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The Globe and Mail
Swinging In The Islands; No Longer A Novelty Act, Caribbean Golf Has Found Its Place In The Sun
Across the islands designers have created championship layouts inspired by the landscape, from a course in St. Kitts where bunkers mimic the pounding surf to jungle fairways in Puerto Rico
By BRIAN KENDALL
4 December 2004
Distracted by the swaying palms and rum punches, golfers long considered the Caribbean more a winter holiday novelty act than a serious golf destination. Popular islands such as Jamaica and Puerto Rico offered a handful of outstanding courses and were fun places to tee it up, but for really great golf vacations they went to Scotland and Ireland and the game's other hotbeds.
All that has changed in the past decade as top designers such as Tom Fazio, Pete Dye, Tom Weiskopf, Greg Norman and Robert Trent Jones Jr. have left their marks at high-end resorts throughout the West Indies by either revamping existing layouts or building entirely new showpieces.
"Luxury resorts now feel they have to have a championship course to survive in a fiercely competitive marketplace," says Canadian golf architect Tom McBroom, who remodelled the old Royal St. Kitts Golf Club on the grounds of the Marriott hotel in St. Kitts. "The golf boom ushered in by Tiger Woods has had a huge impact. Caribbean golf has become world-class."
Despite a particularly bad hurricane season this year, most of the leading courses emerged from the storms relatively unscathed, and throughout the region tourism is quickly returning to normal. Golfers can choose from challenging and spectacularly scenic tropical layouts that range from the ocean-side opulence of Fazio's Green Monkey in Barbados to the cactus-studded beauty of Trent Jones Jr.'s Tierra del Sol in Aruba.
Naturally, the Caribbean's top golf resorts still offer the irresistible beachfront activities that have always drawn vacationers to the islands: water sports, tennis, island tours and children's programs, as well as the time to do nothing more strenuous than lounge by the pool.
But for winter-weary Canadian golfers, the real attraction is the opportunity to play palm tree lined courses that now rank among the world's very best resort tracks. No longer a novelty act, Caribbean golf has found its place in the sun.
An accepted truth in the tourism industry is that it takes at least two superior courses to make a golf destination. Now, with the recent opening of McBroom's new $15-million (all amounts in U.S. dollars) layout at the St. Kitts Marriott Resort, the sister volcanic islands of St. Kitts and Nevis pack a one-two knockout punch that makes them a force in Caribbean golf.
Quality golf used to be found only at the posh Four Seasons Resort Nevis, where a Trent Jones Jr. layout offers breathtaking views as it climbs the side of Mount Nevis. Here, attendants indulge golfers like royalty, dispensing complimentary Evian spritzes and cooling peppermint-scented towels. But Trent Jones Jr. has also provided a demanding test of the game. From the back tee, the carry over a jungly chasm on the par-five 15th hole is a heroic 230 yards.
Gleefully anticipated by local tourism officials, McBroom's new Royal St. Kitts Golf Club near the capital city of Basseterre was built on top of a flat and badly irrigated course of the same name. McBroom, who had never before worked in the Caribbean, completely revamped the site, adding five ponds and three new ocean-side holes 15, 16 and 17 that are the backbone of a thrilling back nine. At the par-three 15th, McBroom memorably flanked the green on both sides with a cascade of bunkers designed to mimic the waves pounding ashore in the background.
McBroom also switched the grass at Royal St. Kitts from Bermuda to seashore paspalum, a hybrid turf that is revolutionizing golf throughout the West Indies. In a region where fresh water is often at a premium, seashore paspalum is resistant to sea spray and retains its emerald hue even on a sparse diet of brackish water.
Waterfalls, rivers, jungles and a dramatic coastline of white-sand coves define the topography of a ruggedly beautiful island renowned as the jewel of Caribbean golf.
Most of Jamaica's best courses are found near bustling Montego Bay on the northwestern coast, one of the few areas to largely escape the ravages of September's Hurricane Ivan, which killed 11 people on the island.
Since its debut in 1960, Jamaica's flagship course has been Tryall Golf Club, part of the exclusive Tryall golf, tennis and beach resort about 20 kilometres west of Montego Bay. Extensively restored in the past year, the opening holes of this Ralph Plummer design skirt the water, then fairways snake uphill through coconut groves before returning to the sea.
Another ageless classic is Half Moon Golf Club, built by the legendary Robert Trent Jones Sr. at the Half Moon Golf, Tennis and Beach Club, one of the Caribbean's plushest resorts. Opened in 1961, the lushly tropical layout flows seamlessly through gentle foothills just beyond the coastline to the east of Montego Bay.
At nearby Cinnamon Hill Golf Course, a beautifully redesigned mountainside layout owned by Wyndham Rose Hall Resort, caddies recount tales of Annee Palmer, a 19th-century mistress of Rose Hall sugar plantation. It was in the stately Georgian great house looming above the course's dramatic back nine that Jamaica's "white witch" was said to have killed three husbands, as well as several unfortunate slaves.
The notorious mistress lends her name to the real star of Jamaican golf, White Witch Golf Club, a plush yet murderously difficult Robert von Hagge-Rick Baril course built even farther up the mountainside by the Ritz-Carlton Rose Hall Resort. Launched to wild acclaim in 2000, White Witch features a roller-coaster routing through rocky outcroppings and gaping ravines that affords panoramic views of the turquoise Caribbean Sea from no fewer than 16 holes.
Even before Tiger Woods and guests Oprah Winfrey and Michael Jordan celebrated his wedding there in October, the ultra-exclusive Sandy Lane resort was the talk of the international golf community. Few courses have generated as much advance hype as the Green Monkey, Sandy Lane's $25-million showpiece.
Designed by Tom Fazio, widely considered the world's leading golf architect, the 7,389-yard layout on the popular west coast, 10 kilometres north of the capital of Bridgetown, slowly builds drama through the first eight parkland-style holes, then startles golfers with a rapid descent into an abandoned quarry, where 27-metre-tall coral walls dwarf the fairways.
So spectacular is the design and ocean-side setting that upon its completion last year the Green Monkey immediately took its place alongside such leading Caribbean resort layouts as Casa de Campo in the Dominican Republic and White Witch in Jamaica. The only hitch is that the course is restricted to guests of Sandy Lane, where room rates start at $700 a night.
Sandy Lane does, however, offer public access to its other championship layout, the Country Club Course, another acclaimed Fazio track. Also offering limited public play is the nearby Royal Westmoreland Golf and Country Club, a scenic Trent Jones Jr. design.
A more modest option is the Barbados Golf Club, a 40-minute drive down the coast from the Green Monkey and Royal Westmoreland. Built atop the old Durants course and funded by both the government and private interests, the challenging 6,697-yard track is where locals are learning to love a game until now played mostly by rich tourists.
Set on the largest of 365 mostly uninhabited islands on the Exuma archipelago in the Bahamas, the recently opened Greg Norman layout at the Four Seasons Resort Great Exuma at Emerald Bay rivals the Green Monkey as the most eagerly anticipated new course in the Caribbean even if geography purists might object that the Bahamas are actually in the Atlantic Ocean, not the Caribbean Sea.
Norman's demanding 7,001-yard track at the 183-room luxury retreat, which opened in November, 2003, is wrapped around turquoise lakes and coral outcrops, and includes a magnificent six-hole loop along the edge of a peninsula thrusting into the sea.
Not to be outdone by the competition, South African entrepreneur Sol Kerzner, the developer of the opulent Atlantis resort and casino on Paradise Island, lavished millions in renovating the old Paradise Island Golf Club. Surprisingly hilly for a beachside course, the renamed Ocean Club Golf Course is a superb Tom Weiskopf design that affords panoramic ocean views from almost every hole.
Grand Bahama Island offers two major draws for serious golfers: Dick Wilson's Lucayan Course, a tough tree-lined gem built in 1962; and the reborn Ruby Golf Course, which has earned raves for its makeover by Jim Fazio, but is temporarily closed due to hurricane damage.
Among the Caribbean islands, only Puerto Rico can match and possibly even surpass the quality and variety of Jamaica's golf product. Robert Trent Jones Sr., Greg Norman, Gary Player, Arthur Hill and other marquee designers have all contributed championship layouts to a lushly verdant island still dotted with working plantations.
Built in the 1950s by Laurance Rockefeller, the 72-hole Trent Jones Sr. complex at the Hyatt Dorado Beach Resort and Country Club, set on the north shore near San Juan, remains the benchmark for local golf. Trent Jones Sr. elegantly carved these four challenging ocean-side layouts from former citrus and coconut plantations.
Equally blessed in its setting is Norman's fiendishly difficult River Course at the Westin Rio Mar Beach Resort and Golf Club, where the roller-coaster routing crosses the Mameyes River as it emerges from the El Yunque rain forest on the northeast coast. The property also offers the Ocean Course, a classic design by George and Tom Fazio.
The Palmas del Mar Country Club, on the island's southeast coast, features two must-play courses. Gary Player's Palm Course is an exhilarating march through jungle, marshes and coconut groves. Even more spectacular is the Flamboyan Course, an eight-year-old Rees Jones design that crosses the Candelero River before skirting the ocean and climbing into the green hills.
Perched on a bluff farther up the coast is Arthur Hills's El Conquistador course at the Wyndham El Conquistador Resort, one of the island's most exclusive properties. The ninth and 18th holes of this unforgettable layout share a green guarded by a two-tiered lake and a waterfall.
The golf course building boom of recent years has seen the opening of outstanding courses throughout the Caribbean, as well as the upgrading of old favourites.
No less an authority than Golf Magazine has called the Dominican Republic's lavish Casa de Campo the "finest golf resort in the world."
Pete Dye's recently restored Teeth of the Dog at Casa de Campo, featuring seven ocean-side holes on the island's southeast coast, has attracted affluent golfers ever since its opening in 1971. Dye also designed the resort's two other public-play courses, The Links and Dye Fore, a 7,770-yard behemoth that opened to rave reviews last year.
Situated near the lighthouse on Aruba's desert-like northwest coast, Robert Trent Jones Jr.'s Tierra del Sol Golf Course is a cunningly designed 6,811-yard emerald oasis in an otherwise stark landscape of giant cactus and divi-divi trees.
Guadeloupe's scenic east coast is home to the venerable Golf de St-Francois club, a Trent Jones Sr. layout booby-trapped by massive bunkers and water hazards made even more daunting by the fierce trade winds that almost always affect play.
Cuba's Varadero Golf Club, designed by Canadian Les Furber and built on the site of the abandoned DuPont estate at Varadero Beach, is the only 18-hole course on an island that until recently scorned golf as decadent and elitist. Opened in 1998, Furber's layout flows seamlessly with the ocean-side terrain, offering views of Cardenas Bay from most holes and ending with a wallop at the 18th, where the green sits high on a cliff.
One of the last of the Caribbean destinations to embrace golf tourism, the Dutch island of Curaçao joined the club with the 2001 launch of an excellent Rocky Rocquemore layout at the Blue Bay Curaçao Golf & Beach Resort. Located near the capital of Willemstad, the traditionally designed track includes several holes routed along the coral cliffs above the sea.
Brian Kendall is the author of Northern Links: Canada From Tee to Tee.
Pack your clubs
Most top Caribbean golf courses are owned by hotels that tend to be among the priciest on their islands, such as Jamaica's Wyndham Rose Hall Resort (where high-season room rates run around $420 U.S. a night.)Deals, however, are often available by booking through holiday packagers. Local tourist boards can also help track down less expensive accommodations located near the courses.
Similarly, green fees at the best courses tend to be expensive, typically ranging from about $110 a round to a high of $300 at the ultra-exclusive Green Monkey in Barbados. Again, holiday packages that include green fees often bring rates down.
Royal St. Kitts Golf Club: www.royalstkittsgolfclub.com; (869) 466-2700.
Four Seasons Resort Nevis: (869) 469-1111; www.fourseasons.com.
St. Kitts Tourism Authority: 416-368-6707; www.stkittsnevis.com.
Tryall Golf Club: (876) 956-5660; www.tryallclub.com.
Half Moon Golf Club: (876) 953-2211; www.halfmoon-resort.com.
Cinnamon Hill Golf Course: www.wyndham-jamaica.com; (876) 953-2650.
White Witch Golf Club: (876) 518-0174; www.ritzcarlton.com.
Jamaica Tourist Board: 416-482-7850 in Toronto or (450) 928-9859 in Montreal; jamaicatravel.com.
Sandy Lane (Green Monkey and Country Club courses): (246) 444-2500; www.sandylane.com/golf.
Royal Westmoreland Golf and Country Club: royal-westmoreland.com; (246) 422-4653.
Barbados Golf Club: (246) 428-8463; www.barbadosgolfclub.com.
Barbados Tourism Authority: 1-800-268-9122; www.barbados.org.
Four Seasons Golf Club Great Exuma at Emerald Bay: (242) 336-6800; www.fourseasons.com.
Ocean Club Golf Course: (242) 363-6682; www.oceanclub.com.
Ruby Golf Course: (242) 352-9661 (due to reopen in April.)..
Lucayan Course: (242) 373-1066.
Bahamas Tourism: 416-968-2999; www.bahamas.com.
Hyatt Dorado Beach Resort and Country Club: (787) 796-1234;
Westin Rio Mar Beach Golf Resort and Spa (River and Ocean courses): www.westinriomar.com; 1-800-474-6627.
Palmas del Mar Country Club (Palm and Flamboyan courses):
palmasdelmarcc.memfirstweb.net; (787) 285-2255.
Wyndham El Conquistador Resort (El Conquistador course): (787) 863-1000; www.wyndham.com/hotels/SJUEC/main.wnt.
Casa de Campo (Teeth of the Dog and Dye Fore courses): Dominican Republic; www.casadcampo.com; 1-800-877-3643.
Tierra de Sol Resort & Country Club: Aruba; www.tierradelsol.com (297) 586-0978.
Golf de St-Francois: Guadeloupe;(590) 590 88-41-87.
Varadero Golf Club: Cuba 53 (45) 668 482; varaderogolfclub.com.
Blue Bay Golf Club: Curacao; www.bluebaygolf.com; (5999) 868-1755.