Heightened Expectations at Puerto Rico's El Conquistador

By: Steve Habel

If you've teed it up at any of the other seaside courses and resorts in Puerto Rico, you will expect to be surprised at the wild ride of El Conquistador Golf Course on the island's eastern coast.

El Conquistador Resort

The Arthur Hills-designed course alongside its eponymous resort is located in Fajardo, near the northeast tip about 40 miles east of San Juan. Here the coastline touches the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, and - thanks to a bevy of elevated tees on the spectacular track - the ocean can be seen from 12 of its 18 holes.

But ocean views, even great ones, are pretty rote in this part of the world. What sets El Conquistador apart is its near-mountainous terrain, with drops of 200-plus-feet from tees to fairways and greens that are more often found in alpine settings. From some of higher spots, islands 20 miles offshore can be observed.

The peaked, rolling terrain is just the capper on a course with the usual accoutrements of Caribbean golf: palm trees, iguanas and lush flora and island fauna. Just don't let the views or the tropical surroundings sway your concentration; on this rocky land Hills has fashioned a course that can be tricky and even daunting at times.

Opened in 1993, the par-72 layout at El Conquistador Golf Resort & Casino stretches 6,746 yards from the tips, where it warrants a 74.5 rating and 141 slope. Such a high rating and slope on a track so short - by today's standards, anyway - gives a glimpse of the shot-making prowess necessary for success.

There are forced carries aplenty here, with hill-perched fairways that tilt left and right to shove shots into trouble areas. As with other seaside courses, the prevailing trade winds that sometimes batter El Conquistador add another touch of uncertainty.

Looking Back Up El Conquistador's First Hole

Be Careful off the Tee

Only two of El Conquistador's 10 par-4s are more than 400 yards (and these are back-to-back at the 431-yard fifth and the 429-yard sixth), while half of its four par-5s are reachable, especially the 501-yard eighth. Accuracy off the tee is key, however, as the balance between the need for bombing drives - such as seen at the 613-yard third and 601-yard 11th - and course management makes this a thinking-man's course in the finest sense of the term.

These offsetting considerations happen quickly at El Conquistador, as on the tee of the first (a 395-yard par-4) the target is a tight right-slanting fairway some 100-feet below that concludes at a putting surface even farther downhill.

The par-3, 178-yard fourth heads to a wide, two-tiered green. The hole is downhill but plays into the prevailing wind; a steep, troublesome drop short and left of the green asks players to use one more club than the yardage indicates.

The 18th Green at El Conquistador

The laws of hillside golf tell us that what goes down must also, eventually, go up. That's the case on the 13th, a 339-yard par-4 where the tee shot must carry the crest of a hill some 75 feet above the tee to a pinched fairway. The hole is short but demanding, as short and right of the green lurks a tree-lined rough 50 feet below.

The course's best viewpoint (and some say the best from any Puerto Rican track) is found at the 15th. The tee is 200 feet above the fairway of this 540-yard downhill par-5 and overlooks green-blue waters. The fairway looks small from the tee but is actually one of the widest on the course, a fact realized only after navigating the downhill roller-coaster ride.

The 357-yard uphill par-4 finisher is played over a fountain-festooned pond to a shallow green shared with the ninth hole.

Thanks to vistas that unveil the emerald countryside of the neighboring El Yunque rainforest and cliffs nestling up to the Caribbean, El Conquistador will win you over with its amazing panoramas. Hills took advantage of that geographical feature, but because of the strategy he injected into the design, this course is much more than a pretty face.

El Conquistador requires patience and smarts. Mid- and low-handicappers will enjoy the layout, but it might be a bit too much for less proficient golfers.

Resort Makes the Grade in Spades

Perched above the ocean atop a 300-foot-high cliff, El Conquistador Golf Resort & Casino is a peaceful retreat on the "Island of Enchantment." Operated by Waldorf-Astoria, the getaway is divided into five villages, while boasting 974 guest rooms with ocean and scenic vistas, a spa, casino and water park, and offering off-course activities such as windsurfing, scuba diving, fishing and a private beach, accessed via an eight-minute boat ride to Palomino Island.

For additional information, visit www.elconresort.com.

Steve Habel is one of Cybergolf's national correspondents, contributing news stories, features, equipment and book reviews and personality profiles from his base in Central Texas. He is also the managing editor for Texas CEO Magazine and works as a contributing editor for Horns Illustrated magazine, a publication focusing on University of Texas sports. He also writes a blog (www.shotoverthegreen.blogspot.com), which features news on golf and the Longhorns, and another (www.checkinginandplayingthrough.blogspot.com) on his many travels, which took him across the nation and to 105 different golf course in 2009. Habel is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America and the Texas Golf Writers Association.