Cream of the Crop: Golf in the Caribbean

Former West Indies test captain Sir Garry Sobers on the Johnnie Walker World Championship in Jamaica next December, and how Caribbean golf is shaping

1991 World Champion Fred CoupledA new direction: former test captain Sir Garry Sobers at his local golf course, Sandy Lane in Barbados. Photograph by Sandy LaneJamaica’s Tryall Club near Montego Bay; in the shadow of the palms (inset).  Photograph by Allsport/ Johnnie WalkerWhere did that go? Greg Norman at the 1991 Championship

Jamaica is very special to me. I started my Test career there in 1954, and scored my maiden Test century at Sabina Park against Pakistan a few years later. The 365 runs I made on that occasion still stand as a Test Match record today. So when I was invited to the Johnnie Walker Championship of Golf in Jamaica last December, I was thrilled to be going back, not as professional cricketer this time but as a spectator, to follow the finest golfers I the world who had qualified to play in the inaugural World Championship.

I was treated royally by my hosts. The accommodation was splendid – a spacious villa on the Tryall estate – and, needless to say, the hospitality of everyone in Jamaica, including the Championship Sponsors, was extremely warm. But my happy experience during the week I was there was only a reflection of how well the event had been put together and managed. Only the best was good enough at the Johnnie Walker World Championship. That’s why 26 of the world’s top golfers had gathered at Tryall Club in Montego Bay in the first place, to compete for a total purse of US$2.5miliions at one of the world’s most renowned golf resorts.

And what a wonderful test Tryall proved to be. I had competed there myself in the Caribbean Championships a couple of years earlier, but the course had obviously been toughened up for the professionals. Some of the holes had been lengthened, for starters, and the fairways had been brought in considerably too. And the rough! Well, once you strayed off the short stuff-forget it. The grass was up to your knees. You needed a harvester to hack out of there. Then, of course, there was the wind: did it ever blow! By the third day, many of the guys were blown right out of contention by the high winds, including Seve Ballasteros whom I had followed most of the day.

One of the lovely things about being a spectator is that you’re on the outside looking in, so although you feel part of the action and you’re involved with what’s going on out there on the field of play, you can still take time to look around and enjoy the scenery. Smell the roses, so to speak. And what struck me most of all about Tryall was how beautiful the place was. One moment the fairways took you right up into the hills, from where there were spectacular views across the course and out over the ocean; while the next moment you were walking at sea level with the salt spray of the Caribbean on your cheeks. Royal palms and coconut trees lined the fairways everywhere, and on a hill in the middle of the estate stood the old Georgian-style Tryall Great House. I couldn’t help thinking how unique the Caribbean is, in its history and its beauty.

That’s why it’s a crying shame that in the Eastern Caribbean we are not developing our resources. If we were, we would already have taken a leaf out of Jamaica’s book, and we would be promoting golf as one of the major sporting activities for visitors to enjoy in our islands.

I saw the TV crews and commentators and cameras at Tryall and realised the tremendous exposure that the Johnnie Walker World Championship was generating for Jamaica around the world. I thought of the magnificent golf resorts in Puerto Rico the Hyatt, Dorado Beach–where, incidentally, they played the New York Life Champions, the grand finale to the Senior PGA Tour, last December as well. I remembered the golfing trips I’ve made to the Bahamas, not to mention Bermuda. And it made me recognise that we haven’t even begun to tap the tourism potential of golf in our islands down south. We have some fine courses, but we still don’t have a world-class golf resort in Antigua, St Lucia or Barbados, the three English-speaking islands which depend most heavily on tourism.

Let’s face it: we are leaving out 40 or 50 million people when we market our tourism without golf. That’s scary. And the thing is, we can compete in the golf market. We have all the natural beauty, the wonderful variety, the climate. All we need is the will and the vision to see golf, not as a rich man’s game any more, but as an opportunity to exploit. One thing is certain: golfers travel the world over to play on the best courses. They come to the larger Caribbean islands. But the Eastern Caribbean does not rate in the “best” category; not yet. And until we do, we can’t market golf in the islands with any emphasis, we can’t attract the big events, like the Johnnie Walker World Championship, which generate the international press and TV coverage that we need.

There are signs that things are beginning to change. There is an excellent “links” course in St Kitts– Royal St Kitts, at Frijiate Ray– and more recently a Robert Trent Jones design opened in Nevis. The Westmoreland project in Barbados seems to be moving at long last, and I understand that this will incorporate a Robert Trent Jones Championship layout as an integral part of the real estate development. All this is good, positive news; and no doubt, as our island economies come to depend more and more on tourism, this drive to develop top class resorts will continue.

Of course, a really healthy spin-off to all this is the growth of the game in the islands themselves. There are far more Caribbean people playing golf than ever before. Right now, the Caribbean Golf Association administers the amateur game with great success, and has attracted member countries from Jamaica and The Bahamas in the north to Trinidad and Tobago down south.

The CGA Championships are the highlight of the golfing calendar every year. These comprise comprehensive team events for men and women, boys and girls, seniors (like myself) and super-seniors. Teams from The Bahamas, Barbados, Jamaica, the countries of the Eastern Caribbean, Puerto Rico and Trinidad and Tobago participate. There are many other island championships during the year, which focus primarily on attracting the amateur golfer. Occasionally, against the odds, one of our youngsters does break through into professional ranks abroad. The Trinidadian Stephen Ames comes to mind: he plays the Ben Hogan Tour in the United States, and he has won, too.

There are a few teenagers around who also seem destined to give the pro circuit a go tomorrow. Jose Bird from Puerto Rico has competed successfully in his age group in the United States, and Barbados’s Sarah Perkins shows the determination and desire to make golf her career.

When I was a boy growing up — not so long ago, it seems– I had never even heard of golf. Yet here I am today– only a few years later– talking about golf and golfers in relation to future economic growth. How things change, and how time flies.

It seems as if it was yesterday that my good friend, the cricketer Sonny Ramadhin, introduced me to the game. It was at Royal Canberra in Sydney, Australia. I was 25 years old; since then, except for seven years when I was too busy playing cricket for Nottinghamshire, I’ve played as often as I possibly can. Always for fun, sometimes competitively; a lot on my home course, Sandy Lane in Barbados, but often in other countries around the world. I’ve enjoyed countless memorable moments on the links. And one of the best was being able to watch, first- hand, the best golfers in the world compete last December at Tryall in the first ever Johnnie Walker Championship.

MAJOR CARIBBEAN GOLF TOURNAMENTS

  • January/February: Trinidad and Tobago Open (St Andrew’s, Moka)
  • June: St Kitts Open, Frigate Bay
  • June: Copa Hyatt, Dorado Beach, Puerto Rico
  • July: junior Caribbean Championships, Trinidad (31-Aug.7)
  • August: Caribbean Amateur Team Championships (Hoerman Cup), Frigate Bay, St Kitts (9-16)
  • November. Jamaica Open
  • December: Barbados Open