2003: More than reggae

The day starts at 6 a.m. when Maxine lets herself into the whitewashed villa and begins to prepare breakfast. I sleepily lift my head, tired from a week’s worth of golf, tennis and coconut rum, and look out the French doors in my bedroom and across a balcony taking on its first bits of sunlight. Below, I see pieces of the Tryall golf course as well as lush hills, a sliver of beach and then the lights of Montego Bay, flicking off one by one in the distance as the moon sets and the birds began to sing.

I want to get up, but my tee time is still two hours away. So I close my eyes and fall back to sleep.

It is 7 a.m. when I next wake, only this time my room is filled with the smell of freshly made coffee from the famed Blue Mountains. Maxine hands me a mug of the tasty brew and serves papaya, toast and orange juice on a terrace overlooking the cerulean waters of the Caribbean Sea. Then I hop into my golf cart and motor down to the pro shop, where I meet my caddie, a personable fellow named Baltimore. He is part of a caddie crew that is not only immensely talented but also boasts some of the best nicknames in the business, among them Tarzan and Dr. Patience. Baltimore leads me to the practice range, where I try to work out whatever kinks the Advil is not taking care of. Then we head to No. 1.

The track at Tryall is a Ralph Plummer design that opened some 40 years ago, and one I had played several times before. But familiarity breeds anything but contempt in this case; the course looks and feels like a mature club layout, the sort you play over and over without ever tiring of it. And I enjoy knowing my way around. It’s nice, for example, understanding just how much to cut off with my second shot on the par-5 third hole, so I can avoid the palm trees and water hazard on the left. I also like discovering new things with each round, such as the noise the surf makes this morning as it moves the small rocks on the beach just off the No. 3 green. I hear the same sounds at the fourth, a par-3 requiring a 165-yard shot over a small river spilling out into the sea and onto an ample green that looks and feels much smaller.

It is only 9:15 when I step onto the seventh tee and hit my drive under a stone viaduct that leads to a nearby water wheel, evidence that this land once was a sugar cane and coconut palm plantation. And the sun already is hot. But things will cool down as the trade winds pick up later in the morning. Besides, it’s 30 degrees back home, so I will take any heat and humidity the island has to offer.

Baltimore and I hustle around the back side in good time, past the stands of breadfruit and banana trees that line some of the fairways, and the patches of hibiscus and bougainvillea. We stride up and down the gentle hills that provide stunning water views and beautiful backdrops for tee shots as workers trim the grass around bunkers with machetes. It is nearly noon when I walk back into my villa, and Maxine is putting the finishing touches on a fresh lobster salad as she inquires if I want to eat on the terrace again. She then asks if I want pineapple or grapefruit juice with my rum.

Such is life on the island of Jamaica, best known for its beaches and reggae music but coming on strong as a first-rate golfing destination. For many years, the main attraction for players was the Tryall Club, a 2,200-acre retreat on the north shore of the island, only 12 miles west of Montego Bay. Its par-72, 6,772-yard course was the site of the Johnnie Walker World Championship in the 1990s and still is regarded as one of the best tracks in the islands.

Visitors also like the 50-odd villas that dot the property, all privately owned but regularly offered as short-term rentals; most have anywhere from 1 to 6 bedrooms, fabulous views, inviting pools, tropical gardens and eager-to-please staffs. Tryall also has nine tennis courts, a beach club, two restaurants and a dozen condominium-style villas built around the 18th-century Georgian Great House that serves as a sort of clubhouse and features a traditional English tea each afternoon. Well-run, family-friendly, understated and never crowded, it is the sort of place to which people return year after year.

But Tryall was about all Jamaica had when it came to good golf. To be sure, there were other courses on the island, but none came close in design and conditioning. And none offered the same sumptuous accommodations and services.

That, however, has changed drastically in the past couple of years. In fact, Montego Bay has blossomed as golf destination as the result of the opening of a completely new course, called White Witch, on the historic Rose Hall Plantation, about a 15-minute cab ride to the east of town; the redesign of an older track, now known as Cinnamon Hill, on that same spread; and the addition of a 427-room Ritz Carlton hotel. Those developments not only complement Tryall but also add to the allure of the nearby Half Moon Bay Resort, which includes a Robert Trent Jones course as well as a bustling hotel and shopping center, and the Wyndham Rose Hall Resort, a more casual beach front inn that is affiliated with Cinnamon Hill. It is all topped off by construction of a new coast road that has made traveling in and around “MoBay,” as the area is known, infinitely easier.

Most of the current golfing buzz centers around White Witch, which opened a little more than two years ago and is the first golf property owned by Ritz Carlton. Designed by Robert von Hagge and Rick Baril, the course measures more than 6,700 yards from the back tees and is carved out of 600 acres of ruggedly wooded terrain that lies at some points 1,000 feet above the Caribbean. The water views – the sea is visible from 16 of the 18 holes – induce most of the praise for this young layout, Ritz Carlton. Designed by Robert von Hagge and Rick Baril, the course measures more than 6,700 yards from the back tees and is carved out of 600 acres of ruggedly wooded terrain that lies at some points 1,000 feet above the Caribbean. The water views – the sea is visible from 16 of the 18 holes – induce most of the praise for this young layout, which already has played host to a “Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf” match. Several holes have dramatic changes in elevation, which make for some exciting tee shots. And players shouldn’t be too hard on themselves if their drives suddenly veer off track; better that they follow the lead of the first-rate caddies and blame it all on Annee Palmer, aka the White Witch.

No, Annee Palmer is no relation to Arnold. Rather, she was a comely English girl who married a man named John Rose Palmer in 1820 and began living in the Great House that still stands below the course. Though sweet in appearance, she displayed a nasty temper and was considered arrogant and contemptuous of those she felt inferior. Part of that was a result of her upbringing on the island of Haiti, where a local high priestess of black magic schooled her in the art of casting evil spells and convinced Annee that she possessed extraordinary powers. At Rose Hall, Annee became known for the cruel way in which she ruled her vast plantation, and she often rode the lawns at night with her whip in hand, ready to lash anyone who displeased her. She also seemed to be as rough with her husbands, and over the years, three of them – including John Rose Palmer – died suddenly and violently. No one could prove she killed them, but few people doubted Annee was responsible. It came as no surprise when she eventually was found dead in her Great House bedroom. Buried in a small cemetery on the Rose Hall grounds, she is said to haunt the halls of her old home. And locals say she sometimes ventures out on her old plantation to mess with the shots of those who play the new course.

Cinnamon Hill, which begins it circuitous route along the Caribbean and then up into the hills just below White Witch, does not get the same praise as its newer neighbor, and unjustifiably so. Originally built in 1973, it soon fell on hard times and by the mid-1990s, looked and felt like an overgrown, under-conditioned goat track. But von Hagge and Baril oversaw a terrific redesign, and the layout reopened nearly two years ago.

The course wastes no time in showing you where the wicked Annee once lived, and you can see her former home beyond the green of the par-3 second hole, known appropriately as “The Great House.” Nos. 5 and 6 are two of the best water-view holes in the Caribbean. The fifth is a 453-yard par 5 that plays downhill and onto a peninsula green that juts into the sea; the caddie said I was hitting my second shot “into Cuba,” some 100 miles to the north. The sixth is a par 3 back across the water to a green set among sand dunes on the sea’s edge.

Then you head into the hills and into a different world of almost jungle-like terrain. The best is the 14th, a testing par 4 that requires a slight draw off the tee and then a short iron to a downhill green surrounded by spice trees. It is notable not only for its scenic design but also for being the hole on which Johnny Cash’s winter home, also known as Cinnamon Hill, is located; my caddie and I strolled by the entrance gate on the way to my tee shot but didn’t hear anyone playing guitars.

Then there is No. 15, whose main claim to fame is not its breathtaking tee shot to a small green tucked 172 yards from the tee (and in front of a small waterfall) but the fact that during the filming of “Live and Let Die,” Roger Moore, aka Agent 007, and some members of the crew were busted for partaking of the local “ganga.” They spent a few hours in jail that afternoon before being released, their excuse apparently being, “When in Rome . . .” After all, marijuana grows as prolifically in the Jamaican hills as that tasty Blue Mountain coffee.

This sudden rash of course construction – and renovation – gives visitors a pleasing variety of golfing options. One, of course, is to stay at Tryall, concentrating on some rounds at that club-like retreat, then heading to the east side of “MoBay” one day for, say, 36 holes, with one round each at White Witch and Cinnamon Hill.

Have a lunch in between at the fine outdoor restaurant at the White Witch clubhouse, where the food and service are as good as the views. (All told, it’s about a 45-minute drive and something best arranged with a local car service.) Or, you can base yourself at the Ritz Carlton, which has all the amenities of a fine beachfront hotel, and those two tracks, making time for quick afternoon jaunts to Tryall and possibly the Trent Jones track at Half Moon Bay.

Whatever you decide, you can be sure that the total golf experience will be better than anything previously found in Jamaica. And you might even come to feel that, in the Caribbean, there is nothing else quite as good.

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