I’m not a touring golf pro, but I got to live like one for a few days recently at the Casa de Campo resort in the Dominican Republic.
Not only did I play golf on some of Latin America’s most outstanding and scenic courses, but I also visited the resort’s new Golf Learning Center, which opened last spring. It’s a teaching and practice facility that gives golfers of any level access to the latest in technology, equipment and instruction.
For golf geeks, or even those just motivated to shave a few strokes off their score, this is nirvana, a place to unabashedly practise your passion just like a tour pro while basking in the luxury of a high-end resort and perfect Caribbean weather.
Casa de Campo has provided incredible golf since the early 1970s, when famed U.S. architect Pete Dye and his crew took machetes to a jungle and sugar mill property on the Dominican Republic’s southeast coast to carve out the Teeth of the Dog course. Golf Digest ranks the course among the 30 best in the world outside the United States, but its design merits are all secondary to the emotions you feel as you wend your way around its holes, seven of which are on the Caribbean Sea, in some cases so close to the pounding surf that you get sprayed as you’re putting.
The sprawling, 2,800-hectare golf resort – actually more of a gated community, with hundreds of homes in addition to guest lodging in casitas – subsequently added three other courses, one of which is private, and now has 90 holes in total. The most recent, called Dye Fore, again created by Dye, has equally stunning water views, but of the Chavon River, not the sea. One stretch of Dye Fore plays alongside a cliff that’s 300 metres above the snaking river below.
The quality and beauty of Teeth and Dye Fore alone make Casa de Campo worth visiting – and worth the hefty green fees that approach US$200 for registered resort guests in high season (or US$250 and up for other visitors). But it’s the learning centre that can turn a standard golf getaway (albeit a luxe one) into a more-involved golf experience for the worldly trekker.
The centre, part of a nine-hectare driving range and practice area that’s also used by elite Caribbean region amateurs as a training ground, has two indoor studios that are rigged up with the latest technology to analyze a golfer’s swing.
One of the gizmos is TrackMan, a monitoring device that calculates essential aspects of the swing, including clubhead speed, the ball’s launch angle and spin rate, and the angle of the club’s face at impact with the ball. The data that flashes up on a screen after each shot might be all gobbledygook for the average golfer, but it’s scientific evidence for the instructors on hand who can not only interpret the numbers but also suggest ways to alter a player’s technique to improve them and, thus, their results.
Other technology includes cameras to videotape your swing and BodiTrak, a floor mat with sensors that shows how your weight shifts or “distributes” during a shot.
Gilles Gagnon, the resort’s Montreal-born director of golf emeritus, who’s been at Casa de Campo for 39 years, says the learning centre is so new that it’s still gaining traction among guests. But even those golfers who visit the resort solely to try their hand at Teeth, Dye Fore and the third public course, The Links, can’t help but notice the practice opportunity.
“You might not even plan to take a lesson," Gagnon says. "But let’s say you get there, you’re there three or four days, and the first day you play like a dog or something. You’re not happy. You go out the next morning and can’t figure out why you’re driving it poorly.
"Now, you can actually go and say, ‘Hey, I’d like to spend half an hour with an instructor in the learning centre, go on TrackMan. You’re not necessarily going to get fixed right away but you’ll understand what you’re doing.”
Users of the learning centre can also sample or buy equipment from Titleist, get their clubs repaired, play a round on a golf simulator or take a lesson from one of the centre’s teaching professionals. I’m still grateful for the tip that pro Manuel Relancio gave me before I headed out to play Teeth of the Dog – hitting my drives straighter came in handy on the challenging course in which it’s not inconceivable to slice (or hook) a ball into the sea.
“The technology is state of the art, the Titleist clubs are the latest stuff,” says Robert Birtel, Casa de Campo’s director of golf. “They’re hitting Pro V1 golf balls. It’s a really high end experience, and there’s even that waiting room back there. The Golf Channel is on and you can grab a water and relax.”
While the learning centre is indeed impressive, it’s not unique. In fact, it’s part of a larger trend among golf resorts and courses to add academies and tech-laden practice dens to supplement their on-course offerings. In other golf travels, I’ve visited the Reynolds Lake Oconee resort in Georgia and its superb facility, dubbed the Kingdom of Golf.
Some of my golf buddies also extol similar setups at Pinehurst Resort in North Carolina and Sea Island Resort in Georgia. For golfers who seek a celebrity or brand-name component to their experience, instructor-to-the-stars David Leadbetter is based at ChampionsGate in Orlando and Rick Smith operates out of Trump National Doral in Miami.
“It’s definitely something that we’re seeing with increasing frequency,” says Richard Singer, senior director of consulting services at the National Golf Foundation, a Jupiter, Fla.-based consultancy to the industry.
“It’s a trend, but one that also comes in a lot of different shapes and sizes, from a training complex to simulators or indoor facilities for off-season use. Ultimately, it’s about finding ways to stimulate activity and attract new customers to the property. We are getting a lot of interest from our clients seeking to expand amenities in this area.”
The upshot of all this is that the well-travelled and well-heeled golfer has a world of options in packaging high-level golf training with playing on bucket-list courses.
While places like Casa de Campo generally invite one- or two-hour drop-ins to their practice facilities before (or after) a round, there are yet other game-improvement options that involve deeper immersion.
Canadian pro and coach Martin Chuck, for example, operates an academy based at the Raven Golf Club in Phoenix and offers three-day golf camps. He says the advantage of 9-to-5 dedication is quicker progress along the learning curve. Techniques that are taught can be reinforced with repetition, then tested during a lesson on the course alongside academy instructors.
Chuck has operated his Tour Striker Golf School, named after a training club he invented, for eight years and says 90 per cent of his clients are snowbirds and vacationers, including Canadians, who go to Arizona to beat the cold at home and pursue their pleasures, including golf. Cost of the camp is US$1,995.
“In the immersive environment, I get to work on the [golf swing] changes with you all day,” says Chuck, who learned the game in Toronto at the feet of Canadian legends George Knudson and Moe Norman. “Then you get to sleep on it two times. So there’s a pretty good chance, if you have a little bit of self-awareness, that you’re going to walk away with a new habit that you like.”
The writer was a guest of Casa de Campo. It did not review or approve this story.