This island nation 560 miles south of Miami is best known for the reggae sound popularized around the globe by Bob Marley. But perhaps the most important music ever produced in Jamaica was a 1959 album called “Lance Hayward at the Half Moon Hotel,” a project spearheaded by Chris Blackwell, the resort’s one-time waterskiing instructor.
That album launched Blackwell’s Island label, which later became the musical home for Marley, Traffic, Nirvana, U2 and dozens of other acts, and Blackwell’s vehicle to introduce reggae to the masses.
The Hayward album came out about three years before Guy Steuart III, then 5 years old, made his first visit to Half Moon. Steuart’s grandparents were among 17 families, all regular visitors to Jamaica, that pooled their resources to open Half Moon in 1954.
Three of those families still control Half Moon Resort, and Steuart serves as chairman. So he has a lot of history on the island, and he likes sharing it with visitors.
That seems to be a Jamaican tradition that runs deeper than rum and reggae. Take a golf trip here, simply intent on enjoying a cluster of exceptional courses within a short drive of the airport, and inevitably you’ll learn a lot about Jamaican history predating its 1962 independence from the United Kingdom.
Just off the ninth hole at Half Moon Golf Course, for example, is a wonderful restaurant called the Sugar Mill, a lovingly restored remnant of a 17th-century sugar-cane plantation, complete with a water mill.
“It’s not just good food, it’s a place with a story,” Steuart said.
Everyone seems to have a story to tell in Jamaica. Take White Witch Golf Course, just up Highway A1, on the old Rose Hall Estate. It takes its name from a mysterious figure named Annie Palmer, who may or may not have murdered her husband and tormented many of the 2,000 slaves who worked the land two centuries ago. Regardless, Jamaicans have great fun embracing the tale, which is retold nightly to a steady stream of visitors who take the haunted-house tour of the estate.
The tour of White Witch Golf Course is a little more relaxing. Right from the first tee, you get that island vibe that brings you to Jamaica in the first place – the hillside tee with the ocean panorama, and a comfortable par 5 to ease into the round. The full 18 makes for a lovely ride through the hills of the old estate.
It helped that we had one of the best caddie experiences I’ve ever enjoyed, courtesy of two local women, Diane and Dameilia, who seemed to know every nook and cranny of the course.
“It looks downhill, but it’s not,” Dameilia said. “You don’t have to kill it, but give me some juice.” Despite her coaching, I still left the putt 6 feet short.
When Dameilia told one of my playing partners, Teddy Two Gloves, that he had a right-edge putt on No. 5, Teddy wasn’t convinced.
“Right edge?” he asked.
“Yeah, mon,” she said, with the certainty of a seasoned caddie.
Still unconvinced, Teddy stood over the putting line. “Oh, now I feel it,” he said.
Don’t doubt those ladies.
Neighboring Cinnamon Hill Golf Course – like White Witch, a Robert von Hagge-Rick Baril design – gives players a bit of everything, starting with a relatively tame front nine that works its way out to the ocean. Along the way, our caddies shared the history of the land.
Next to the tee at the fourth, a mid-iron par 3 over water, is the family cemetery of poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The par-4 fifth, with its ocean backdrop, used to be the practice range, which would have enticed even the laziest golfer to work on his game. At the sixth, a lovely little par 3 called Witches Reef that plays across a cove, our caddies, Al and Wesley, knocked coconuts out of a tee-side tree and served us fresh coconut water. Beat that. The seventh, Aqueduct, is named for the structure that transported water down the mountain in plantation days.
At the turn, Al said, “Let’s head to the mountains.” Suddenly we found ourselves in a wild jungle-like landscape that rolled precipitously through the hills. The storytelling never stopped. Along the 14th hole is the old retreat of Johnny Cash, who immortalized the White Witch in “The Ballad of Annie Palmer.” The 15th, a striking, downhill par 3, was the setting for the barrel-rolling scene in “Live and Let Die.”
Roughly a 40-minute drive west of Half Moon is Tryall Golf Club, which hosted the Johnnie Walker World Golf Championship from 1991 to 1995.
It was there that my caddie introduced himself this way: “I’m Tokyo from Jamaica.” He had worked there 23 years, starting at age 14.