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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

The young man was 20, but his eyes were older. Much older. They were dark, dark brown, pupils and iris merged into deep, mysterious pools. There seemed to be history in those eyes, generation upon generation of tumultuous days and tantalizing nights. A fanciful imagination could see all of Jamaica in those eyes, all of its tropical enchantment, all of its cultural allure, all of its painful struggles for social and political independence.

At the moment, though, the young man was focusing on the more mundane struggle of golf. Linton's complex eyes were trained on a 20-foot putt, one that would yield a rare birdie for the man who was his charge that day. "Two balls left, slow green. Hit it, mon," said Linton, the caddie.

The order, given with gentle precision, went unfollowed, if for no other reason than a lack of skill. The resulting disappointment was slight, however. Many holes remained to be played at the Tryall Golf Club that day as the birds and clouds raced across the brilliant sky. More shots would do battle with the trade winds from the east, more putts would wrestle with the grain of the grass growing to the west. And more time would be spent with Linton, whose expertise was exactly the sort of crutch a high-handicap golfer would need to negotiate the mine field of his own game.

crutch a high-handicap golfer would need to negotiate the minefield of his own game.

Of all the joys of playing golf in Jamaica--many unexpected--it may be the Jamaican caddie who is the greatest of all. Carrying one bag, dedicated to one golfer, the Jamaican caddie can direct your game and connect you to his country during a single round of golf. Jamaica is not a golf destination, certainly not in the sense that Florida or Arizona or Scotland is. No, Jamaica is a country about the size of Connecticut with a distinct culture that exudes a profound sense of "The Tropics." The long, sensuous beaches, emerald waters, relentless sun and sweet breezes beckon hundreds of thousands of tourists a year. And some bring their golf bags.

The north coast of Jamaica, from Ocho Rios west through Montego Bay to Negril, is Jamaica's golf strip, though it will never be confused with Myrtle Beach. There is no procession of golf courses here, no infinite series of par 4s interrupted only by the occasional condominium development. Only 10 courses serve the whole country. Seven are along the north coast; two are near the capital of Kingston, on the southern side of the island, and one is located inland, at Mandeville. You must look for golf in Jamaica. It doesn't go looking for you.

If you do know anything about golf in Jamaica, it's probably because you saw the Tryall Golf Club on television over several years, first as the venue for the LPGA's Jamaica Classic, then during the Johnny Walker World Championship of Golf. Tryall is the heart of Jamaican golf, a private club that allows some outside play. Part of a private resort community, which is also called Tryall, the club is 45 minutes west of Montego Bay on the main coast road just around the bend from the tony Round Hill Resort.

Founded by Texans in the 1950s (former Texas governor John Connally was a villa owner here), Tryall, the resort, is a collection of private homes of wealthy North Americans and Europeans, their large villas sweeping up the hillside toward the spinal mountains of Jamaica. Some of these villas are for rent, and with the rent money comes individual private staffs, including maid, laundress, cook and gardener, a pool and possibly a dog or two. Most villas come equipped with their own golf carts for flitting about to the beach, the course, the tennis courts or the Tryall Great House, which was the center of the former sugar plantation. In all, the villa experience is aimed at families where the mother can be crowned "Queen for the Week."

There is old, substantial money at Tryall. It would be easy to imagine that your photograph, snapped at a cocktail party or in a sand trap, might well end up in the black-and-white pages of Town & Country. The late managing director of Tryall, Count Kenneth Diacre Liancourt, was unabashed about the nature of the resort: "We don't make any pretense, you know. It's a rich man's club. It's no good coming to Tryall unless you are prepared to spend money....There's nothing shameful in being rich. You mustn't be mean, that's all."

Tryall's wealthy did not get that way by being foolhardy, though their attempts at mitigating the costs of the resort haven't always met with success. For a time a small hotel was attached to the great house, though it proved more costly to run than to close. Those rooms have now been converted into condominium villas for private ownership. There has always been much pushing and pulling about opening up Tryall to the outside world, with some members favoring more access to the public while others have sought to keep as much privacy as they can. Ultimately, almost anyone can play golf at Tryall through perseverance and, of course, the renting of a villa.

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.

Half Moon is a mega-resort that isn't all-inclusive but includes everything: plenty of tennis courts, an equestrian center, a spa and lovely beaches. Recently, golf guru David Leadbetter opened a teaching center at Half Moon, which sports a fairly large practice range for an island golf course.

Near Half Moon is the Ironshore Golf and Country Club. Ironshore is an attempt at a golf-course-driven housing and commercial development. Plenty of large homes dot the north side of the course, projecting a certain standard of luxury that the golf course itself fails to achieve. The fairways are a bit scraggly, the greens slow and bumpy. The upside of Ironshore is that it does not get much play. If you are looking for a quick round of golf, this could be the place. Be prepared to walk, since the course has few carts. In all, be prepared to play a course with a more than adequate layout but one that needs an infusion of cash and enthusiasm.

Cash and enthusiasm have definitely found their way into the three other clubs of the north coast. The Wyndham Rose Hall Golf and Beach Resort course, the Breezes Golf and Beach Resort course and the Sandals Golf and Country Club have each benefited from corporate cash flow, and each course is seeing an upswing in play.

The Rose Hall course, like Tryall, runs from the Caribbean into the hills. The 18th hole is among the toughest finishers anywhere, demanding a long drive followed by a long approach over a gorge to the green. Overlooking the 14th hole is a large villa that Johnny Cash owns.

You should play Rose Hall just to play the eighth hole. It's a dogleg of only 322 yards from the back tees, with the Caribbean lapping vigorously at the rocks along the left side of the fairway. It's a classic cape hole, with the green stuck out on the peninsula (which happens to be the northern tip of Jamaica). The hole plays into the prevailing wind and would be a testy little devil even without the steel tower that sits 50 yards short and to the right of the green.

Ah, yes, the tower. It's a navigational beacon, an elfin Eiffel Tower that keeps ships from imperiling themselves while imperiling the approach shots of land-locked golfers. Because the wind blows from the golfer's right on the approach (the Caribbean being to the left of the green), it's necessary to increase your margin of safety by aiming to the right of the green and letting the wind redirect the ball to the left. If your drive is too far to the right of the fairway, the tower becomes a formidable obstacle. In high winds, it's possible to hit the ball to the right of the tower and let it drift back to the left. At other times it's possible to hit over it. In any event, it may be the first time you ever thought of yourself as playing golf in an Erector Set.

The Breezes Golf and Beach Resort Course is also known as the SuperClubs Golf Club Runaway Bay. Longtime tourists and locals know it simply at Runaway Bay. Seymour Rose, the three-time Jamaican Open champion, is the superintendent of greens here. Runaway Bay is fairly wide open, but not without a subtle sense of style. From the forward tees it's the ideal course for getting rusty tourists around. From the back tees it gains teeth from its length, with several par 4s longer than 450 yards.

The biggest surprise among the north coast courses is the Sandals Golf and Country Club. Once the Upton Country Club, it had fallen into disrepair. Only two years ago, crabgrass was everywhere but on the greens, where there wasn't much grass of any kind. But with an infusion of Sandals money, the crabgrass blight has been furiously fought and it appears as if the grounds crew has won the battle.

The course is located in a mountain valley above teeming Ocho Rios. The old brick clubhouse is the most elegant of all of Jamaica's clubhouses, with a genuine air of country club about it. But when you stand on the practice tee, you know there's something different about this country club.

There, at precisely 135 yards, is the figure of Jamaican reggae icon Bob Marley carved from an old tree trunk. The giant head could be the most unusual practice target in the game. Another sculptured tree trunk resembling a birdbath adorns the fourth tee. It gives a distinct Jamaican flavor to the course. And speaking of flavors, there are enough fruit trees on the course--mangos, guava, grapefruit--that you could skip breakfast at the hotel and eat on the fly.

Lest you think this course is a pushover, the uphill par-5 first hole will quickly set you straight. Though the course is not long at a little more than 6,300 yards, it's long when it wants to be. The par-4 10th can be stretched to 440 yards with out-of-bounds down the left side. The par-3 seventh is 228 yards from the back tee. The fourth hole is the most frightening of the par 3s, because you basically get only one shot at hitting the green. Missing the small, elevated green in any direction is knocking on the double-bogey man's door.

If you have the time, it might be worth the trip to Kingston to play the Caymanas Golf Club, which has often been the site of the Jamaican Open. Its design is similar to Tryall. Or, try your hand at the Constant Spring Golf Club, which was built in a Kingston neighborhood, in 1920, by the Scotsman Stanley Thompson.

The oldest golf club in Jamaica is the Manchester Country Club, built by the Duke of Manchester in 1865. That makes Manchester possibly the oldest golf club outside of Europe. The nine-hole course is located in Mandeville, in the middle of the country and in the middle of the prime bauxite mining area. The nine holes each have two separate teeing areas, which allows them to be fashioned into an 18-hole round. For those who venture into the Jamaican mountains, Manchester is an unexpected pleasure in a country where pleasure is a natural resource.

Because Jamaican golf is a relatively uncongested affair even in the high season, playing 18 holes doesn't steal time from other delights, like rafting down the Great River on the Lethe Estate, a short drive from Tryall, or climbing the Dunns River Falls, a short drive from the Sandals Golf Club.

But being able to play with a caddie on an uncluttered Jamaican course is something not be to be rushed. The tyranny of the golf cart in North America has profoundly changed the nature of the game. Caddie pools are shrinking and caddies often carry two bags, which divides their attention while it doubles their pay. In Jamaica, it's one caddie per player, attention undivided. "These guys are really pros," says Darrell Kestner, a New York-area club pro, who has often traveled to Tryall to conduct clinics with Nelson Long, the resident professional. "This is what many of them do for a living and they make sure they do it right."


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