to the weird Altos de Chavon, a sort of gothic pre-Columbian food court-and-mall operated atop the mountains overlooking the nearby Chavon Review, which has two first-rate resort restaurants. Or, if you've brought your squeeze, stay on the property to eat at the Tropicana, a pretty good steakhouse and one of the few I could describe as romantic.

Be prepared: when you come here, keep in mind that everyone will prefer dollars to pesos, so if you can't use your credit card, only change dollars when you're sure you're going to need pesos, like if you're going to a ballgame. Also, Dominicans assume every American they see is filthy rich (not hard to understand since it's one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere) so be ready for the occasional gouge -- such as at the airport, where they get you coming ($15 "tourist card") and going ($10 "airport surcharge").

Most of all, be ready to get very fond of the place and the people. And dance like a fool.

You'd have to be a dope to come here in winter and not get a first-hand idea how this little country has sent two hundred ballplayers to the big leagues.  'Specially since in Santo Domingo, beisbol = party.  "Mothers bring their children, everybody goes with their friends to have a good time," says veteran Dominican pitcher Francisco "Frankie" Saneaux, who played briefly for the Orioles and is now a minor-league coach for the Texas Rangers.  Ticket prices top out at $10 for a box, rum-and-coke (si!) not included.  Rivalries are fierce, especially between the clubs that don't have big leaguers (La Romana and San Francisco) and the dominant ones that do (San Pedro, Santo Domingo).  "But, like -- the La Romana fans, they don't care, they just love to come to the ballpark."

"After games, the party just continues, and the ballplayers usually hang out with the crowd, maybe go to a nightclub and party more."