Secret" Course Destined to be Called, "The Pebble Beach of Puerto Rico" (and how to play it for free)

Well, the cat is officially out of the bag.

Despite being completed in 2009 and sporting an amazing, beachfront and clifftop setting soaring 300 feet above the ocean, Puerto Rico's Golf Links at Royal Isabela had been flying under the radar.

That is, until this month's issue of Golf Digest included an article about it.

But the course's dramatic site (and ambitous plans for more courses and hotels) isn't the only reason you're going to be hearing a lot about Royal Isabela.

Until its lodge opens this summer, you can play the $150-$200 course for free.

Yes, free.

That's what Golf Digest reported on page 86 of its March 2011 issue. And it went on to say:

"For now, you can play it by requesting a round from [the owners] through their course's website,"

Sounding too good (or easy) be true, I inquired with the course's PR firm, and sure enough, it's more accurate to say, "there is a screening process."

What are they screening for?

Well, this very high-end community/club/resort is trying to fill its membership roster and sell real estate, so you do the math.

Here is what you'll get back if you call or email to request playing the course:

"The golf course is now open to our members and guests and within the next few months (Summer 2011) we will officially launch our Lodge “casitas” and open the course to golf enthusiasts from around the world to enjoy the golf experience and amenities. In the meantime, if you plan to visit Puerto Rico I extend an invitation for a site tour and property visit."

My opinion? It's worth the five minutes to fill out the online form whether you think you "qualify" or not, as this course -- located about 70 miles west of San Juan -- appears to be the genuine article.

It was designed by David Pfaff, a name you might not associate with the Dominican Republic's Teeth of the Dog, but he worked on it (and many other projects) with Pete Dye, and these photos suggest at least a visual connection.

Of course, if you ask him, as Golf Digest did, Pfaff will say, "the course designed itself."

And Charlie Pasarell (one of the tennis-pro brothers behind the project) said this in a recent article in Caribbean Business:

“The golf-course design was not about moving the earth, but how the earth moved us…we are not the creators of Royal Isabela, we are its caretakers.”

Looks like these guys have been working with the PR firm, too.

What do you think? Based on the photos, would you take a Puerto Rico golf vacation just to play this course? Please share your comments below.

Craig Better is one of the founding editors of Golf Vacation Insider. In addition to traveling to 15 foreign countries, he has twice traveled across America to play golf courses in all 50 United States. Prior to joining Golf Vacation Insider, Craig was a freelance writer who contributed to GOLF Magazine, Travel + Leisure Golf, Maxim Magazine,, and co-authored Zagat Survey’s book, America’s Top Golf Courses.
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I just came back from PR where my brother had taken of the opportunity presented to play the course.

We played 3 of the tees and found the course to as challenging and breathtaking as described. In addition, the staff is first class as is the food and the casitas.

We are planning on returning to this jewel in Puerto Rico next year and many years to come.

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I am planning a trip to PR for a friend's 50th birthday in June 2011. How can I get an invite to Royal Isabela Golf Course?

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Was just in Puerto Rico in April...stayed at the St Regis at Bahia Beach.... the hotel was fantastic but very pricey. the golf course was fantastic.... better and much prettier than the Trump International Championship course that I also played on. Wish I had known about looks spectacular.... next time in PR... i will have to look into playing it

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I've had the good fortune to play Royal Isabela six times in the last two years. It is spectacular. There isn't a shot that is disappointing. It is a phenomenal test of golf. The tees combine incredible views with draw and fade shots, and lots of them. On many of the tees, you practically feel the ocean crashing into the shoreline. There is no development to obscure either your shots or the views. The Pasarell Brothers have really thought this thing through, and it is world class.

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Royal Isabela's Golf Course is the most spectacular course in the Caribbean- both design, vistas and impeccable course condition. It is a true treasure hidden in Isabela and Puerto Rico is fortunate to have a world class facility such as this one. The course may not be suitable for the high handicapper but is heaven for the true golf aficionado and unlike any other golf experience in Puerto Rico.

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I live in the British Virgin isalands and have traveled to Puerto Rico tp play this course a few times. Simply put, it is SPECTACULAR!!! The Pasarell brothers have a vision of what was intended for this regal piece of property and, as its curators, have refined that intention into the most magnificent golf experience I have experienced.

I have lived, and golfed in, multiple countries and find Royal Isabela at the top of any list of 'must play' courses. I recommend taking advantage of any opportunity to golf Royal Isabela now before it becomes an expensive, albeit totally 'worth it', round of golf.

I can't wait for the casitas to be completed and I WILL be back. :)

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I first played Royal Isabela over two years ago. My son was visiting from the States and a friend invited us out. He said the course wasn't completed yet so we went with low expectations. Four or five holes into the round my son commented that this was the finest course he had played (this coming from an east cost prep school kid with four years on the high scholl golf team) and we hadn't even seen the back nine yet! This is easily the finest course in the Caribbean (yes, better than the DR's Teeth of the Dog) and on par with the finest courses in the world. One of the owners philosophies is that no development should come between the course and the ocean. RI has far more ocean facing holes than Pebble Beach with tee shots over the ocean and just unbelievable views and no homes/hotels in between. This course is a legacy to the Pasarell brothers, who are well-heeled enough to maintain it for their private enjoyment in pertpetuity, recession or no. Bahia Beach, yes nice but no comparision. Trump International, again a nice course, but not even on the same level. RI has 3.5 miles of uninterrupted, undeveloped beach front in the most beatiful part of Puerto Rico. The original course (there are plans for 2 or 3 more which will be linked to hotel properties) is completely private. In the future the only way to play it will be at a member's invitiation, so take advantage of the free invitation and come play. You won't regret it!

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I visited Puerto Rico with my family during the summer of 2010 and had the privilege of being invited to play at Royal Isabela. I’m an avid golfer and have been playing for over 25 years. I have golfed at some of the best courses in the world, such as St. Andrews, Pebble Beach, and Pinehurst among others. My experience at Royal Isabela was truly wonderful, the course was immaculate (extremely well-kept) and the views were breathtaking. I felt as if I was playing at the Royal County Down golf course in Ireland, but yet I was in the Caribbean! I’d also like to note that some of the best golf courses in the world were created during the Great Depression, for example Cypress Point in California and Augusta National in Georgia. I must say that I never understood why other golfers hadn’t heard about Royal Isabela, so when I read the Golf Digest article I was very pleased to know that other golf enthusiasts such as myself will learn about this amazing golf community. I have no doubt that Royal Isabela will become one of the top golf destinations in the world.

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I live in Puerto Rico for four months every winter. The River Course at Rio Mar (designed by Greg Norman) is worth adding to your itinerary. The other Rio Mar course, Ocean designed by Tom & George Fazio, is poorly maintained and has no irrigation. Palmas del Mar recently reopened its golf courses. The Rees Jones layout is pretty good but the bunkers especially need attention. Only 9 holes of the Gary Player course are open and it is a dog track.
I played a 2 day tournament at Trump this past weekend. The International course is more fun. The Championship course is closed until after the PGA event is finished on March 13.
Bahia is a tremendous track with what I think are the finest three finishing holes in golf. The ocean is adjacent to each with dozens of palm trees giving some protection from the prevailing winds. Robert Trent Jones, Jr. did a masterful redesign of this place and the $180.00 fee is undoubtedly worth it. Staying at the resort's hotel, the St. Regis, will set you back about $600.00 a night for the room only.
The El Conquistador is some of Arthur Hills' finest work. It is one of the only courses on the island that has significant elevation changes which provides ample challenge and a lot of fun but ONLY if you play from the correct tees.
Play Royal Isabela in the near future. Developments on the island are in economic peril because of the economy. The island is now in the sixth year of an official depression. Who knows if Royal Isabela will survive?

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I think El Conquistador is far better than the Trump complex. I've played both multiple times.

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Secret" Course Destined to be Called, "The Pebble Beach of Puerto Rico" (and how to play it for free)