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Golf in P.R. goes public, NBA to return to San Juan in 2005

By Gabrielle Paese

June 4, 2005
Copyright © 2005 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

Given the current battle for PNP supremacy in the senate, Bayamon mayor Ramon Luis Rivera has to be happy he's no longer part of the legislature. Having taken over the job his father started in the fast-growing city west of San Juan, Rivera has been focusing his attention on doing good works. And if he needed another reason to feel righteous, the sports-friendly mayor got one this week with the unveiling of the island's largest ever municipal golf facility built, get this, with nearly $6 million in federal funds.

Golf is a sport exclusively for wealthy Puerto Ricans and tourists, yet Rivera says he'll pay more than lip service to the idea that it should be accessible to everyone. Those are fighting words on an island that the National Golf Foundation estimates as the most expensive place in the United States to play golf. Although their numbers are now nearly a decade old, they still illustrate this Caribbean paradise's dilemma: a round of golf at one of the island's private courses costs more than $100 on the average. The cheapest of Puerto Rico's 18 golf courses charges $250 annually for membership (Aguirre), while the priciest (Río Mar) runs more than $4,000 per year.

Rivera hopes to be the first to change all that. With a nine-hole, par-36, 3,600-yards course slated for a February 2006 opening, the Bayamon mayor hopes the facility will foster a new breed of golfer. This weekend, the 58-space driving range opens to the general public, along with areas to practice chipping and putting on what was once a flooded river bank and a community dump.

The project has been five years in the making, the mayor said, most of that time spent in securing funding and cleanup.

Thanks to $6 million in federal funds via a Community Development Block Grant, Rivera was able to consider a driving range. He admitted the money wasn't specifically earmarked for golf, but defended his city's right to recreational space. Rivera said he believes the Bayamon range to be the first CDBG federally funded golf facility.

"When the inspector came to see the place she said it was the most creative use of CDBG funds she had ever seen," said Rivera with a laugh.

Rivera said he included the idea of a golf course in his 2000 mayoral candidate platform. He at first had envisioned a recreational area to accompany the five-mile linear park that is the metro area's best-kept secret and begins adjacent to the range. "I got approval for the golf course almost immediately, because this land is not appropriate for building homes as it sits on a flood plain. Having a golf course here is actually good for the river because it helps prevent its sedimentation and helps avoid flooding further down, say in the Santa Rosa neighborhood."

Puerto Rico has no public golf courses, although Aguirre and Ramey (Aguadilla) both open their links at reduced rates.

Greenskeeper Raymond Lagares and Rivera said clearing the land was the greatest challenge.

"As soon as we began to haul away the garbage, we found even more underneath. This area was really a dump," said Lagares, who worked on the construction of the Westin Rio Mar's River course, Caguas Real and Chi Chi Rodriguez's El Legado in Guayama as well as the revamping of Dorado del Mar.

Bermuda 419 grass grown locally by Penochs Grower graces the driving range and the putting area sports Tiff Eagle, which debuted in Puerto Rico at Rodriguez's El Legado.

Puerto Rican pro golfer Wilfredo Morales said the driving range already rivals those of its cousins in the million dollar neighborhoods.

"It's not as long [yardage] as some of the other courses in Puerto Rico but it's not going to be easy to play because there's a lot of wind," said Morales. "Everything is very well done and it's a step forward for young people interested in the sport."

Lagares singled out the par-5 second hole (roughly 520 yards), the par-4 fifth hole and the par-5 seventh hole as the most challenging. Hole No. 5 incorporates the river and a lake and is followed up with a par-3 sixth hole so golfers "can recover from all the balls they've lost in the water," said Lagares, who added that the course will be more challenging than its municipal cousins stateside.

In keeping with its municipal tone, Rivera said Wednesday the facility will offer golf lessons free to Bayamon's youth.

"This facility is a great step forward for golf," said P.R. Golf Association operations manager Julio Soto, who estimates that Puerto Rico has 25 courses operational at 18 clubs. "What has been built here is above and beyond any other practice facility of its kind and better than some club practice areas."

Lagares admitted that while the facility aims to bring golf to the people, the city aims to keep country club standards.

"When people hear the world municipal they think of something cheap and second-rate," said Lagares. "This is not going to be that kind of a course. We are going to maintain it to the ideals of a private club or a resort, but keep it accessible to the public."

Bayamon, of course is a city known for its daily rainstorms ("It always rains in Bayamon, as the song goes), but Rivera said the rain is a blessing and helps keep course maintenance costs down.

"The rain makes this golf course heaven," said Lagares, who added that his crew collects the rainwater and uses it to water the course, which also has a well on-site in case of an emergency.

P.R. to host NBA exhibition game

Angelo Medina made good on his word to bring the NBA back to Puerto Rico in 2005. This week, the local promoter and NBA Latin America officially announced plans for an Oct. 14 Miami Heat-Memphis Grizzlies pre-season matchup at the Puerto Rico Coliseum.

The tuneup game will be the first in a two-year deal that includes a regular season game in San Juan for 2006.

The Heat-Memphis Grizzlies exhibition will mark the fifth time Puerto Rico has played host to an NBA pre-season tuneup, and a first for the Puerto Rico Coliseum.

The announcement was a consolation prize for sports fans who had hoped to see Major League Baseball make a reappearance in San Juan in 2005.

Miami GM Randy Pfund said the team had initially negotiated the Oct. 14 tuneup with Utah in order to showcase Puerto Rican Carlos Arroyo. That idea fell through with Arroyo's trade to Detroit. However, Pfund said he hasn't given up hope that a Puerto Rican will be in at least one of the lineups for the following year.

"You never know because the NBA is forever changing and you can't predict the trades," Pfund said.

The four previous NBA tuneups played in Puerto Rico all featured the Miami Heat at one end of the court. In 1993, the Heat beat the Denver Nuggets, 109-102. In 1994 Roberto Clemente Coliseum hosted a twin bill of Heat-Hawks games with the teams splitting the ticket and each winning one by the exact same score, 104-99. Finally, in 2003, the Heat beat the Sixers, 86-79 in OT.

The Grizzlies will be playing for the first time in Latin America and the third time internationally in the preseason. The Grizzlies played the San Antonio Spurs and FC Barcelona two years ago in Spain.

In all, the NBA has played 22 games in Latin America.

Angelo Medina Promotions will produce the Oct. 14 game at the coliseum.

"Puerto Rico has hundreds of thousands of NBA fans and this game will give them a chance to watch the NBA close-up," said Medina, whose Santurce Crabbers were the first basketball team to inaugurate the coliseum as they have used it for regular season Superior Basketball League home games.

Gabrielle Paese is a sports reporter in San Juan. She was the 2000 recipient of the Overseas Press Club's Rafael Pont Flores Award for excellence in sports reporting. Comments or suggestions? Contact Gabrielle at

Her Column, Puerto Rico Sports Beat, appears weekly in the Puerto Rico Herald.

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