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Golfing in Jamaica

In Jamaica, Where Courses Are Quirky, Windy and Lush, the Best Advice Is: Listen to Your Caddie
Jeff Williams
From the Print Edition:
Michael Douglas, May/Jun 98

(continued from page 1)

Golf at Tryall is worth the effort. It's a graceful, challenging course that extends from the Caribbean into the hills where it winds around some of the grand villas, while never intruding upon them. It is a quintessential tropical course, with Bermuda grass fairways and greens and the full complement of tropical plants and trees standing sentry on nearly every hole. The two par 3s on the front side are fraught with water. The par-4 sixth hole is noteworthy, with the championship tee set under an old viaduct that services the nearby water wheel.

"It's a fair test of golf for just about anybody," says Nelson Long, Tryall's club professional who also is the pro at the Century Country Club in Westchester County outside of New York City. Some of the Century's members are Tryall regulars. "We're in the process of getting it back into really good shape, getting the greens up to speed and consistent."

A fine cadre of caddies, from young to old, serves Tryall. Your first caddie will probably seek to carry your bag for subsequent rounds. The caddies, like young Linton, seem an extension of the villa staff, with an air of charming, gentle reserve and a reservoir of expertise. Play with them several times, listen to their advice and seek their counsel about their country, and they can become a window to Jamaica that is unavailable to the average tourist.

If you choose not to stay at Tryall, access to the course may be arranged through hotel concierges, particularly if you stay at Round Hill. Round Hill is a decidedly upscale colony of hotel rooms and villas that lies just to the east of Tryall and next to Ralph Lauren's estate. It's a celebrity hangout, visited by Harrison Ford, Demi Moore, Steven Spielberg and Paul McCartney. Before moving to a villa near Ocho Rios, playwright Noël Coward owned a villa at Round Hill, which can now be rented. Round Hill guests can play golf at Tryall for about $125 during the season. Tryallers have access to Round Hill's restaurant and elegant beach-side bar along with several glamorous society functions during the year.

West of Tryall by an hour and a half on the sometimes tortuous coast road is Negril. Negril is a virtual barracks of all-inclusive resorts, which line the sumptuous beach on the east side of town, and smaller, cheaper accommodations on the cliffs to the west. A party town with a youngish crowd, it is also the site of Jamaica's newest golf course, the Negril Hills Golf Club.

Five years ago, this inland site was jungle. Now, it's a roller coaster of a golf course with dramatic elevation changes, often several on one hole. Tee shots are usually played from elevated tees to valley fairways, many of them twisting around a creek or other water feature. Approach shots tend to be played uphill to smallish greens. When the land was being cleared for the course, several of the majestic guango trees were left standing, right in the middle of fairways.

The par-4 fifth hole has just such a guango in the middle of the dogleg as the hole swings 90 degrees to the left. This tree is easily avoided, as any of the caddies will tell you, by not playing down the fifth fairway at all. Instead, seasoned veterans of the course take an iron, aim 45 degrees to the left of the tee box and fire a shot up the hill over a willow tree to the left side of the sixth fairway, which allows a short, unimpeded approach shot to the green.

This isn't a course to be conquered by power. It's all about positioning off the tee and the avoidance of trouble, which is abundant at Negril Hills. "Listen to the caddies, mon," says Antonio, the greens superintendent. "Where they tell you to put it, you put it. This is not a course for guys who like to go for it. If you go for it here, you are dead."

Negril is not exactly a mecca for serious golfers. That can make Negril Hills doubly difficult when you find yourself behind the once-a-year resort golfers who have decided to take a break from their rum-and-Red Stripe afternoons and instead lose a dozen golf balls with their shirts off. This shouldn't put you off, not if you are an adventurous golfer. The course is a challenge to the mind as much as the swing. While its conditioning doesn't rate with other courses on the north coast, it's playable and perversely enjoyable. Just listen to your caddie and put your shots where he tells you.

East of Montego Bay, stretched along the road to Ocho Rios, are the five other courses of the north coast. The most well known is the Robert Trent Jones course at Half Moon resort on the bay of the same name. It's the polar opposite of Negril Hills. Here length is a key issue, should you choose to play the course from the back tees. The first and third holes are par 5s that play close to 600 yards each. The ninth hole is 460 yards into the prevailing wind. You might want to consider lifting weights in the Half Moon health club before tackling this superbly conditioned course.

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