Sweet Jamaica’s Courses Work Their Magic

Cinnamon Hill Golf Course Jamaica (Image: Cinnamon Hill)

Cinnamon Hill Golf Course is a popular oceanfront design near Montego Bay. (Image: Cinnamon Hill)

Renowned as the jewel of Caribbean golf, Jamaica is home to several of the world’s must-play resort courses—including an often-overlooked Stanley Thompson design set in the foothills of the Blue Mountains.

 

“Hey, mon, I know you can hit de ball good. Why you not score better?”

My caddy, Elvin, shook his head sadly as he recorded yet another double bogey on my card. By this point in our round together at Montego Bay’s Half Moon Golf Course, I wasn’t certain who was more frustrated by my wildly inconsistent performance, me or the personable Jamaican tending my bag.

Half Moon Golf Club (Image: Half Moon)

Caddies are an essential part of the Jamaican golf experience. (Image: Half Moon)

Slices, duffs and frequently shell-shocked caddies followed me throughout a late-winter Jamaican golf trip timed to get the rust off my game before the start of a new Canadian season. My trip to the ruggedly beautiful island long regarded as the jewel of Caribbean golf took me from the capital city of Kingston to Montego Bay on the northwest coast, a golf hotbed that’s home to several exceptionally scenic and challenging layouts.

Caddies such as Elvin are an integral part of the Jamaican game. They expertly read greens, clean clubs, locate lost balls in the thickets, offer swing advice when prompted and will sometimes even cut down a coconut to offer you a cooling drink.

But their presence can be jarring for North American golfers unaccustomed to an extra set of eyes examining the flaws in their swing.

At Kingston’s Constant Spring Golf Club, the first stop on my tour, I distinctly heard the caddies snickering among themselves when I drove my ball into the tennis court beside the 18th green.

A reputation for urban congestion and violent crime has unfortunately removed Kingston from the itineraries of most vacationers. Though real, the dangers have too often been exaggerated. Visitors who employ the same caution and street savvy used when visiting downtown Miami or Los Angeles can enjoy the nightlife and rich cultural attractions of this teeming city of 938,000 in relative safety.

For Canadian golfers, Kingston offers two irresistible attractions: Both Constant Spring and the nearby Caymanas Golf and Country Club are the handiwork of renowned Canadian golf architects.

Caymanas Golf and Country Club (Image: Caymanas Golf and Country Club)

Canadian-designed Caymanas Golf and Country Club is cut through craggy limestone hills in tropical countryside near Kingston. (Image: Caymanas)

Opened in 1930, Constant Spring is one of the relatively few courses designed outside Canada by Stanley Thompson, the legendary architect of such acclaimed courses as Alberta’s Banff Springs and Cape Breton’s Highlands Links. Built in the classic style with greens left open at the front, Thompson’s 6,094-yard layout presents a challenge at every turn as it climbs into the foothills of the Blue Mountains.

His influence can also be seen at Caymanas, a course designed in the 1950s by Howard Watson, who began his career as Thompson’s assistant. Elevated tees, a Thompson-Watson trademark, offer panoramic vistas of a beautifully maintained 6,844-yard course cut through craggy limestone hills in bucolic tropical countryside a few kilometres beyond the city’s din.

Caymanas’s elevated 10th tee offers a memorable view of rippling fields of sugar cane and stands of ackee, mango and guava trees. Just over the horizon is Old Spanish Town, Jamaica’s capital until 1872 and the site of the oldest cathedral in the Western Hemisphere, St. Jago de la Vega, dating to 1523.

Rather than spend five or six uncomfortable hours navigating the potholed roads of the island’s mountainous interior, our group opted for a 20-minute Air Jamaica flight to Montego Bay, where four world-class courses awaited our pleasure.

Although its dominance has been challenged in recent years, the course long regarded as Jamaica’s best is Tryall Golf Club, part of the exclusive Tryall Club, a golf, tennis and beach resort about 20 kilometres west of Montego Bay. The resort’s suites and estate villas sprawl elegantly across an 890-hectare site that includes almost four kilometres of beaches.

Built in 1960 by Texas architect Ralph Plummer and extensively restored in recent years, Tryall’s 6,772-yard golf course is famous as the former home of the Johnnie Walker World Championship and the LPGA Tour’s Jamaica Classic. Tryall’s opening holes hug the water, then fairways climb through coconut groves before returning to the sea. The par-four seventh hole is one of the most photographed in the Caribbean. Golfers playing the back tees must somehow ignore the distraction of a still functioning waterwheel to hit a precision shot through the stone pillars of an aquaduct.

White Witch Golf Course Jamaica (Image: White Witch Golf Course)

Montego Bay’s White Witch Golf Course offers panoramic ocean views on sixteen holes. (Image: White Witch)

Far from overcrowded Kingston, where the economics are harshest and island politics at their most explosive, the welcoming Jamaica promised in the travel brochures is readily found in Montego Bay.

One night, our group was invited to participate in the Jamaica Tourist Board’s Meet the People Program at the comfortable hillside home of an Indo-Jamaican couple. Started in 1968, the program pairs Jamaicans with tourists who share similar interests or hobbies. In our case, the bond was golf. Our hosts invited more than a dozen of their golfing friends to join us in a convivial feast that included Indian dishes as well as such island specialties as curried goat, jerk pork and Jamaican pepper-pot soup, all washed down with Red Stripe, the local brew.

Jamaica is a surprisingly multicultural society. Starting in the 19th century, indentured migrants from India and China were added to the black African majority and the then ruling while minority. Later came Arab traders from Lebanon and Palestine. Intermarriage among the groups produced today’s polyglot mix and inspired the national motto adopted after Jamaica’s independence from Britain in 1962: “Out of many, one people.”

Early the next morning, joined by several new golfing friends, we drove east of Montego Bay to Cinnamon Hill Golf Course, a gorgeous 6,637-yard layout designed by Robert von Hagge and Rick Baril that tumbles down the slopes of Mount Zion to the sea.

Cinnamon Hill treats golfers to several unforgettable holes as it wends through the 18th– and 19th-century ruins of the old Rose Hall plantation. A waterfall behind the 15th green was featured in the James Bond movie Live and Let Die. And the 14th hole offers a close-up view of the former holiday home of singer Johnny Cash, a man beloved by the locals for his generosity to Jamaican charities.

Half Moon Golf Club, Jamaica (Image: Half Moon, A Rock Resort)

Half Moon Golf Course is a classic Robert Trent Jones Sr. design near Montego Bay. (Image: Half Moon)

I played terribly the next day at White Witch Golf Course, a von Hagge-Baril design still further up the slopes of looming Mount Zion. White Witch’s roller-coaster routing through rocky outcroppings and gaping ravines affords panoramic views of the distant Caribbean Sea from no fewer than 16 holes.

Treacherously difficult, the course was aptly named after Annee Palmer, Jamaica’s notorious “White Witch,” who was mistress of Rosehall Plantation in the early 19th century. Palmer was said to have murdered three husbands, as well as several unfortunate slaves whom she had tired of as lovers. Terrified servants strongly suspected their evil mistress of dabbling in witchcraft.

Sadly, Elvin, the caddy assigned to me the next day at nearby Half Moon, A Rock Resort, professed to know of no magic cure for what ailed my game. “Be patient, mon,” he said gently, offering his help after cringing at a particularly ugly mishit early in the round. “We work it out together.”

Coached, cajoled and expertly guided by Elvin, a 28-year veteran of Half Moon Golf Club who claimed to have been a scratch golfer in his younger days, my confidence grew with every swing as I played the lushly tropical back nine.

Designed by the immortal Robert Trent Jones Sr., Half Moon’s golf course is the centrepiece of a luxury resort whose high-society guest list has included Queen Elizabeth II and John and Jacqueline Kennedy, who enjoyed a month-long vacation here just prior to his inauguration as U.S. president.

Opened in 1961 (and masterfully updated by Roger Rulewich in 2005), Jones’s layout flows seamlessly through gentle foothills just beyond the craggy coastline. Half Moon’s spacious palm tree-lined fairways and receptive greens, typical of the great man’s resort courses, offered welcome targets after days of frustration.

“See, mon,” Elvin said, laughing and cheering on my lovely approach shot to the 18th green. “I knew you could hit de ball good. Maybe now you start to believe it too.”

 

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