Barbados garners reputation as golf destination

Eyeing our golf bags, Leonard, who had picked us up at the airport, asked, “So you’re golfers?”

“Yep. That’s what we’re here for. You?”

“No way. But did you know Tiger was married here? Sandy Lane. Took over the whole place.”

And we all know how that turned out, I thought.

“Get a lot of golfers?” I asked.

“Sure.”

No surprise. Barbados, the eastern-most island in the Caribbean chain, is perhaps better known for its rum. George Washington, who visited Barbados before becoming president, liked it so much that he served a barrel of it at his inauguration.

But Barbados also has garnered a well-earned reputation as a destination for serious golfers. Most of the courses stretch along the gentler western shores, or “Gold Coast.”

Setting the bar high is Sandy Lane Resort – think Four Seasons and rev it up several notches. It’s a fusion of creamy perfection, columns, marble, coral-tinged arches, gardens and a stunning spa, with rooms priced from $1,400 to $9,000 per night during the high season.

Sandy Lane has three golf courses. The Old Nine is like comfort food, easy on the eyes, with the turquoise sea combining with wild ginger, hibiscus and bougainvillea to color the landscape.

Soon after we teed off, I heard chattering and leaf-rattling in the trees. Suddenly, a monkey with a triangular, polished ebony face emerged from the underbrush and casually sidled over to the edge of the putting surface. Green monkeys, brought from West Africa hundreds of years ago, are unique to Barbados and a source of great fun.

“Sometimes the monkeys will grab your ball and run with it, but no problem,” Elvis Nedford, Sandy Lane’s golf and country club manager, told me.

Our furry visitor appeared to be contemplating exactly that, but thought better of it and bolted back into the brush.

I still had a banana in my bag from breakfast, but Nedford read my mind. “We tell golfers not to feed them,” he said. “Don’t want the monkeys to become too aggressive.”

The next day, while preparing to tee off on No. 8 at Sandy Lane’s fabulous – and fabulously pricey – Green Monkey layout, my caddie pointed to a spot far below us, in the bottom of the limestone quarry, where the grassy silhouette of a monkey was carved into the middle of a bunker adjacent to the 16th green. This whimsical touch – on a long, difficult downhill par 3 – is the iconic image for golf in Barbados.

Green Monkey architect Tom Fazio deftly used the quarry’s steep elevation changes to conjure enough drama to almost make you forget the $385 green fee. By the time I reached the 15th hole, I was starting to count the balls I had left in my bag. I’d lost one in the rocks when I tried to fly a ball onto the 3rd green; another to the gorge on No. 8 when I hooked it off the tee; and then another – same stupid thing. I blamed it on the Monkey.

Our reward: cooling off with a Mount Gay rum and tonic on the clubhouse’s infinity terrace, where vistas stretch across the fairways to the sea beyond. Local knowledge: Hang around until sunset. You won’t be disappointed.

Still a little humbled by Fazio’s challenging design, I welcomed the chance to leave my sticks in my room for a day and drive through the sugar cane fields to Bathsheba on the rocky east coast, where the rough Atlantic attracts surfers. What followed was a succession of the memorable images one expects in such an exotic location: the Andromeda

Botanic Gardens and a peek over the cliff to Crane Beach, then lunch on the seaside terrace of The Crane’s L’Azure before continuing on to Bridgetown to shop.

Our big splurge was dinner at The Cliff in St. James, where torches ring the balcony and waves crash onto the shore below.

On our way to the first tee at The Country Club at Sandy Lane the next morning, we were greeted by a flash rainstorm. In no time, however, the sun came out, the course drained like a sieve and we were off. Fazio’s work here stands in contrast to the Green Monkey. The Country Club is positioned as a resort layout, with wider fairways, large roll-up greens and more open space. At $235, it’s also way more accessible.

Caddies are required on both courses – a bargain if you draw a bagman like Apple.

Apple’s speech is pure British, while his heritage is Barbadian/Rastafarian. He’s been at Sandy Lane for more than a quarter century and still takes great pride in his job – diligently repairing ball marks and divots, picking up stray pieces of paper. More importantly, his experience here makes him an ideal guide as you’re picking your target lines and assessing putts.

Royal Westmoreland doesn’t benefit from the elevation changes found at Sandy Lane, but that didn’t stop architect Robert Trent Jones Jr. from creating a memorable collection of par 3s, all carries over water or ravines. There’s plenty of high drama here. The course finishes with a beast of a par 4 that requires a drive over a gully, then another forced carry to the green. Playing privileges come with villa rentals, while others pay a green fee of $250 to $300.

A more affordable option is the Barbados Golf Club on the southeast coast. Opened in 1979, the island’s first public course reopened in 2000 after a redo by Ron Kirby.

The best thing about playing the course on a Friday afternoon? It’s just five minutes from Oistins, a seaside fishing village on the southeast shore. Oistins has long been a popular spot for locals to eat grilled fish and celebrate the end of the week. More recently, it’s been discovered by tourists. In addition to food stands where mackerel, tuna and other fish are fried over flaming grills, there are colorful tables covered with jewelry, straw bags and other craft items.

As we walked along the stalls and small tents, we got caught up in a cacophony of boomboxes pumping out reggae, rap, country and . . . was that Lady Gaga? My husband and I bought fish sandwiches from Uncle George’s Fish Net Grill, then stepped off to the side to make room for a young boy who launched into an impromptu, energetic break-dancing exhibition – spinning, walking on his hands, standing on his head.

“With all that flexibility,” my husband said, “he would make a hell of a golfer.”

If so, he’s in a good spot to develop his game.

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