Fairways in the Sun: Golf in the Caribbean

The Caribbean is famous for its luxurious golf resorts and courses framed by palm trees and blue water. Edward Cherry explores some of the region's best golf

Half Moon Club, Jamaica. Photograph by Half Moon ResortThe championship course at Mount Irvine Bay Hotel and Golf Club in Tobago. Photograph by Kenny LeeThe Half Moon club is near Montego Bay on Jamaica’s spectacular north coast. Photograph by David Cannon/ All SportThe Johnnie Walker World Championship under way at the Tryall Golf, Tennis and Beach Club in Jamaica. Photograph by David Cannon/ AllsportThe Johnnie Walker World Championship under way at the Tryall Golf, Tennis and Beach Club in Jamaica. Photograph by David Cannon/ AllsportThe Tryall Club is near Montego Bay on Jamaica’s specular north coast. Photograph by David Rogers/ All Sport

I’m sure by now you’ve heard the rumour — since it’s been circulating for nearly 500 years — that the game of golf was invented by 15th-century Scottish shepherds to help pass the time.

Preposterous, isn’t it? You know what kind of weather they have in the British Isles, and you’ve seen the terrain. I’m thinking those shepherds were spending most of their free time seeking shelter, rather than coming up with another reason to stay outside. Tell me they invented bowling, for example, and I’ll go along with it. But golf? I have a problem with that.

No, golf must have been conceived in the Caribbean, where someone tending his or her flock or herd aimed a rock at the horizon and sent it forth off the end of a stick. This earliest version of “the game” was played solely for the fun of it, and was “golf” in its essence. Hit it. Find it. Hit it again. There were no slope ratings, no course marshals issuing slow-play warnings, and no discounted rates after 3 p.m. No boron/graphite shafts, no two-piece balls wrapped in Surlyn/Balata, and no retractable spikes to protect the hardwood floors in the pro shop.

But especially there were no scorecards. Those, I believe, were invented by the Scots of the 15th century, a self-destructive lot who, when they weren’t laying siege to each other’s castles, needed to feel the pain that only the keeping of an accurate score can provide. Keeping score, of course, begat the writing of rules, which begat the need for a handicap system, which begat the need for an occasional fist fight behind the clubhouse after the annual member/guest tournament. The game certainly has come a long way in five centuries, don’t you think?

Alas, trying to explain all this to a golf traditionalist is like explaining “counter-clockwise” to a child who’s grown up with a digital watch.

But for Caribbean islands and frequent visitors it’s not so far a stretch. You don’t need a geography lesson or a meteorological report to recognize that the most spectacular weather conditions in the hemisphere, in any hemisphere, caress this region.

And you don’t need a lot of flowery prose about “emerald green fairways” and “azure waters surrounding island greens” to know that the game as it was truly meant to be played is best played here.

What you may not know is exactly where to play the game, since only ten years or so ago there weren’t that many options. As golf has grown in popularity and visibility around the world in the past few decades, Caribbean islands have kept pace, adding golf courses to complete amenities packages at some of the finest hotels and resorts, and renovating and refurbishing existing courses to lure players of old back to their favourite haunts.

With apologies to Puerto Rico, Jamaica is the golf island in the Caribbean. There are as many or more courses, to begin with, but the quality of the golf experience is more pronounced in Jamaica, more often, than anywhere else.

First and foremost in Jamaica is the Ralph Plummer-designed course at Tryall Golf, Tennis & Beach Club, about 15 miles west of Montego Bay, site of the annual Johnnie Walker World Championship. If you were watching last December, you saw 1994 US Open champion Ernie Els blister this most difficult layout and run away from the field by a half-dozen strokes. You also saw Paul Azinger complete his comeback from cancer with a mind-numbing second-round 62.

Warning! This is not normal. Tryall’s design has been labelled “quirky” by some in the golf media, and while a recent redesign of a few holes has taken a couple of the bugs out, the course plays either on the side of a mountain or directly into the exceptionally strong ocean breezes. This can make for a very difficult test if your long game is off that day (your short game must always be impeccable, because you won’t be hitting that many greens in regulation).

Still, playing strategic golf will allow you to card a very decent score, and the scenery itself is worth the price of admission. The Tryall course is very well maintained, the greens roll fast and true, and being able to say you broke 80 there is one of the highest compliments you can pay yourself.

It also doesn’t hurt that the accommodations at Tryall – especially the private hillside villas complete with private pools, amenities galore and a personal staff — are among the finest in the islands.

About six miles east of Montego Ray is the Half Moon Golf, Tennis & Beach Club, with a Robert Trent Jones Sr.-designed course that would be pre-eminent on the island if Tryall disappeared. The terrain of the Half Moon course is not as inspiring as the hills of Tryall, which means only that Trent Jones had to work a little harder to get everything he has out of it.

One of the integral design elements here is length. At 7,125 yards, Half Moon is among the longest courses on the island, although the vivid hibiscus, oleander and bougainvillea that line the fairways help take a little of the sting out of the added distance. Remarkably, water is in direct play on only six holes, but when it’s in play, it’s really in play. Wind is a constant, naturally, and in combination with the expanded playing field, par is not often matched on this course.

Half Moon, too, offers extraordinary accommodations, and the service level at both the golf course and at the oceanfront hotel across the street is extremely high. A few days of golf at Half Moon followed by a few days at Tryall would seem to be among the better golf vacations we can think of.

The golf course at Wyndham Rose Hall (a few minutes further east of Montego Bay) has always had great potential, but it’s only in the past year or two that it has begun living up to expectations. That’s because Wyndham has brought in a new head pro and a new philosophy about the golf course, and has set about restoring the layout to its original beauty — and challenge.

While neither exceptionally long nor exceptionally wet, Wyndham’s difficulty emanates from its hillside setting and a few blind approach shots that can be rather unnerving the first time out. A few of the fairways are bordered by jagged mountain cliffs, there are holes that play down and through lush grassy plateaux, and there are putting surfaces that sit adjacent to 30 foot waterfalls to keep you occupied throughout this most enjoyable golf outing.

The Jamaica Jamaica resort in Runaway Bay (on the way to Ocho Rios) is also a pleasant diversion, especially for the beginner or first time player. Its seaside setting is attractive, and its fairways are open with relatively few sand bunkers or water hazards. Jamaica Jamaica offers a complimentary Golf Academy in its all-inclusive package price, so anyone wishing to learn the game is in the right place at the right time.

Considerably further from Montego Bay — heading west about 65 miles — is the new Negril Hills course in Negril, which should right about now be opening its first nine holes. The course is sited inland, but the long-distance vistas are still stunning. The course was designed with future real estate considerations in mind, and a few of the holes seem contrived rather than conceived. Nevertheless, the western end of the island has been without a good golf course for so long that the opening of the second nine is eagerly anticipated.

For more than 30 years, the Hyatt Dorado Beach in Puerto Rico — it became a Hyatt property in 1985 – has been enticing golfers with 36 holes of Robert Trent Jones golf, with an additional 36 holes at the nearby Hyatt Regency Cerromar Beach. Trent Jones’s East and West courses at Dorado Beach both feature seaside holes of gargantuan beauty, strategically bunkered for maximum challenge for amateurs and professionals alike.

The 7,005-yard East course has been the site of numerous professional tournaments, including the erstwhile Mazda Champions, and by and large it is considered the most scenic of the four. The West Course (at 6,913 yards), though, includes perhaps the most picturesque hole on the island: the 185-yard, par-3 13th, which sits on a spit of land jutting into the Atlantic.

The North and South courses (6,841 yards and 7,047) at Cerromar Beach are just as long and scenic as the East and West, but are perhaps more forgiving for the novice golfer. Still, the South has water in play on 14 holes, and the North is constantly being washed by the prevailing winds; neither should be considered a pushover.

The sister resorts, on the north coast about 22 miles from downtown San Juan, offer golf packages in all seasons to fit nearly every budget, and the amenities — as well as the “mature” accommodations — are of typical Hyatt quality.

The Gary Player-designed course at Palmas del Mar on the south-east coast of Puerto Rico is the flagship of this secluded property, even though the eventual master plan calls for between 54 and 72 holes. Sited on more than 2,700 lush seaside and hillside acres, Palmas del Mar features exceptionally attractive accommodations in the Candelero, with its private swimming pool, nightly cocktail parties and Mediterranean- styled furnishings. But the main attraction is the golf course, which, at 6,700 yards, is both long enough and difficult enough to challenge even the most grizzled golfer, yet user-friendly enough to introduce your non-playing spouse to the game.

There are “signature” holes aplenty here, but a personal favourite is the minuscule (140 yards) par-3 third hole, which runs adjacent to the sugary sand of Palmas beach. The wind literally howls through the palms on this hole, and turns what should be a hard 9-iron or a soft 8-iron into an education in club selection.

Competing with Tryall for The Best Golf Course in the Islands award is the Four Seasons Resort, Nevis, designed by Robert Trent Jones II. This 6,766-yard course winds around the foothills of 3,500-foot Nevis Peak, through its valleys and across huge ravines layered in dense jungle vegetation, ending at the spectacular 445-yard, par-4 18th on the Caribbean Sea, one of the most spectacular finishing holes in golf.

At least one other hole bears mention: the 663-yard (that’s not a misprint) par-5 15th, which features a 240-yard ravine carry from the championship tees. Along the way you’ll be playing around wild donkeys that cross the fairways at their leisure, and be serenaded by the screech of wild monkeys in early morning or late afternoon.

As you would expect at a Four Seasons Resort, the course is maintained in perfect condition, even through the occasional island drought when the fairways brown a little but still offer a good lie. With another year or two of maturity under its belt, this may soon be regarded as the best course in the Caribbean. A score even in the vicinity of par is a good one here; while the course is not unrelenting, it can at times make you wonder why you took up the game in the first place.

One of the better island courses you may never have heard of is Carambola Golf Club in St Croix, US Virgin Islands. The resort itself — an original Rockresort — was closed, then re-opened, then closed again in a legal struggle, but the course has remained open throughout for daily-fee play.

At more than 6,800 yards from the back tees, and with tight, twisting doglegs, an abundance of water hazards and rolling hillside fairways, Carambola provides some of the best inland golf in the islands, with elevation changes that are frankly astounding for a Caribbean island venue. Strategic bunkering and mounding and impressive stands of bamboo, palm and samaan trees force you to keep your ball in or near the fairway at all times. Dramatic and relentless, Carambola was awarded the prestigious Gold Medal by Golf magazine in 1990.

Also in St Croix is the short course at the Buccaneer Hotel, just up the road from Christiansted. The relatively short layout (5,054 yards) is enhanced by rolling terrain and an infinite array of uphill and sidehill lies that will test your shot-making ability and your stamina. Accommodations are casually comfortable, and the resort’s seaside setting near the spectacular Buck Island Underwater National Park is a real plus.

Although a new 18-hole course has opened in Barbados, the Sandy Lane Hotel, Golf & Beach Club has been providing members and guests with some of the finest facilities in the Caribbean for more than 35 years. Sandy Lane’s golf course has recently been renovated — an ongoing programme that should serve to raise the calibre of play for all. The fairways are well groomed and fairly wide open, and at 6,600 yards the course is very playable for every ability level.

But one of the nicest things about playing golf at Sandy Lane is the quality of the caddy program. Most golfers who’ve used a caddy have heard of their alleged prowess with the sticks in their hands rather than with the bag over their shoulder, and most don’t believe a word of it. On a recent vacation my partner and I decided to put our two caddies to the test on the back nine, which the pair won handily 3 and 2. If your caddy says to putt it three inches outside right, putt it three inches outside right. You won’t be sorry.

The Tobago Golf Club, part of the Mount Irvine Bay Hotel and Golf Club, has the only 18-hole course on that island at the moment, though new courses are planned. At nearly 6,800 yards, the course’s length is championship calibre, but sidehill lies and water hazards galore, rather than distance, will probably be your demise here. The coconut palm-lined fairways place a premium on accuracy off the tee. But the putting surfaces are receptive to hump-and-run approach shots, unlike many other Caribbean courses where the approach needs to be airlifted in by parachute if you’re to have a chance of holding the green.

The greens are on the small size, relatively speaking, but are well maintained, as is the whole facility. Especially remarkable are the 9th and 18th holes. The 9th features water in play and a postage-stamp-sized green. The 18th also features water as it bends interminably left, but the tantalising beauty and the extraordinary challenge of the hole make it one of the best closers in the islands.

The very mention of course architect Pete Dye raises some people’s blood pressure a full 20 points, and his work at Harbour Town Golf Links on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, and at PGA West, has driven many a sane golfer (a contradiction in terms) to distraction. But at Casa de Campo in the Dominican Republic, Dye’s Teeth of the Dog course has received rave reviews since its opening in 1971, and is perennially ranked in the top 100 courses in the world by most golf publications.

The Teeth of the Dog takes its name from the razor-sharp teeth-like coral reefs along the coast, which are not only an integral design element but an aesthetic element as well. The resort also features two other Dye designs, The Links and La Romana.

A newcomer in the Caribbean is the Prov0 Golf Club on Providenciales in the Turks & Caicos Islands. Although open only since 1992, this Karl Litten design has aged beyond its years in a relatively short time. The course’s two nines are distinct, with the front somewhat open and receptive to the occasionally errant shot — though water is in play on seemingly every hole — while the back is tight, with funnel-like fairways that demand absolute accuracy. Impeccably maintained with exceptional putting surfaces, Provo Golf Club is short enough to accommodate beginning players and long enough from the back tees to test the scratch golfer.

There is some severe undulation, occasionally bordering on “elevation”, which must have been built in, since the surrounding terrain, as you might expect, is flat and relatively featureless. We predict that within two to three years, after the course has had a bit more time to mature, Provo Golf Club will be on every major golf publication’s “must play” list in the Caribbean.

Hotels are few on Providenciales, but the Turquoise Reef Resort & Casino is just a few miles down the road from the course and works closely with the golf club in setting up tee times and booking groups and outings. The Turquoise Reef is sited on one of the most beautiful stretches of beach you’ll find in the islands, and an ocean-front room, while not opulent, is exceptionally comfortable, neatly furnished and nicely equipped.

Finally, there is Empress Josephine Golf Club in Martinique, another Robert Trent Jones-designed course that makes the most of its pristine setting. This traditional design was seemingly carved from the lushly landscaped surroundings, and features elevated greens that preclude bump-and-run approach shots.

At just over 6,600 from the back tees, the challenge of Empress Josephine is primarily in its ability to distract the golfer from the task at hand with its beauty. A round of golf here is a bit pricey, but for a golfer seeking a relaxing round, with an opportunity to score well, amidst some of the best scenery the Caribbean has to offer, Empress Josephine more than adequately fills the void.

At the bottom of it all, it matters little whether the game was conceived by the Scots of the 15th century or the Carib Indians of the fifth. The game, after all, transcends politics, national borders, religion, race; the where of it and the when of it pales in comparison.

The game of golf is revered worldwide for its profound simplicity. Hit it. Find it. Hit it again. But since every time you hit it you have to go find it, wouldn’t you rather find it here . . . than there?