I first played at Tryall, about a dozen miles west of Montego Bay, Jamaica, in 1960, one year after the Ralph Plummer–designed course opened for play. Forty-seven years later, I'm still playing there and enjoying it every bit as much, which is something I can't say about my game.
Tryall is what I've come to think of as an old-fashioned Caribbean course. It's a very good layout, with terrain that's wonderfully varied—holes along the sea, holes that trace the foothills, holes that require carries uphill, over water, downhill—and shotmaking demands that involve all the clubs in the bag. That's true, I suppose, of a lot of newer Caribbean courses—the well-publicized viridian marvels in places such as the Dominican Republic, Barbados and Nevis. All are great tests of golf, I'm sure. But they're not old-fashioned, which is to say they lack a certain raggedy quality, a charming whiff of goat pasture, if you will.
Back in the olden days, golf in the islands during the winter months was truly a pastime. It wasn't the big deal it has become. The point of the Caribbean exercise was sun and water and friends and family and rum. Golf?Well, maybe a casual three-hour round on a course that was primarily pleasant to play, that wasn't a "test" (that wretched word again!) set up to thwart the scratch player and the rest of us be damned. It was fifteen minutes on the range for lack of anything better to do. A few holes with a couple of clubs and the grandkids. Those were nice add-ons, were what island golf was about. Who comes to the Caribbean for a test, anyway?The point is to relax. In all things. I love my golf as much as most men, but when I'm at Tryall somehow the pull of the game is less insistent. The islands' lure is the lovely, indolent indecisiveness they instill, which adds up to a state of mind that's hardly conducive to eighteen holes on a 140-slope track.
That's probably the key point about the old-fashioned game. The courses weren't so finished, a decision that was based on taste rather than on budget. There's not a club in the world I can think of that can claim a richer aggregate net worth of its members than Lyford Cay, outside Nassau, but it was only about twelve years ago, after a good half-century in operation, that the club finally put in a watering system. Likewise, no one familiar with the Mill Reef Club, the Antigua retreat of the Mellon family, among others, would rate its ancient nine-hole layout among the world's top thousand courses, as these things are ranked today, but I have never heard a game at Mill Reef described with less than love.
Modern courses inevitably reveal the spoor of the bulldozer and backhoe. This is especially true in the Caribbean, where most course locations tend to be flat. Few contemporary golf architects know how to work with a flattish piece of ground. They bring in the machines and throw up mounds and dig great troughs and wallows and build bunkers filled with impossibly white sand, and then they make sure that everything is green, green, green!
The old courses follow the land and occasionally bring the odd palm tree into play. The grass tends to run to a pale shade, and their caretakers don't mind if here or there a rough edge or scruffy patch intrudes. This is the tropics, don't forget. Life isn't neat and orderly and rustproof—not the way it can be in, say, John's Island, Scottsdale or Rancho Santa Fe.
At the old courses, it wasn't just the fair green that might be irregular. The caddies at such places were eccentric, many of them "characters" (a word I use in, again, its old-fashioned sense). The practice grounds were usually a matter of indifference, haphazard affairs of nets and signs that read Don't . . . . People did take lessons, because many of these places employed top teaching pros from first-line British and U.S. clubs who were likely to impart useful swing thoughts to be committed to muscle memory once back home among the snows.
And finally, there's this: About as good a way as any to tell whether you're on an old-style Caribbean course is if you can listen to nature. To the parrots in the mango trees or, at Tryall, to the noisy donkey that lives up the hill off the thirteenth fairway. The reason you can do this is that the mowing machines aren't out there as they are on high-maintenance courses where everything has to be in a state of botanical impeccability. Modern golf architecture seems to take as a given the availability of a panzer division of course-tending machinery; the earlier generations didn't. Nature was at least a 60 percent partner when it came to lawn care.
In the islands, you live with what you're given, with courses built back in a day when people responded to life's irregularities and imperfections—what used to be called "rub o' the green"—with a shrug and a smile and a sigh: "Well, hey, what do you expect?This isn't Augusta; this is Jamaica!"