Battered, now better

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Hurricanes Irma and Maria damaged Corales Golf Club. Determined superintendent Julio Díaz and his crew prepped the course for its first PGA Tour event six months later.

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August 1, 2019

The fifth hole of the Tortuga course at neighboring La Cana Golf Club escaped the hurricanes, but not every hole was so lucky.
© photos courtesy of Puntacana Resort & Club

The first storm ripped apart the course on a Thursday.

Winds whipped, faster and faster, and sand shuffled out from the bunkers. Rocks surged up onto the greens from the ocean below. Everything that had remained outdoors rather than shuttled into the relative safety of the clubhouse had found a new location across acres of disruption.

Hurricane Irma was not the first storm to touch down on Corales Golf Club in the Dominican resort haven of Punta Cana — though it was the first during the tumultuous hurricane season of 2017. “The people here are very used to hurricanes,” says Julio Díaz, the veteran superintendent for both Corales and its 27-hole neighbor, La Cana. “Hurricane season comes and we worry about a lot, but we get so used to them coming, we say, ‘Oh, we can manage a hurricane.’” But Irma, a Category 5 hurricane whose sustained winds eventually reached 180 mph and resulted in 134 deaths and more than $77 billion in damages across the Caribbean and the southeastern United States, was “a disaster,” he says.

Díaz hunkered down for a night, then emerged the next day, along with the 120 other members of his crew and the thousands of Puntacana Resort & Club employees, to repair their oasis on the eastern tip of Hispaniola. Work started almost immediately to reshape the battered course, to build up from one meter to two the crucial seawall that protected a sextet of oceanside holes, to prepare Corales for its transition from what was then the Web.com Tour to its first PGA Tour event.

And then, on another Thursday, after less than two weeks of focused, frenzied work, the second storm hit.

The Dominican Republic is not particularly large — its almost 11 million residents are scattered around a country about half the size of Indiana and the island of Hispaniola is a little smaller than Maine — and neither is its number of courses. When Díaz was born 54 years ago in Azua, that number was still zero. When he was working on his family’s 75-acre farm, growing various vegetables and fruits, including cantaloupes, bananas and corn, that number could still be counted on one hand. And after earning his undergraduate degree in agriculture, there were so few courses in the country that he headed north to New York for the next decade.

Díaz worked at Wind Watch Golf & Country Club in Hauppauge and North Shore Country Club in Glen Head, both on golf-heavy Long Island, and earned his turf degree from Rutgers University, fitting a couple winters worth of classes around his course schedule. He had no plans to leave — not after diving into a renovation project as a North Shore assistant, and especially not after he and his wife, Ana, a native Dominican who moved to New York during her childhood, welcomed a son and then a daughter.

A native of Azua, D.R., Julio Díaz has been back for almost 20 years after working at Long Island clubs and studying at Rutgers.

But an old Rutgers friend called him and let him know that a resort down in the Dominican planned to open a course and was searching for a superintendent. A pair of phone interviews sparked a flight, which sparked a walk on the property that is now La Cana, which was designed by P.B. Dye and opened in 2001. At the end of that walk, Díaz says, he received a job offer.

“I went back, I discussed it with my wife, and we agreed, ‘Yeah, let’s go back to the Dominican Republic for two years,’” he says. “’We can finish the grow-in, put all the maintenance programs in order, put together a good team to manage the course, then go back to New York.’”

They have now been back in the Dominican Republic for 18 years and counting.

“I finished the construction on La Cana,” Díaz says, “then we built a soccer field and a baseball field in the village. We built a grass tennis court, a turf nursery. Then we built a polo field. We’re having fun, it’s been really fun.”

Corales opened in 2010 after Díaz and a small team worked with designer Tom Fazio to transform 350 acres of what had been thick jungle when Dominican entrepreneur Don Frank Rainieri and New York attorney Theodore Kheel snagged the land in 1969. “Don Frank wanted the biggest and the best,” Corales club pro Jay Overton says, “and this site was always going to be his big golf course.”

Some of the figures and facts about Corales are astonishing. There are the 3,174 sprinkler heads and 200 acres of maintained grass — down from 236 a few years ago thanks to conservation efforts. There are the 17 acres of land on both the 12th and 13th holes — “Big damn holes,” Overton says. “You could land a 757 on there” — and the roughly 13,000 square foot minimum for new homes constructed along the course. And while Augusta National Golf Club is home to Amen Corner, Corales closes out with a trio of holes collectively called El Codo del Diablo — the Devil’s Elbow.

Waves crash against the 2-meter-high seawall at Corales Golf Club, which hosted its second annual PGA Tour event in March.

Díaz has provided a constant for the resort and for Corales. He is the only superintendent who has worked on the courses, and he knows every corner, every challenge. Hurricanes Irma and Maria provided him with the biggest challenge of his career.

Díaz and the course committee had started work after Irma passed over the island, then reassessed after Maria followed two weeks later. “Everybody started working on the road, on the common areas on the golf course, bringing in equipment the next day,” he says. Díaz relied on the company’s significant infrastructure — in addition to owning and operating Corales and La Cana, a handful of hotels and residential communities, and a host of restaurants and businesses, Puntacana Resort & Club also owns the Punta Cana International Airport and all the equipment used there — and opted to rebuild Corales largely in-house.

“Irma did all the damage,” Díaz says. “Took part of the middle of 18, pulled up a lot of rock, took most of the tee on 9, about 90 percent of 8, and part of 7. We started cleaning, pushing material, just cleaning for 15 days.” And then Maria followed. “We already had a section of the seawall framed and the concrete poured. And then the second hurricane came in and cleaned everything. Took whatever we had left on the green, left a lot of damage on 18, took everything on 9, everything on 8, and part of the green on 7. I mean, nothing left. Just the rock. Nothing.

“All the cleaning we did, all the material we pulled, everything was just gone.”

With the course’s first PGA Tour event fast approaching — the tournament was scheduled for March 19-25, less than six months out — Rainieri talked with Díaz about adjusting the timeline of the reconstruction. “I remember Don Frank asked me, ‘Julio, give me the new date when we might finish the project,’” Díaz says. “I told him, ‘Look, we keep the same date. We will double the effort.’”

Hurricane Maria killed an estimated 3,059 people, most of them in nearby Puerto Rico, and caused more than $91 billion in damages. Two more hurricanes and two other tropical storms traveled through the Atlantic that season, but none approached the same fury as their predecessors. As work on the course progressed, Díaz says, the only thing that might have delayed the scheduled would have been a third hurricane that, thankfully, never arrived.

The day starts at 6:30 a.m. for a crew of about 120 split between Corales, La Cana and the resort’s polo fields.

Díaz designed a new irrigation plan and Fazio Design senior design associate Tom Marzolf sketched new greens during his time on site. Barges filled with equipment floated south from Florida. Shapers arrived from Mexico. Trucks hauled in so many loads of soil and sand. The turf nursey added back in 2005 provided invaluable sustenance. Teams worked in shifts seven days a week to pour everything into rebuilding and improving.

“Our goal was to finish planting everything for December, because we don’t want to miss the high season” Díaz says. “And even in December, we have a local tournament that we host. Even with those greens not ready, we would have been able to play on it really well. So, we started working, pushing, pushing. We had a lot of people working here.”

The course opened Dec. 11, after less than 12 weeks of work. A little later, Brice Garrett finished 18 under to win the first Corales Puntacana Resort and Club Championship March 25.

“That first PGA tournament was hard, but nothing like before,” Díaz says. “Because before, we were working to get the course approved. ‘We are having this event. We need to have this event, and we need it to be good, and we are working against all the elements.’ When we opened in December, we said, ‘Oh, we can get it. It won’t be perfect, but we can get it done.’ And some of the people didn’t even notice.

“The two weeks in advance of the tournament were intense, but we were coming from the two hurricanes, and we survived.”

Díaz says he thinks Corales, La Cana and the various fields around the resort’s 15,000 acres can always be better. Even after removing almost 40 acres of grass, for example, he is still searching for areas to pare away and replace with more natural rough. He could always use less water, he says, even though he already exclusively uses reclaimed water across the property. The course closes for two weeks every July, then again for most of September, when the crew dives deep into aerification and other heavy projects. Díaz tinkers all the while.

“I think we can always do more,” he says. “When you reach what you think is your highest point, you can always do more.”

Díaz planned to work two years at Puntacana and then return to the United States. He is approaching two decades on the island and has no plans to retire anywhere else.

“When you start working here every day, you get so busy there’s no time,” Díaz says. “Someone tells you about a job: ‘No, no, not now.’ You want to stay all the time. Now, I am 54. I keep saying around my house that I will work until I’m 62, 65. … If we get 30 years here, that would be big.”

He is standing on the eighth green, obliterated by Maria two years ago and now better than before. A brimmed hat covers his eyes. “I like going to 2,” he says, “and the back of 3, of 5. I go there a lot. I walk a lot on the course. When you are here every day, you don’t pay attention. The ocean is right there,” he says, turning his head and pointing an index finger to water crashing a chip shot away, “but I’m working.” He pauses.

“After the hurricanes, we came out much better.” He pauses again. “Look at that color.” The water is a Crayola blend of green and blue and sunshine, its tints shifting with every wave. It doesn’t look real.

“How do you even describe that color?”

The fifth hole of the Hacienda course is one of 27 normally available to play at La Cana and one of 45 at the resort.