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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.

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