2006: Barbados Golf
Thursday, June 30, 2011
Golf is not the national sport of Barbados.
That would be cricket, as immensely popular as it is befuddling to those who did not grow up in the Commonwealth and find it exceedingly odd to swat balls with bats while wearing cocktail party attire.
And the royal and ancient game is hardly high on the list of preferred activities in this nation only 270 miles northeast of Venezuela. It certainly comes after cruising in a catamaran and kicking back on a white sand beach. It doesn’t approach surfing or deep-sea fishing, or even fine dining on an island where cuisine is taken so seriously that Zagat has published a guide to restaurants.
The game can’t really touch the revelry of Crop Over, the mid-summer festival in which islanders celebrate the end of the sugar cane harvest. And only a teetotaler would rank golf above a visit to one of the hundreds of Bajan rum shacks, where Mount Gay flows to the strains of calypso music so beguiling they make even the most staid souls think about throwing family and work away for a life of cane brandy and tropical sun.
But none of this is to say that Barbados, a former British Colony settled in 1625, isn’t a fine place to tee it up, especially when games are arranged around, say, scuba expeditions. After all, this prosperous land, 166 square miles in size, has four 18-hole courses and a pair of nine-holers. Robert Trent Jones Jr. designed one of the big tracks, and Tom Fazio laid out two others, including the fabled Green Monkey, which is not only one of the most spectacular courses on the planet but also one of the most expensive, thanks to green fees that can run as high as $1,000 per player. That gives the place even better chops in the golfing world, as does the development of two other high-end tracks that should open within a couple of years, one of which will bear the marvelous moniker Apes Hill.
Then there is the fact that Tiger and Elin Woods tied the knot on Barbados, at the Sandy Lane resort that is home to the Green Monkey. And this December, the island is hosting the WGC-Barbados World Cup, with two-man teams from 24 nations competing for the team championship at the second Sandy Lane course, a much more accessible though less thrilling layout known as the Country Club.
Somehow my invitation to play in that event got lost in the mail, so I contented myself with a pre-tournament jaunt to the country that boasts one of the oldest synagogues in the New World, built in 1654, and the only house George Washington lived in outside America. It began with a round at the Barbados Golf Club, a funky retreat with low green fees and plenty of local color; continued with loops at more upscale Royal Westmoreland, which Jones Jr. deftly laid out among the canyons and hills of St. James, and the well-conditioned Country Club at Sandy Lane; and ended with a tour of – but not a game on – the Green Monkey, because my budget simply did not have enough zeros to afford a tee time. Between rounds, I ate enough four-star meals to choke a trencherman and made not one but two visits to the Mount Gay rum factory.
Barbados Golf Club opened in 1974, but it quickly fell into disuse for a lack of play and lay fallow for years until a consortium of local businessmen and politicians brought it back. Architect Ron Kirby handled the redesign, and the track reopened in 2000.
“We call it our most democratic course because it truly is open to all the public,” says club CEO Claire Jordan, who also happens to be one of the island’s top players.
Apparently it also is a place with a sense of humor, as evidenced by the sign by the first tee that reads: “Golfers are responsible for the consequences of the ball they hit.”
I didn’t have to worry about damaging people or property during my round, as I was able to keep my ball more or less in play. But it did take me more shots than I had hoped to get it into the holes. Maybe I was gawking too much at the lush groves of palms and banana trees that made it feel as if I were playing in a tropical garden. Perhaps I was thinking of the story Jordon told me about the man they found living in a bearded fig tree on the property when they reclaimed it. Or perhaps it was simply a tough golf course, with its smallish greens, tight fairways and uneven conditioning. A steady breeze blowing off the nearby, but invisible, sea challenged me to hit more than my fair share of bump-and-run shots, which gave me a strong sense of playing on a wind-swept island. I liked that, and the fact that there were only a few golfers on the layout. There also was something pleasing about the 19th hole, where my playing partners and I ate flying fish sandwiches and drank bottles of Banks beer as the bartender played tunes from a local Ska band on his tape deck.
I didn’t see many golfers at Royal Westmoreland either, which made it easy for my foursome to complete the front nine in less than two hours. And that came even with several stops to admire a series of remarkable views from tees perched on canyon walls and second shots over ravines to greens set in front of towering coral outcroppings. The Caribbean Sea was in almost constant view, and we needed a botanist to describe every type of flora we saw along the way, from almond and mahogany trees to the ubiquitous bunches of bougainvillea. And while none of us found the back of this layout, which is part of a vast residential and resort development that counts Ian Woosnam among it denizens, to be nearly as dramatic as the front, we agreed with the Bajan golfers we had met at a restaurant the night before that it was the most fun and interesting course on the island.
At least when it came to courses we could get on.
The Green Monkey was out of our economic realm, but we did manage a round on its sister Country Club course at Sandy Lane and quickly determined that the players competing in the World Cup will like it there. The wonderful water views will ensure that, as will the immediate sense golfers get of being someplace a bit exotic, whether it is listening to the sounds of nearby roosters crowing in the morning or catching sight of actual green monkeys scampering around the course. (Monkeys arrived on Barbados with 17th century traders from West Africa and built a colony that thrives to this day. And while the primates’ fur is not really green, it gives off a hue of that color in certain lights, hence the name.)
Then, there was the golf. We had a pair of caddies who could read the spacious greens beautifully, and it was almost impossible to miss the wide-open fairways that frequently demanded you hit a draw one hole and a fade the next. And the lunch we enjoyed later was just as good, sitting on the very clubhouse patio where Tiger and Elin were married, looking across the course and down to the sea.
There was not a People magazine reader in the bunch, but we nonetheless enjoyed listening to stories about that happy occasion as we discovered even more ways to enjoy the local rum. Then, it was back to the hotel and down to the beach. The golf portion of the day was done, but there were several hours of sun left to soak in as well as the prospects of a late afternoon sail, or maybe a chance to go snorkeling with the sea turtles.
I was willing to try anything else the island had to offer after golf. Anything, that is, but cricket.