Seeing Green: Trinidad’s Stephen Ames

Stephen Ames is putting Trinidad and Tobago and the Caribbean on the golfing map. Mark Meredith finds out how it all started

Driving Mr. Ames. Photograph by Mark MeredithGolf clinic at the Chaguaramas Golf Club. Photograph by Mark MeredithPhotograph by Mark MeredithPhotograph by Mark MeredithStephen Ames. Photograph by Mark Meredith

Chaguaramas Public Golf Course on Trinidad’s north-west peninsula. A still, sultry February afternoon. Vultures wheel lazily under a brooding sky, riding the thermals above the forested hills of Tucker Valley. White cattle egrets patrol the empty fairways and greens, undisturbed by flying golf balls and the cries of their frustrated owners. Insects, creaking bamboos, and silence. Nothing else.

Then, just as one begins to imagine the howler monkeys coming down from the hills to forage among the thickets surrounding the fairways, the first car appears from the forest-covered canopy. Then another. And another. Soon, there’s a steady stream of taxis, school buses, cars and bicycles drawing up to the newly paved clubhouse car park. A crowd is gathering at the practice ground where piles of golf balls and assorted golf clubs lie. Rows of chairs are filled with chattering children. Parents and club members line the makeshift bar. One seating area, covered by a canopy, is cordoned off and guarded by armed policemen; there is a lectern and microphone. A sound engineer repeats: “Testing for sound.”

Motorcycle engines can be heard approaching along the narrow clubhouse road. Heads turn as a convoy of black limousines, police vehicles and motorcycle outriders sweeps past. A Benz bearing the registration plate “PM 1” unloads Trinidad and Tobago’s Prime Minister, Basdeo Panday and his wife Oma. Flanked by men in black safari suits, the PM and his entourage move towards their designated seats where they wait for the show to begin, and the man they’ve all come to see.

If Stephen Ames is surprised by the attention his presence has caused, he doesn’t show it. He chats quietly with people he hasn’t seen for nearly three years and is congratulated by well-wishers. He’s at Chaguaramas with his brother, Robert, also a professional, and two other pros from England and the US. Stephen is the star of this golf clinic for youngsters. It is part of Trinidad and Tobago’s “Week of Golf”, a programme of events to mark the re-launched, re-sponsored CL Financial Trinidad and Tobago Golf Open at St Andrew’s Golf Club, Moka, scheduled for the following day.

For Trinidad and Tobago and Caribbean golf, Stephen Ames is what Brian Lara is to cricket, Ato Boldon to athletics, Dwight Yorke to football. It isn’t just that he is the most successful golf professional ever produced by the islands: he is the only touring professional to have been produced by them. Ames is based in Calgary, Canada, where he has lived for the last five years, married to Jodi, a Canadian. Now he is back home for a few weeks with his year-old son, Justin, and a reputation to be equally proud of.

Prime Minister Panday and Minister of Sport Pamela Nicholson are proud of him, too. They recount Ames’s triumphs to the audience who probably know them already: finishing fifth in the Open at Royal Troon last year, ahead of Woods, Faldo, Norman et al; winner of the Benson and Hedges Open in England in 1996; winner of the Lyons Open on the 1993 Volvo Tour.

Prime Minister Panday is new to golf, but he’s completely hooked. He chides his assistants for telling him to dress without his golf shoes. To everyone’s delight he is given a public golf lesson by Ames and asked to demonstrate what he’s just learned. The PM hits a succession of five irons in the air, and mostly pretty straight, to loud applause. Then, to a commentary over the PA by one of the professionals, Ames takes the five iron, and with a neat, compact swing devoid of exaggerated movement, effortlessly sends balls soaring towards the 200m mark, straight as a die, or faded, or drawn as instructed. Little boys sitting cross-legged on the grass follow their flight, mouths wide open with awe at the power and accuracy of their local hero.

Anyone with access to American TV sports stations may soon start seeing much more of Stephen Ames. Prior to his two-week stay back home, Ames finished 3rd in the US PGA qualifying tournament in Orlando, Florida. Now he is up against the cream of American golfers, many of them products of golf schools and scholarships, worlds apart from Ames’s own golfing education.

Stephen Ames was introduced to golf when he was 12. He was a natural sports player, swimming and playing tennis competitively. But he was a bit too good: he soon found himself running out of opposition his own age. Relying on older people for games was difficult because they were mostly working adults, with little time to spare. Some of his friends, though, had started playing golf. One day, while walking with them along Pointe-a-Pierre Golf Course to his house which bordered one of the fairways, he “had a go”.

“The feeling of trying to hit a golf ball was thrilling,” he recalls. “I realised this was a game I could play by myself and get a lot of enjoyment from. I got the bug. I was out there every day, chipping, putting, driving. As soon as the sun was up I was gone — till the sun came down. It was like being in my own shell. I didn’t hang out with my friends a lot, and I wasn’t very talkative. I was shy. But playing golf in my own little world, I was happy.”

As any amateur knows, bringing down your handicap to single figures takes years; and for most it’s a goal that remains forever distant and unobtainable. However, Stephen Ames is one of those people who excel at any sport they turn their hand to.

By the age of 15 he was a scratch player, a zero handicap, and had won his first monthly medal at St Andrew’s G.C. In 1980, at 16, he broke the course record at Sandy Lane golf course in Barbados, shooting a 66. The local press started paying attention. His confidence soared, he says; he knew he could do it again.

Meanwhile, his education had suffered; he just hated studying and loved playing golf. But there was no thought yet of golf as a profession. He finished school and went to the US, doing a degree in Business Administration. He hated that, too. Returning to Trinidad, he began working for his father, Michael, who ran a maintenance business at Point Lisas. He worked in the accounts department and then in the machine shop. “I sat down every day and thought: what the hell am I doing here?”

Ames’s golf kept improving. He played as much competitive amateur golf as he could. He was hard on himself; he had a short fuse and he pushed himself, knowing he could do better. The pressure to perform was coming from within, he says. When Stephen was 23, Michael Ames suggested he try his hand as a professional, “to see what I could get out of it”. Unlike Europe and America, turning professional in Trinidad didn’t involve lengthy apprenticeships and examinations. Instead, he entered his next event solely for the money. It was at Pointe-a-Pierre G.C. and he won it. He followed that with the Jamaica Open where he placed a creditable 11th.

he next step was to join a tour. He opted for mini-tour events in the US, popular four-day competitions among up-and-coming pros. He paid his US$500 entrance fee and chased a first prize of $5,000. He had to win to eat: there were no golf lessons or pro-shop to bring in the greenbacks. But the four-day format, and playing with other professionals week after week, was an invaluable experience.

In 1989 he qualified for the Canadian Tour, playing his way slowly from West to East coasts. He learned more about the game, and himself.

“I got to realise how important it was to have an all-round game,” he says. “Every part had to continue to work well in order to place well and make a good cheque. You’re rooming with a guy, trying to save money, flying to some events, renting cars, paying hotels. It was expensive. It’s a lot more difficult to play with that much pressure to make money hanging over you. I made about $15,000 Canadian, but I spent it all just getting to those events.

“It was rough, but it was fun. I realised playing on that tour how much I thrived on pressure. I absolutely loved it. I remember having $1,200 left in my pocket and I still had to pay $600 for the next event. I knew I had to get off my arse. A week later I finished eighth with 3,200 bucks. Here we go! I thought.”

Ames joined the Hogan Tour, now the Nike Tour, the stepping-stone to the US PGA Tour. He says it was probably the best experience he ever had. The Hogan Tour boasted quality fields: players like Tom Lehman, Jeff Maggert and John Daley. Nobody paid attention to the fact that he was from the Caribbean, but they may have looked at him differently when he started posting some imposing scores.

He spent the next five years playing on the European Tour. He knew many of the pros from their visits to Tobago to play in the Tobago Classic (once the Johnnie Walker) at Mt Irvine Bay Golf Club. He enjoyed their company, finding them much warmer than their American counterparts who, he believes, were none too keen on foreign successes on their soil. He also enjoyed the golf courses more.

“To me, a British links is golf. You have the option of what type of golf shot you want to play: the low bump and run, or high in the air. In the States it’s all in the air. In the British Open you have the wild heather and rolling fairways; in the US Open it’s perfect tee boxes, not a brown speck anywhere, beautifully trimmed and very nice, but I didn’t get the same out of them.”

Stephen Ames has never lacked confidence. His introduction to the ranks of the world’s most famous golfers on the European Tour — Faldo, Ballesteros, Langer, Woosnam, Olazabal — didn’t faze him. He says he wasn’t overawed by reputations, though he admits that watching Nick Faldo practising was like watching a magician, such was his precision — “the closest to Ben Hogan in ball-striking ability.” He was encouraged by Seve Ballesteros who had spotted his talent and admired his swing, often volunteering to play practice rounds with the young Trinidadian. The charismatic Spaniard has since become a good friend.

In 1996, in truly awful conditions of freezing 50 mph winds and rain, Ames — almost unrecognisable in a black woolly hat pulled low over his ears — ground his way to a memorable victory in the Benson and Hedges Open, against the weather-hardened veterans of the European Tour. He says his mind was there, even if his golf swing wasn’t.

But his career highlight has unquestionably been his 5th place at Troon’s Open in 1997. The Trinidad Express trumpeted: “Ames tames Tiger”. The boy wonder finished on one under par, Ames finished four under.

“It was a great experience,” he says. “Not so much a battle against the other guys, but a battle from within. I played the easier front nine holes badly, and the much more difficult back nine exceptionally well. I just couldn’t get started.

“I loved the atmosphere. It’s 10 times better than the US Open. In the British Open there are huge galleries, just for the practice rounds. The experience for me was fantastic: clapping me 150 yards down the last fairway — ‘Look at Ames! He’s from the Caribbean — tied fifth!’”

Ames is being coached by Irishman and ex-touring pro Denis Sheehy, who has remodelled his swing. Now, Ames says, there is much more economy of movement, with the result that he is striking the ball better than ever, hitting it 30 yards further.

He appreciates very well the benefits of a good coach, but believes modern professionals have it easy compared to the generation of his hero, Ben Hogan.

“He had the best swing I’ve seen. What made it the best swing? Ben would have said he ‘dug it out of the dirt’. He hit a lot of golf balls, thousands of them, until his swing was perfected. It took him a long time, about 10 years before he started winning. Today, golfers are doing it through teachers who are putting them in the correct positions. You can virtually jump out of college and start winning on the PGA Tour, thanks to teachers.

“I have to give Denis full credit for turning my ball striking game around. Now we’re working on the short game. My chipping could be stronger, my bunker play is weak, and my putting is very weak.”

Ames will work hard to put these faults right. He rises to challenges, isn’t easily satisfied, and that’s probably bad news for some pros on the US PGA Tour. In March, in his first event on the Tour, the Nissan Open in California, he finished third, nine under par, three behind Tiger Woods and Billy Mayfair.

As he isn’t elegible to play in the Ryder Cup, his nearest ambition is to qualify for the President’s Cup, when the USA takes on the Rest of the World, bar Europe. Trouble is, he has to get ahead of other overseas players like Nick Price, Ernie Els, Greg Norman, Jumbo Osaki, Frank Nobilo . . . Another ambition is to put Caribbean golf on the map. He’s made a good start, but he can’t do it all; he knows part of the problem lies at home.

“Golf is a nothing sport in the Caribbean,” he moans. “The younger generation is taking more interest, but everybody’s still stuck on cricket and football. I’m doing the Pro-Am and clinics to promote the game, trying to get the Government more involved in giving something back to the game itself. Nothing has been done for golf in T&T: cricket’s got it, football’s got it, athletics has it, everybody’s got it. I would like to see everyone benefiting from golf: more courses, more juniors playing, golf as part of the school curriculum, like cricket and soccer.

“Golf has built me for the person I am now. Golf has shown me a lot as a person. I’m a mature man now and can handle situations which have nothing to do with golf, but it’s golf that’s taught me that maturity. It can do that for other youngsters, too. In sports like cricket and football, you can play your heart out, but if the other 10 guys aren’t with you, you’re not going to win, are you? In golf, it’s you, you, you.”

Ames admits he’s obsessed with golf. Just like his younger brother Robert, he collects videos of golfing greats, past and present, stills of broken-down golf swings, old books, but he’s not into ancient niblicks and putters. He leaves that to Ben Crenshaw. To him, the golf club isn’t the interesting part — it’s the person swinging it.

The desire to do better makes Ames tick, and he has buckets of ambition to go with it.

With the commitment and will to succeed that he has already displayed in his late-starting career, there seems no reason why his superb performance in last year’s British Open should be a one-off. And, as if to demonstrate this desire, his return home for the T&T Golf Week resulted in his promptly breaking the St Andrew’s course record during the Shell Pro-Am with an eight under par 64.

Personally, I have no doubt of Stephen Ames’s ability. I lay on the ground three feet from his clubhead and asked him to belt a succession of golf balls over my head while I took some pictures. I just knew he wouldn’t top it, and I still have my teeth to prove it.

Golf Caribbean

Golf is on the rise in the Caribbean with new courses being built or planned continually. It’s not surprising: after you’ve played golf in the Caribbean, the frosty autumn mornings on the links back home may not hold quite the appeal they once used to. But palm-lined fairways with views of turquoise seas, cathedrals of bamboo, rain forests tumbling down to tees and greens, and extravagantly painted wildlife can cause problems -— like keeping your mind on the game. Yes, it’s tough playing here.

Most courses in the Caribbean cater for the holiday golfer. Often, courses are part of a purpose-built resort, or linked to large hotels where reduced or free green fees form part of the package for their guests. Visitors’ fees may vary from high season to low season; some famous courses require the use of carts or caddies; some may ask for handicap certificates; most offer club rentals.

Antigua

Cedar Valley, near St John’s

T: (268) 462-0161

Par 69

Aruba

Tierra Del Sol

T: (297) 860978

18 holes, Par 71; a Robert Trent Jones Jr championship course: “a desert course with an ocean view”. Has a target style design and the same strong tradewinds that draw the windsurfers. Driving range.

Aruba Golf Club

T: (297) 842 006

9 holes: water traps, lots of sandtraps and a 632yd par 5. Fun.

Barbados

Barbados has five golf courses which, like much of the island, are dedicated to the fun-loving visitor.

Royal Westmoreland

T: (246) 422-4653

18 holes

Highly rated by the pros, and by its creator, Robert Trent Jones Jr, who describes this links design as one of his best. The 365yd 8th is named after cricket legend, Sir Garfield Sobers, the same yardage as his old world batting record.

Sandy Lane Golf Club

Sandy Lane Hotel

T: (246) 432-1145

18 holes: the island’s most famous course; like the hotel, impeccably presented.

Rockley Golf Course

T: (246) 435-7873; 9 holes

Almond Beach Village

T: (246) 422-4900; 9 holes

Belair Golf Club

T: (246) 423 4653; Par 3, 9 holes

Dominican Republic

It won’t be long before the Dominican Republic has 20 golf courses. Yes, 20. At the moment, they’ve only got 16. These include designs by Robert Trent Jones Sr and Jr, Gary Player and Pete Dye. There are links-style courses, hilly, forested and flat ones, even one modelled on Pebble Beach. Among them is Golf Magazine’s 20th world-ranked, well-named ‘Teeth of the Dog’ course. It bites — seven holes front the Caribbean Sea.

La Romana

Teeth of the Dog Course, Casa de Campo Resort

18 holes, Par 72 links

One reviewer said it was the best course he’d played worldwide: “better than Pebble Beach, more fun than St Andrews . . . could play here all day, every day”.

La Romana

T: (809) 523-3333

18 holes, Par 71

La Romana Country Club

18 holes, Par 72

Puerto Plata

Playo Dorado Golf Club

T: (809) 320-4340

18 holes, Par 72

Robert Trent Jones.

Jack Tar Village

Puerto Plata Golf Course

T: (809) 587-3557

18 holes, Par 72

Juan Dolio

Los Marlin’s, Metro Country Club

Paul Dionne’s International Academy of Golf.

Jamaica

Jamaica has much to offer the travelling golfer. There are 10 courses with two more in the pipeline, many of championship standard — the Johnnie Walker World Championship is held here. There are intriguing designs, stunning vistas, well-managed clubs and purpose-built resorts catering specifically for the holiday golfer. Most of the action is centred on the north coast, but there are clubs at Kingston and Mandeville, too.

Montego Bay

Half Moon Golf Club

T: (876) 953-2731

18 holes, Par 72; 7119 yds.

Designed by Robert Trent Jones; a long spacious course with a monster 535yd par 5. Good greens, suitable for all players.

Wyndham Rose Hall Resort

T: (876) 953-2650

18 holes, Par 72; 6598 yds.

The 8th hole, nicknamed “Chinaman’s Reef”, doglegs into the sea; regarded as one of the world’s most difficult holes. Very scenic back nine.

Ironshore Golf & Country Club

T: (876) 953-2800

18 holes, Par 72; 6633 yds.

A links-style course; well-bunkered, true greens require measured approaches; many blind holes.

Spanish Town

Caymanas Golf Club

T: (876) 997-8026

18 holes, Par 72; 6844 yds.

The island’s first major 18-hole championship course; known for its elevated tees and greens; the 12th hole is a killer.

Kingston

Constant Spring Golf Club

T: (876) 924-1610

18 holes, Par 70; 6196 yds.

Short and very tight; the fairways are narrow, but the course is one of Jamaica’s most scenic, the 13th in particular.

Sandy Bay

Tryall Golf & Beach Club

T: (876) 956-5660

18 holes, Par 70; 6920 yds.

Host of the Johnnie Walker World Championship; rolling fairways, tricky greens, lovely views of the sea; one of the best — anywhere.

Ocho Rios

Sandals Golf & Country Club

T: (876) 975-0119/20/21

18 holes, Par 71; 6424 yds.

Very scenic with beautiful trees when you’re not stuck behind one; 3rd hole, a 200yd carry over a deep pond.

SuperClubs Golf Club, Runaway Bay

T: (876) 973-2561

18 holes, Par 72; 6870 yds.

Host of Jamaica Open; long fairways and sand bunkers; a short walk from the sea with good ocean views. Suitable for all levels; good caddies.

Mandeville

Manchester Country Club

T: (876) 962-2403

9 greens, 18 tee boxes, Par 35; 2865 yds.

The oldest course in Jamaica, built 100 years ago and very popular; undulating fairways and cunningly placed bunkers.

Nevis

Four Seasons Resort, Pinney’s Beach

T: (869) 469-1111

18 holes, Par 71, 6,766 yds.

Described as sensational, quiet, and in paradise, too!

Puerto Rico

A great place for golf; they call it “Scotland in the Sun”. There are 14 courses, six of which are championship standard. Four Robert Trent Jones designed championship courses are in the San Juan area at the Hyatt Dorado Beach and Hyatt Regency Cerromar Beach resorts. For five of the toughest consecutive holes in the Caribbean, try Palmas Del Mar on the southeast coast at Humacao.

Puerto Rico Cerromar Beach

Hyatt Regency Cerromar Beach GC

North Course Par 72

T: (787) 796-8915

South Course Par 72

T: (787) 796-1234

Both designed by Robert Trent Jones.

Dorado Beach

Hyatt Dorado Beach GC

T: (787) 796-1234

East Course Par 74

West Course Par 74

That man, Robert Trent Jones, again. Highly rated with spectacular ocean views.

Humacao

Palmas del Mar GC

T: (787) 852-6000

18 holes, Par 72

A superb Gary Player design, suited to all levels of play: tough front nine, easier back nine.

Aquadilla

Punta Borinquen Golf Club

T: (787) 980-2987

18 holes, Par 72, originally designed for Eisenhower.

Rio Grande

Bahia Beach Public GC

T: (787) 256-5600

18 holes, Par 72 on the ocean.

St Kitts

Royal St Kitts Golf Club, Frigate Bay

T: (869) 645-8339

18 holes, Par 72, 6918 yds.

Tobago

Mt Irvine Bay Hotel & Golf Club

T: (868) 639-8871

18 holes, 6500 yds

A challenging and beautiful course with mesmerising views of the sea through avenues of coconut trees; see your golf ball ricochet like pinball among the palms. Host of many tournaments. Voted Caribbean Golf Resort of the Year in 1994.

Trinidad

St Andrews Golf Club, Moka

T: (868) 629-2314

18 holes, Par 72

A hilly course carved into the forest of the Maraval Valley outside Port of Spain. Very scenic, with back and front nines offering real, but differing challenges; the back nine is the prettiest and hilliest.

Chaguaramas Public Golf Course

T: (868) 634-4349 ext.129 or 145

9 holes, 18 tee boxes, Par 67, 5646 yds

The only public course in the southern Caribbean, in a setting that would be hard to beat: the forested hills of the isolated Tucker Valley, also a nature reserve. Enjoyable and testing, with smallish greens and a good practice area. Worth the visit for the location alone.

Turks And Caicos Islands

Provo Golf Club, Providenciales

T: (649) 946 5991

18 holes, Par 72; 6217 yds.