Year-Round Golf in Jamaica
Published: May 2009
By Michael M. Thomas
As surely as spring stretches into summer, the lines for golf in America stretch from sea to shining sea. No problem, mon. Open tee times await in Jamaica, where great golf is never off-season.
"When playing golf," Charles B. MacDonald wrote, "one wants to be alone with nature." The "father of American golf" may have been prompted to this reflection by a line from an old hymn: "Where every prospect pleases, and only man is vile."
Of course he was right, but how lunatic the prospect of summer golf in North America today makes the idea seem. Thanks to the otherwise fortuitous golf boom, between June and September practically everywhere in the northern hemisphere, there's hell to pay. For the year-round golfer accustomed to playing his home course in a brisk three hours and some, the onset of summer can mean only one thing: The hordes are headed north from their Arizona and Florida winter burrows, bringing families and business connections with them and calling ahead for tee times.
The well-clubbed golfer has it best. The poor supplicant who merely knows someone in a club will be obliged to resort either to groveling of a kind that would embarrass the rankest social climber or to bribery, which no longer works the way it used to. And yet even this miserable soul has it better than the golfer forced to seek a public tee time in summer. As long as the winter winds howl, there's hope: Sleet and snow will tend to thin the ranks. But once the days turn warm, the lines at Bethpage and Presidio stretch almost to the sea, no matter the hour. Resorts offer no haven; most are now (over) booked years in advance, at least the ones to which the golfing mind will instinctively turn in summer: the Michigan peninsula, Cape Cod, the Berkshires, the Rockies, the Smokies and so on. Here and there, once upon a time, one could chance upon an unexploited gem, whose remoteness, or intransigent stand on the matter of carts, generally disqualified it from consideration. But most of this kind have since been found out by golf-travel packagers, made accessible to private jets or ruined by cart paths. Fifteen years ago, in early June, when winter's nip was still in the air, I had some very enjoyable rounds on the Highlands course--the masterpiece of the great Canadian architect Stanley Thompson--way up at the tip of Nova Scotia's Cape Breton Island. Now, I hear, Highlands has carts, and since the desperation of golfers knows no season, nor terror of inconvenience, I fear that even in the chilly days of June the course will be crowded.
And this brings me to my point. If there is any hope for the summer golfer, I would like to suggest, it is to play in the "wrong" place at the "wrong" season.
A place like the Caribbean. In August.
Take Jamaica, my island. Almost forty years ago, my parents built a house at a new development called Tryall--a former sugar plantation about twelve miles west of Montego Bay, about ten minutes beyond the universally renowned resort of Round Hill. A group of Texans was behind Tryall, and since a Texan without a golf course is a person naked to the worst the world can do, the first order of business was to build one. The architect Ralph Plummer was hired and eighteen holes were laid out: nine down on the flatter land by the sea, nine up along the slopes--some gentle, some severe--that foot the ridge than runs down the center of the island.
Upon completion, it was far and away the best course in the Caribbean, and may still be (I haven't played the new Trent Jones Jr. course at the Four Seasons on Nevis, which by all reports is marvelous). Tryall was for four years the site of the Johnny Walker World Championship, which was last played there in 1995. I remember one round, when the wind was really up, as it can be in December, and people like Curtis Strange, who had earlier won his second consecutive U.S. Open at Oak Hills, were going around in the mid-eighties. In other words, it's a playable course with conspicuous teeth.
At first, like most, I went to Jamaica in winter. As a young married, I put down summer roots in the Hamptons, where I belonged to a fine old golf club that in those days was never crowded. The golf boom really didn't get going until the Reagan-Milken stock market of the mid-eighties. Three friends and I began traveling to Scotland in autumn to play the great courses, and I remember one fair October weekday in 1981 when we were one of but three groups out on Muirfield, the home course of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, virtually impossible to get onto nowadays. So uncrowded was St. Andrews back then that the four of us were around in midday in under three hours.
But I digress. Back to Tryall. Time passed, the children grew up, and then, about fifteen years ago, my stepmother suggested a trip to Jamaica in August.
I said to her what friends have been saying to me ever since: "You'd go to Jamaica in August?!"
For the last ten years, I have done exactly that. The island is not much hotter in August than it is in winter, the water is more swimmable (eighty-five degrees versus seventy, tops, and no undertow), the food better, the rum drinks equally sublime--and the golf is right there for the playing, on an uncrowded, top-flight course.
When you travel a fair distance to play golf (the JFK-Montego Bay flight is about three and a half hours), you want to feel as if you're on vacation. Looming high-rises in the background, now a feature of so many North American resort venues, take away from this, but at Tryall, the only architecture of which one is aware are the villas of the club members--all set well away from the playing lines--and the graceful old Great House, the plantation manor, set on the brow of the hill overlooking the Caribbean.
Since you've laid out a good bit of money for fourteen clubs, it's nice to be able to play at a course on which you're going to be able to use all or most of them. Too many new courses seem too long--the architects appear to have laid them out while engaged in mental matches with Tiger--with par fours attainable by an eighteen handicapper only with two woods. Not here. The par threes at Tryall are medium- to short-iron length. The par fives are legitimate three-shotters, although two can be reached in two by strong players. Best of all, from the standpoint of the vacationing golfer, no fewer than eight of the eighteen tee shots are played from well-elevated tees, which imparts a feeling of well-being and prowess even as one slides the peg into the turf. The fairways present a full range of stance problems and opportunities. The greens are undulating but true, and in summer, sneaky quick. There's plenty of trouble, but the Tryall caddies (mandatory) have the eyes and experience of Comanche scouts.
Not surprisingly, in recent years, Europeans--of all the world's populations the most beset by overcrowding and course traffic--have started coming to Tryall in summer, but not in such numbers as to make play there problematic. They rent the villas that in high season house the winter crowd of "regulars," although even in summer many of these villas will be occupied by their owners. For about $4,000 a week plus out-of-pocket extras like food, but including laundry and everything else, one can rent a four-bedroom, four-bath villa with full staff (usually four to five people: cook, maids, houseman, gardener), get meals prepared to order when wanted and have most of the comforts of an upper-tier second home.
Best of all, the golf course is right there, as is the beach, the beach club, the pool, the tennis courts and, on the hill, the Great House (currently being converted into condominium apartments). One travels around the club property by golf cart or shuttle bus. I know of no better, well-organized golf deal anywhere for families or small groups. (Tryall is also doing increasing business with corporate gatherings, in and out of season.) Golfers who prefer hotel amenities to the villa setup can stay ten minutes away at Round Hill, which has treaty access toTryall golf (and a regular shuttle) and offers incomparably elegant accommodations.
Although the course beckons every day at Tryall, there will be times when a change of scene or activity is felt desirable, and here it's hard to beat Jamaica, topographically the most complete and varied of all the Caribbean islands. Along with golf, there's the swinging scene at Negril (where a new eighteen-hole course, which is hilly and tight, has just opened), mountains to climb, old plantation houses to explore, waterfalls to splash in, rivers to raft down, wildlife to observe. It is the best place to kick back, to read, to think long, deep thoughts, to plan for eternity, that I have ever known.
As for golfing alternatives, these are plentiful. One bright morning, I set out with Nelson Long, director of golf at Tryall (as well as head professional at the prestigious Century Country Club in Purchase, New York), for a representative sampling of the other courses on the stretch of Jamaica's north coast between Tryall and Ocho Rios, a driving radius of roughly two hours. Before we were through we had checked out five other courses, a couple of which offer real pleasure, in the opinion of someone who likes his golf with a Scottish flavor (wind as a factor, a chance to play the ball on the ground, contoured greens, the sea in sight and preferably in play).
Of these, Half Moon--a few miles east of Montego Bay and the airport--is the best known, both as a golf destination and as an all-around resort, offering villas, suites and rooms; golf packages; its own beach; and a shopping arcade with Madison Avenue names. The course, designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr. in the 1960s, is long and--in my view--rather boring, a layout that runs along a rather narrow tract and somehow never allows you to forget the presence of the hotel and the other guests.
This is less true of Wyndham Rose Hall, a few miles farther along the coast, whose eighteen holes flank the main Montego Bay-Ocho Rios highway. In contrast to Half Moon, and like Tryall, Rose Hall offers a real variety of terrain: The inland holes are hilly and well contoured, the holes along the sea are open to the full force of the wind and very challenging (although the best of these, the short par-four eighth, a true "cape" hole, has been ruined by a signal tower set smack in front of the green).
One of Jamaica's older courses, Runaway Bay, now known as Breezes Golf & Beach Resort, is part of the first-class SuperClubs chain that operates a number of package-scheme hotels and resorts on the island. Presided over by Seymour Rose, three-time winner of the Jamaica Open, Breezes is what you might call a "fun" course--not a backbreaker but plenty long enough to call for the head covers to come off--with tricky greens.
The best came last, and quite unexpectedly: Sandals Golf & Country Club, deep in the hills a few miles beyond Ocho Rios. Ocho Rios itself teems with large chain hotels, all the familiar fast-food brands, giant cruise ships docked in the harbor, tourist throngs seeking duty-free buys. But the homegrown Sandals is one of the best package operators in Jamaica, with several locations around the island. A few years ago, they took over the old Upton course--eighteen holes laid out along and in a bowl-like declivity--and invested heavily in updating, clubhouse construction and rehabilitation. The result is a course that is fair, varied, with beautiful plantings and a fresh hill breeze even at the heart of the day--and an agreeable clubhouse with all the amenities. A good day's outing from Tryall or Round Hill that avoids the clatter of Ocho Rios could comprise a round at Sandals and a visit to Dunn's River Falls, one of the island's natural wonders--definitely worth the visit.
Summer golfers crave sun and sky, a breeze sometimes to their backs, sometimes in their faces, but what they desire most of all are uncrowded vistas and unhurried play, and these are what you get in Jamaica in summer. I can't speak for other golfing venues in the Caribbean (Puerto Rico, Nevis and Barbados all have their fans), but it's certain that other islands set in the sunlit sea also offer the same kind of escape that I have found in Jamaica.
One last tip: It may have been the opinion of Noël Coward, who adored Jamaica (his house "Firefly" is a national monument), that only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun. But had he been a golfer he would have known differently. We Americans typically like to tee it up around 8 a.m. in order to get in for lunch, but the experienced tropical golfer knows that morning is the hot time, that the game is best enjoyed at the--excuse my language--shank of noon.
Jamaica's Jewel Courses
Tryall Golf & Beach Club
Designer: Ralph Plummer.
Year opened: 1960.
Toughest Hole: The 175-yard par-three fourth, a recently created hole that runs parallel to the sea and whose green is guarded by a river and two bunkers.
Pro: Robert MacKenzie.
Half Moon Golf Club
Designer: Robert Trent Jones Sr.
Year opened: 1961.
Toughest hole: The wind can turn even shorter holes into a challenge, but the 570-yard third--a dogleg left with a well-trapped, two-tiered green--is "the bear," says veteran caddy Ernest Bernard.
Carts: Optional, but the course is relatively flat.
Pro: Attila Becsy.
Wyndham Rose Hall
Designer:Henry O. Smedley.
Year opened: 1974.
Toughest hole: The 252-yard Pebble Beach-inspired eighth, known as Chinaman's Reef, doglegs to a green perched perilously above the ball-hungry Caribbean. Of note: The waterfall at the fifteenth was immortalized in the James Bond film Live and Let Die.
Carts: Mandatory--and quite welcome on the mountainous back nine.
Director of Golf: James Wright.
Breezes Golf & Beach Resort
Designer: James D. Harris.
Year opened: 1962.
Toughest hole: The par-four 454-yard eighth is a narrow, heavily trapped dogleg left.
Pro: Seymour Rose.
Sandals Golf & Country Club
Designer: P. K. Saunders.
Year opened: 1951.
Toughest hole: The par-four 359-yard third plays uphill and requires a 200-yard tee shot over water with OB to the left.
Pro: Andy Gorman.
Negril Hills Golf Club
Designer: Robert Simmons.
Year opened: 1993.
Toughest holes: On the front nine, the par-five sixth slopes heavily toward a swamp on the right before doglegging in the same direction. On the back nine, the dramatic 180-yard tenth is an uphill par three with an elevated, sloped green guarded by two wickedly placed bunkers.
Carts: Optional, but the course is extremely hilly.