El Conquistador Golf Club in Puerto Rico requires patience, and bring your 'A' game
FAJARDO, Puerto Rico -- It doesn't take long for El Conquistador Golf Club to get its point across. Before pressing the first tee into the ground, golfers are treated to the vision of a tight fairway that bends right into a crescendo and then falls off out of sight.
Ignore the yardage on the scorecard: 6,662 yards from the back tees, 5,131 yards from the front. If this course could talk, it would start by saying: "Bring your A game, especially off the tee." The bullish brute will be frustrated by the skinny fairways. Heck, even the driving range is tight.
But after the smart player figures out how to lay off and think like real estate agent -- location, location, location -- the course becomes more playable.
"It's all about position, not length," said Ken Kozak, director of golf at El Conquistador. "It's better to play this course from green to tee. This is very much a shot-maker's course. You have to think your way around this place."
El Conquistador is an Arthur Hills design that travels through major elevation changes. Views reveal the emerald countryside of the El Yunque rain forest or the cliffs that nestle up to blue green waters of the Caribbean Sea. While the course design has its positive elements, El Conquistador will win over golfers with its amazing scenery.
The best perch on the course -- and perhaps any golf course in Puerto Rico -- is on the 15th hole. The tee box is 200 feet above the fairway and overlooks the coastline that jets into the big blue abyss -- a vision that will be etched in the memory of all who pass through. From such high altitude, the fairway appears to be the size of a Lee Trevino divot. Actually, it's one of the widest fairways on the course, a fact that's only realized after the roller-coaster ride down the hillside.
Hills took advantage of the scenery, but also employed strategic design. Unusual for its time -- the course was built in 1993 -- El Conquistador makes golfers of all levels manage their games off the tee. This is not a driver-7-iron course. Holes 13 and 18 are perfect examples of this tactic.
The tee shot on No. 13, a 339-yard par-4, is basically a second chance at the same shot off of No. 1. A drive to a tight fairway that has a severe uphill slope requires 200 yards to carry the crest of the hill. But fade the ball too much and it will come to rest at the base of a tree-lined rough some 50 feet below the fairway -- known as jail.
El Conquistador Golf Club's 18th is an open par-4 that is 357-yards long with water on the right and fairway bunkers down the left side. What the first-time player doesn't realize is how far left the fairway goes, and a well placed 3-wood to that side will take the water out of play on approach.
Kozak's favorite hole is the par-3 fourth. It plays 178 yards from the back tee to a wide, two-tiered green. The terrain makes a steep drop short and left of the green. The hole is downhill, but plays into the prevailing wind.
"Even though it's downhill, it plays a club longer because of the wind," Kozak said. "It's just a well designed par 3."
El Conquistador Golf Club: The verdict
El Conquistador is a challenging design that requires patience and smarts. Middle and low handicappers will enjoy the layout, but it will overwhelm the high handicap. The views, however, might be worth the frustration. Troon Golf manages the club, so obviously, the service was stellar. The driving range is small, with roughly 10 to 15 stations, but the putting green is a fair size.
The weather in Puerto Rico is unpredictable and we played the course shortly after they had 40 inches of rain in two weeks. To judge the course on its soggy conditions wouldn't be fair. But by our final day, the ground had dried up enough to allow mowers on the greens and fairways and the course appeared to be in very good shape. When polling the American participants in the Ambassador's Cup, an annual multi-format tournament of members and pros from the best country clubs in the nation, most thought El Conquistador was the best of the four courses they played.
I would recommend this course to my friends and family who carry a handicap under 20. For the others, I'd recommend it if they'd consider playing a scramble.
Puerto Rico off course
If taking a dip is your idea of a way to relax, the property has five pools to choose from. Be sure to take the ferry to Palomino Island where only El Conquistador guests can attend. The one-mile island is host to water sports and even a nude beach.
In some Caribbean nations, venturing off the resort is a dicey proposition. That's not always true in Puerto Rico. Old San Juan, a strip of shops, restaurants, bars and nightclubs, is a tourist-friendly spot in the island's capital.
The Bacardi Rum Factory offers an entertaining Epcot Center-like tour that ends with rum tasting. A bottle of the older aged rums that can only be purchased at the Bacardi Welcome Center is a perfect souvenir or gift for a friend.
And after completing 18 holes in the moist heat, cool off in the El Yunque Rain Forest. A trip up the historic mountain unveils rejuvenating waterfalls, cooler temperatures in the 50s and 60s, a rain shower every half hour and amazing panoramic views of Puerto Rico.
For nightlife, head back to El Conquistador. The Casablanca Nightclub and the casino next door will entertain the night owl in anyone. The casino offers slots, blackjack, craps and roulette. Next to the casino is Bar 21, where sports fans are watching the big games next to those who crapped out and are crying in their beer.
February 12, 2004