Golf Course Review - Golf Links at Royal Isabela

FACTS AND STATS: Course Architect(s): David W. Pfaff (2011), Stanley and Charles Pasarell. Year Opened: Spring 2011. Location: Isabela, Puerto Rico. Slope: 155. Rating: 80.3 (From Naturals Tees). Par: 72/73. Yardage: 7,538 (Par 72)/7,667 (Par 73).


1 - Par 5 525 Yds 10 - Par 5 578 Yds

2 - Par 4 422 Yds 11 - Par 3 285 Yds

3 - Par 4 375 Yds 12 - Par 4 435 Yds

4 - Par 3 166 Yds 13 - Par 5 588 Yds

5 - Par 4 420 Yds 14 - Par 4 443 Yds

6 - Par 4/5 493/622 Yds 15 - Par 4 460 Yds

7 - Par 4 463 Yds 16 - Par 4 415 Yds

8 - Par 5 605 Yds 17 - Par 3 200 Yds

9 - Par 3 174 Yds 18 - Par 4 491 Yds

Par 36/37 3,643/3,772 Yds Par 36 3,895 Yds

Awards Won: Best of the Best - Robb Report (2012), Top new courses to watch - Golf Magazine, World's Top 100 Golf Courses - Golf Magazine (2013).


HISTORY: I'm not sure that Stanley and Charlie Pasarell dreamed about golf course design and owning a resort when growing up as children in Puerto Rico, but whatever was on their mind, has certainly come to fruition.

Located on the northwest corner, on the island of Puerto Rico, Royal Isabela is certain to become a world-class destination in the years to come.

Imagine two kids growing up, playing tennis day in and day out and becoming outstanding players, competing on the world-wide stage. In fact, Charlie, who attended UCLA, was a four-time member of the U.S. Davis Cup team, where he compiled a 6-1 record. In addition, he captured 18 career singles titles and at one time was the top-ranked American after turning professional, while brother Stanley, after attending Stanford University, played around the world and competed in the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico and qualified for the U.S. Open on five occasions.

Upon retiring from competitive tennis, the duo maintained their tennis roots, but with a twist. Charlie founded the National Junior Tennis League, which incorporates tennis into the lives of youths around the United States. Stanley, while in Hawaii, became a sales rep in the tennis business and coached a local high school, while working as the director of tennis on the island of Oahu at Kailua Racquet Club.

The Indian Wells Tennis Garden, home to the BNP Paribas Open on the ATP and WTA tours, was made possible by the hard work and dedication of Charlie. Behind Arthur Ashe Stadium, which hosts the U.S. Open, the IWTG is the second- largest tennis stadium in the world.

Stanley moved back to Puerto Rico in the late 1970s to take over the family business, Puerto Rico Supplies Company, which dates back to 1945 and was founded by his grandfather and his father, Charlie, Sr.

Although they mainly played tennis growing up, golf was introduced when they were teenagers. "My dad got the golf bug when he turned 40," Stanley said. "It was something my father, brother and I could play together, like tennis, but as my dad got a little bid older, golf was something we could all play ... even."

Becoming very successful businessmen in their own right and traversing the world, Charles and Stanley have enjoyed life and, more importantly, played golf at some of the most influential courses on the globe. Courses like St. Andrews and Pebble Beach.

The next step in their lives was simple. Charles and Stanley embarked on developing first-rate and distinct properties, with their first stop in their homeland of Puerto Rico.

Royal Isabela is the heart and soul of the brothers Pasarell. Having been born and raised in the country has given them unique insight into the land and way of life in the region, which certainly shines through in their golf course design.

"Each element of Royal Isabela evolved out of the land itself," Charles said. "A legacy has been created here, one of appreciation for the environment and of respect for its history. We want to honor the traditions of the game and respect what the land has bestowed. This is what makes Royal Isabela, and the experience of being here, truly one of a kind."

Founded by the brothers, along with Edwin Perez, the course opened for play in the spring of 2011. The course design belongs to David. W. Pfaff, with plenty of assistance from Charles and Stanley.

Pfaff began his design career with the legendary Pete Dye in the mid 1960s and by '84 had opened up his own design company.

Pfaff's work spans the globe, but his most significant endeavors were with Dye at Crooked Stick (Ind.), Harbour Town (S.C.), Oak Tree (Okla.) and Casa de Campo, better known as Teeth of the Dog in the Dominican Republic.

It stands to reason that Pfaff would be chosen to craft the Links at Royal Isabela because his design ideology is the same as Charles and Stanley's.

"My fundamental philosophy concerning golf course design is that it should take advantage of the natural features of the land available," said Pfaff. "The designer's biggest challenge is to get the golf corridors, greens and tees situated properly on the land to keep earthmoving at a minimum, incorporate natural features, and make the golf course enjoyable."

As with most projects of this magnitude, it took a few seasons to see this work become a reality.

The course sits on one-fourth of the planned 1,800-acre community on the Island of Puerto Rico, near the town of Isabela and overlooking the Atlantic Ocean with four miles of coastline.

The hands-on approach by Charles and Stanley are quite evident throughout the land. "The golf course design was not about moving the earth, but how the earth moved us to tread gently," Charles said. "We are not the creators of Royal Isabela, we are its caretakers."

Dedicated to taking care of the land and all aspects of the project, including tree removal, this could not be done without the stamp of approval by Stanley ... or should we say, written approval, as all trees, flowers, animals, etc. ... are protected in writing! "By leaving all these trees that were on the site, most of which are over 100 years old, it feels like its a mature course that's been here forever," Stanley said. "That certainly was important to us."

What you see is what was there, according to Stanley. "This is what we found. The trees and terrain along with the lakes and ponds were part of the natural characteristics. We pushed up some of the tee boxes with the irrigation, of course, but it was raw and rocky terrain."

In this day and age, the pride and passion of the Pasarell brothers is quite touching and rare. "Puerto Rico has been good to us," Stanley added, "and our commitment to Royal Isabela is born out of our family's heritage on this beautiful island."

The end result is quite a unique experience.

HOLE-BY-HOLE REVIEW: It's great to start out playing when the opening hole is a par-5. Not only that, it's just 525 yards from the tips. That being said, with tongue firmly in cheek, as despite the elevated tee box, the first is far from easy. With the wind blowing from left to right off the ocean, the opener features a fairly wide fairway, split by bunkers down the center. The right side will reward the player with an elevated and level lie, with a straight route to the green, while the lower level to the left runs next to a reachable lake off the tee. The big decision is your approach. Should you go for it or lay up? Going for the green is quite risky, as the fairway narrows and any miss left will certainly end up in bogey or worse. Remember, it's uphill, so lay back to the 100-yard mark and then attack the pin. The wide, but shallow green slopes from right to left with a bunker guarding the left corner, so play accordingly.

The second hole is a fairly docile par-4 that can be stretched to 422 yards. The key is the tee shot, as the landing area is quite narrow and pinched by sand right and left, and OB to the right. Your approach to the green must factor in the mound in front of the putting surface, as this will limit your view of the flag. Two, sod-faced traps lurk left, as they sit well below the green, so play out to the right, as balls will feed in towards the hole.

Another demanding tee shot awaits the player on the third. The only par-4 on the course under 400 yards, No. 3 is a sharp dogleg right that plays downhill from tee to green. Trees guard the entire right side, while more trees and ruins protect the left. A risky play is to cut the corner of the dogleg, thus capturing the slope of the fairway toward the green. It can be done, but perfection is critical. The sensible play is three-metal off the tee, leaving just a short iron to the long putting surface that sits well below the fairway. Miss long and left and the jungle awaits, play right and your approach should feed toward the green. Don't be fooled by a back-pin. Play toward the center of the green, two-putt and move on.

The shortest hole on the course is the par-3 fourth, just 166 yards in length and playing a smidge downhill. The long putting surface is two-tiered and runs hard from back to front. In fact, any shot short of the putting surface will cascade into a collection area. Although it's rated as the easiest hole on the course, it features one of the most difficult putting surfaces, so much so that putts below the hole are just as deceiving as being above the hole. Its name, "Tear Drop," is quite apropos.

One of the most generous fairways on the course comes by way of the par-4 fifth. From an elevated and blind tee shot, your play is into the wind and to the right of the guiding palm tree in the center of the fairway. Clearing the crest of the hill will funnel your tee ball down the landing zone to a fairly level lie. Now it's uphill to the green as you climb toward the Atlantic Ocean, so take an extra club. The three-tiered green is punishing, especially with a back-left pin. A deep pot bunker which sits 10 feet below fronts the green, while bunkers rear might capture an errant play. Further right and over the green will necessitate a drop or worse, if you're playing a match.

Aptly named "Fork in the Road," or "Yogi Berra," the sixth can be played as either a par-4 or a par-5. "Charlie wanted to build the par 5 and Stanley the par 4," Pfaff said. "We decided that if this is what the land gave us, then let's take advantage of it. Charlie, Stanley and I looked at each other and said ... let's build both." As a par-4, it plays straight uphill from tee to green, reaching 493 yards length. Play it as a par-5, and it doglegs left, then right to the green, 622 yards long. The landing area off the tee, requires a tee shot over water to a fairly wide zone. Playing Charlie's par-5, you have a decision to make, whether to cut the dogleg and risk clearing the waste area or laying up down the left, leaving an uphill third to a three- tiered green. Stanley's way requires an uphill second shot of 200-plus yards to an enormous green with a large swale in the center and deep, sod-face bunkers, front and left. Either way you play, you'll find out that this may be the most difficult hole on the course. So in the great words of Mr. Berra, "When you come to a fork in the road ... take it."

At 463 yards in length, the seventh is one of the longest par-4s on the course. Bending slightly to the left, the fairway runs out at the 285-yard mark, thanks to a burn that moves from right to left as it pinches the landing area. Even with a successful tee shot, you're left with a long iron or fairway metal to a green that's secluded in the front by a mound and sand. The large putting surface features the narrowest of openings on the left, making that entrance the safest play. A par here will go a long way on the scorecard.

The longest hole at Royal Isabela comes by way of the par-5 eighth, a robust 605-yarder from the back coconuts. Fairly straight off the tee, water comes into play on the right side of the landing area, while the entire left side of the hole is OB. Usually played into a stiff breeze, you'll need to blast a 3- metal for your approach to have a reasonable chance of getting on in three. Another large green awaits, with sand guarding the right-front portion and another in the rear. With a back-right flag, Devil's Pond can rear its ugly head if you're not careful. No. 8 completes a 4-hole stretch of some of the most difficult holes on the course.

No. 9 is a wonderful hole that closes out the first half of the golf course. A medium-length par-3, it features an island green that can be quite intimidating. Although the green is very wide and fairly deep, pin placement here is the key. A front left or right flag is very daunting, especially with the wind howling from left to right. My advice, play toward the center and rely on the flat stick to secure your par.

If you thought the front nine was good golf, wait till you reach the 10th. With the Atlantic Ocean within reach, you're greeted with a twisting par-5 from an elevated tee box. Two native trees guard the landing area, standing like goal posts and making for a great target. Beware in your attempt to cut off too much on the left, as sand and a water hazard guard lay in wait. The hole turns sharply toward the left for your layup or dare I say attempt to reach the green in two. Playing safe will come with rewards, as this will set up a short approach to the putting surface. An effort to reach the green in two must be so precise that you'll most likely end up in a group of trees to the left or one of the several deep bunkers dotted around the green. Since we are now close to the ocean, the breezes really take hold and are quite difficult to judge. The final piece of the puzzle is the two-tiered putting surface, which slopes severely from front to back and drops off behind the green. It stands to reason that this is rated the most difficult hole at Royal Isabela.

It's hard to believe the 11th hole is rated as one of the easiest on the course. You see, it's a par-3 of 285 yards from the Naturals. Really? That's right, 285 yards long with a putting surface that's 65 paces in length, it's as narrow as your shoe and features three tiers. Piece of cake, right? Not. You start out by hitting over a lake toward the green, which is slightly elevated, so any shot coming up a bit short, will slide back down the shaved chipping area. In addition a pair of bunkers, left and rear will make for difficult up and downs. Fifteenth-hardest on the course ... I don't think so. By the way, your other choice is to play the small private par-3, that's just 120 yards long, but next to impossible to make par, as it sits unabated alongside the coast.

One of the most dramatic holes on the course is the 12th, which runs along the cliffs overlooking the mighty Atlantic. A medium-length par-4, No. 12 features a carry over the cliffs to the fairway, which is guarded on the left by thick underbrush and two perfectly placed bunkers. A successful tee ball will leave a short iron to an elevated green, that shares its surface with the 14th. The green is quite undulating with bunkers on either side, not to mention the daunting cliffs on the right. Any shot short of the green will feed back down the fairway.

Moving inland for one hole, the 13th is a par-5 that stretches 588 yards. It features a majestic stand of Coconut Palms in the landing zone off the tee. The fairway is quite generous and although the grove of palms are a plenty, there is plenty of room to accept your first shot. The fairway is then split in two by a sandy, duned waste area that wraps around to the right. As the hole bends to the right, there once again is plenty of room for your layup, thus leaving a short iron to a fairly small putting surface, fronted by a sod- faced pot bunker. Upon reaching the undulating green, you'll once again be greeted by the sensational views of the Atlantic to your right. One word of caution, missing long and right is not an option, as this will result in a lost ball. This hole brings back great memories of a wonderful movie from 1963, "It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World," starring the greats from yesteryear, Spencer Tracy, Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, Buddy Hackett, Mickey Rooney and Ethel Merman to name a few. If you remember, they're all after $350,000 hid under a group of palm trees in the shape of a "W". A photo is worth a thousand words.

Back along the coast, the 14th is an uphill, dogleg right par-4. Played into a left-to-right wind, this hole plays generally longer than the 443 yardage indicates. The roller coaster-like fairway will give the player plenty of angst, as the chance for a level lie is virtually non-existent. You'll need plenty of club to reach the shared putting surface, as the wind meets you head on. Quite reminiscent of the links courses in Scotland, play under the wind for your best play to the green. The bent-elbow putting surface features many undulations, so stay below the hole ... if you can.

Playing back inland and into the dunes, the 15th is a solid, dogleg left par-4, wrapping around trees and water on the left. A generous fairway should be accessible, but it's the approach play that will give you fits. Precariously close to the water line, the green features an inordinate amount of undulation and with a back-left pin, tucked behind a deep bunker, this hole can go from one of the easiest to one of the most difficult.

Still running along the coast, the par-4 16th features a very generous landing area off the tee. Avoid the pines to the right, and the thick rough and cliffs to the left, and you're almost home free. It's slightly downhill toward the well-canted putting surface that runs from back to front and left to right. Four distinctive bunkers guard the green and must be avoided for any shot at par. Miss left or long and you'll bring double-bogey into the equation.

If there ever was just one signature hole at Royal Isabela, the 17th would be it, a brilliantly conceived par-3 over the Atlantic Ocean that stretches over 200 yards in length. It plays even longer when the wind is blowing, which is a daily occurrence. The view of the cliffs and water is spectacular and when you have a long iron or fairway metal in hand, it's scary at the same time. The only bailout area is to the right and rear, where hundred-year-old chicken trees, surrounded by a rock wall, await. The two-tiered green, running from back to the edge of the cliff, is almost impossible to hold and with its slick speed, even harder to two-putt. I failed miserably here in several attempts, but this is one of my favorite holes.

The closing hole will play as the longest par-4 on the course and not because of the yardage. This 491-yard behemoth plays directly uphill from tee to green, as it swings from right to left toward the clubhouse. Your tee shot must climb 30-40 feet in elevation to the fairway, not to mention avoiding the signature tree in the middle of the landing area and the encroaching rough on either side. The climb to the green is also quite severe, as you maneuver toward the hidden, two-tiered putting surface. Pot bunkers and a steep hill to the left protect the long green that feeds toward the front. A closing par is a welcomed result.

FINAL WORD: Over the past decade, the economy, not to mention lack of quality sites, have dwarfed the golf course design business, almost to a screeching halt.

But when a piece of property, like Royal Isabela becomes available, you have to go for it. And go for it, is exactly what Charles and Stanley Pasarell did.

"This is the best golf course for the land we found," Stanley said. "It evolved from the ideas and experiences my brother and I have playing Scottish and Irish courses."

In addition, the design experience that David Pfaff brought to the table was invaluable and his insight was keen to the project.

"Although I've worked on many golf courses, creating this one was an exceptionally satisfying experience." Pfaff said. "We decided to take advantage of the spectacular natural setting for golf and not disturb the land any more than necessary."

What makes the Golf Links at Royal Isabela so appealing is its ease of flow and the fact that it has six different tee boxes on each hole. So you don't have to be a scratch player to enjoy this venue, as the course ranges from 5,200 yards to a massive 7,667 yards from the back markers.

"Each hole goes its own way," Stanley said. "No holes are parallel to another and, most importantly, you've got to keep the ball in front of you."

The course can be quite difficult, especially when the wind is blowing, which is a daily occurrence, but with the numerous tee boxes and generous fairways, Royal Isabela is quite enjoyable for all skill levels.

Royal Isabela was incorporated into the land, not the other way around. It fits perfectly without disturbing the natural integrity of the property. That's one of the unique aspects of the golf course, as it was built around and through different characteristics.

"The history of the land use at Royal Isabela is very different," Stanley explained. "Some grew sugar cane, some mined the sand, some grew palm trees on their property and some left their land wide open for pastures. And, one spot, although you'd never know it now because it's so beautiful, was where the locals would come and dump their garbage hundreds of feet down to the water."

Royal Isabela is as natural as it gets. From its coconut tee markers, which personifies the tropical flair of the island, to the incorporation of the native sand dunes, indigenous trees and flora that's a distinct component of Puerto Rico.

"Royal Isabela is, in my estimation," according to Pfaff, "one of the most dramatic golf courses to be built in recent years. We sculpted it delicately along the top of rugged cliffs that soar more than 200 feet above the Atlantic. Given the incredible natural beauty and abundance of the land, we were able to create one golf hole after another, many breathtaking, overlooking the shoreline's magnificent meeting with the sea."

That coupled with the incredible passion the brothers have for this project, will make Royal Isabela a must-destination, not to mention a memorable one for years to come.

"There is no end to Royal Isabela for us. We live this project. Royal Isabela will be our legacy."

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