Tierra del Sol in Aruba Is a Feast for the Eyes

By: Rob Duca

Tourists don't generally travel to Aruba for the golf. That's not surprising, considering the island only has one 18-hole championship course. But even if you make your way to the Caribbean for the sun, the snorkeling, the casinos, the sailing, the shopping, the nightlife or the beaches, you would be wise to take a day or two out of your schedule to play Tierra del Sol Country Resort, Spa and Country Club.

What you'll find is a picturesque and enthralling layout that is memorable and challenging. Located on the northwest point of Aruba, some 15 miles from Venezuela, Tierra del Sol opened in 1995 and was designed by Robert Trent Jones II, although most of the work was completed by his former associate, Kyle Phillips. Phillips' imprint is on another course with similar traits, the dazzling Kingsbarns in St. Andrews, Scotland.

The par-71, 6,811-yard Tierra del Sol is unique, with one tee that sits 98 feet above sea level, affording far-reaching views of Aruba and the Caribbean Sea. Think Aruba and one thinks of water, and there is certainly plenty of that at Tierra del Sol. What you might not anticipate are the extraordinary elevation changes and the desolate, parched terrain. Pair a Scottish links course with the Arizona desert and you've got Tierra del Sol. Hole after hole matches ocean vistas with lush, green fairways framed by waste areas, cacti and stone, where blue lizards, iguanas and baby goats provide only a small sampling of the wildlife on the premises.

The distinctiveness of the course is evident from the moment you reach the practice range. The club's head pro, Adam Williamson, a transplanted New Englander, fondly calls it "the world's worst driving range." Indeed, it is rudimentary, with dirt dotted by thin patches of grass serving as the tee areas, and a field of more dirt and even less grass in the landing areas. But the ocean view from the elevated range is magnificent.

Tierra del Sol is a visually striking course, matching wastelands against the ocean backdrop. It feels a bit like playing golf on the moon. The extensive variation of holes, from distances to doglegs and forced carries, makes for a constantly stimulating set of challenges. Goats graze on a hillside as you aim your approach on the third hole toward the famed California Lighthouse, which sits 30 meters high and was named after the ship California that wrecked nearby in 1891.

In the end, this course is all about the wind. Play it on a rare calm day, as I did the first time, and it doesn't offer much resistance. But tackle it when the trade winds are blowing, which they do pretty much 365 days a year, and you're faced with a rigorous challenge. The short par-4s cease being easy pars, the long par-4s are nearly impossible to reach in regulation, and the par-3s, all of which are superb, involve little room for error.

I was there in late August to play in the 18th annual Aruba International Pro-Am Golf Tournament, which featured 29 teams from nine countries comprised of four amateurs and a club professional in a 36-hole event. Following a practice round, the format called for a first-round scramble (with the pro playing his own ball) and a final-round best-ball, with scores for net and gross being posted on each hole.

Hurricane Isaac was bearing down on Florida, and the effect it had on Aruba for the practice round was a windless day with high humidity that provided an initially false impression of the course. Playing the white markers at 6,011 yards felt too easy, especially with par-4 holes of 260 yards (fifth), 303 (ninth) and 342 (10th), and par-5s of 447 (eighth), 428 (12th) and 461 (14th).

But the wind returned for the tournament and it was an entirely different course. Forget driving those par-4 holes, and the par-5 14th became unreachable in two (and pretty difficult in three) as you stood below palm trees that were nearly bent sideways by the in-your-face gale.

The stretch that begins at 14 and ends at 18 represents the meat of the course, especially when factoring in the trade winds. The 14th plays 505 yards from the members' tees into a prevailing wind. The second shot must carry a hazard, and long hitters looking to reach in two need to be precise to avoid another hazard that runs along the left side all the way to the green on the slight dogleg-left. I played with a big hitter on the day the wind was howling and he couldn't reach with driver and 3-wood.

The 195-yard 15th must carry another waste area and a rock wall that rises above the left side of the green. There isn't much room to miss right, either. The 16th is an uphill, dogleg-right par-4 of 366 yards with bunkers lining the right side, while the 17th is another wonderful par-3 of 200 yards where there's no place to miss long or short.

The closer is a par-4 gem of 445 yards. Playing uphill, although usually downwind, the approach is blind to the green and demands a solid and precise iron to find the putting surface.

Most people head to Aruba for the white-sand beaches and warm, turquoise waters of the Caribbean. But it would be a mistake to dismiss the only golf championship course on the island. Tierra del Sol is a gem.

Tierra del Sol Resort also features a 4,000-square-foot swimming pool, Jacuzzi, swim-up pool bar, a spa, tennis courts, and a restaurant with sweeping views of the sea. It's a short walk to Arashi Beach. Shopping and the nightlife in the Palm Beach area and Oranjestad is just a 15-minute drive.

There's also the enjoyable nine-hole Links at Divi Aruba Golf Course at the nearby Divi Village Golf & Beach Resort. Opened in 2004, the course stretches nearly 3,000 yards from the tips, with six holes playing over water and along lagoons.

For more information, visit www.tierradelsolcom.

Rob Duca is an award-winning sports columnist who wrote for the Cape Cod Times for 25 years, covering golf, the Boston Red Sox, the Boston Celtics and the Boston Bruins. He is now managing editor of Golf & Leisure Cape Cod magazine and has written for a variety of other publications, including Sports Illustrated, the Boston Globe, Yankee magazine and Cape Cod Life.