Come winter, the grass is always greener on Montego Bay golf courses.
Its winter, but a warm Jamaican trade wind blows at your back. You stand on the 593-yard third tee at Half Moon Golf Club and decide to challenge the bunkers on the left side of the fairway. Buoyed by the breeze, you carry them. The green sits 240 yards away, guarded by a cross bunker. You turn to your caddy, dressed in a white polo shirt and black pants, for advice.
Ã¢â,¬Å"Go for it, mon,Ã¢â,¬Â he says, pulling your 3 wood out of the bag. This is golf at Montego Bay.
For decades the area has courted the rich and the royal, a tradition captured in photographs tucked in alcoves of Half MoonÃ¢â,¬â,,¢s breezy lobby. ThereÃ¢â,¬â,,¢s Queen Elizabeth II, of course, as well as Prince Charles. The royal family of Monaco is represented. Most poignantly, thereÃ¢â,¬â,,¢s a photo of Jacqueline Kennedy when she visited in January 1960. She wrote a will on Half Moon stationery, asking that in the event of her and her husbandÃ¢â,¬â,,¢s deaths, care of her daughter, Caroline, be shared by her brother-in-law Edward Kennedy and her sister, Lee Radziwill. Though Montego Bay resorts still host royalty on occasion, strategic course construction has made the area a leading destination for winter golfers seeking challenging greens and the grace that attracted Windsors, Grimaldis, and Kennedys.
The area now boasts four excellent resort courses. Three of them have joined to form the Rose Hall Golf Association, named after an old plantation on whose land two of them are built. Perhaps best of all, some ten U.S. airlines schedule daily nonstop flights to Montego Bay. You can take off on a cloudy winter morning and tee up on a sun-splashed fairway the same afternoon.
CONSIDERED THE ISLANDÃ¢â,¬â,,¢S premier course by many, Half Moon recently remodeled its fairways under the careful direction of architect Roger Rulewich. Rulewich served as Robert Trent Jones Sr.Ã¢â,¬â,,¢s associate when the Half Moon course was built in 1961. He left much of the masterÃ¢â,¬â,,¢s work alone in his renovation, which was completed for the 2005-2006 season. The Half Moon course still has JonesÃ¢â,¬â,,¢s trademark runway tees. ItÃ¢â,¬â,,¢s still a deceptively simple pair of shoelace-style loops laid out in a narrow bougainvillea-rich valley between the beach road and a steep hillside. And prevailing trade winds still exert a heavy influence on playersÃ¢â,¬â,,¢ games. The typical round starts off in exhilarating fashion, with the wind making the par-five first and third holes reachable with two strong woods. Reality sets in as the course turns back for holes 5 through 13: You discover that there wasnÃ¢â,¬â,,¢t a secret elixir in the welcoming cocktail at the lobby that added 50 yards to your drives. The steady breeze takes back the distance it gave you on the first four holes Ã¢â,¬â€œ and then some.
Within that framework, Rulewich rebuilt greens, added bunkering and length (the course can now stretch out 7,141 yards), and built two signature holes. The fourth was an awkward, short dogleg with a blind landing area. Rulewich opened it up, scraping away enough soil to remove the blindness, and routed a creek in front of the green. ItÃ¢â,¬â,,¢s now a 343-yard hole that can be played several ways, including a direct but risky shot at the green from the tee. On number 14, where the course turns back toward the clubhouse, Rulewich presents players with a series of fairway bunkers that require choosing a conservative or daring route from the tee. With the wind newly at your back, itÃ¢â,¬â,,¢s tempting to take the bold way, shortening the approach shot. ThatÃ¢â,¬â,,¢s a gamble that will pay off only if you hit it flush.
But the best part of golf at Half Moon predates the renovation: the local caddies. Nowadays players at most Caribbean courses have to ride in carts, but Half Moon invites guests to pair up with a caddie and walk the fairways. Several of the loopers are among JamaicaÃ¢â,¬â,,¢s best amateur golfers, and when one of them points the butt end of the flagstick at a spot two feet from the hole and says, Ã¢â,¬Å"Putt it here, mon,Ã¢â,¬Â youÃ¢â,¬â,,¢d be well advised to do so, even if it doesnÃ¢â,¬â,,¢t look like the ball will break that much.
DOWN THE ROAD a mile or so is the other not-to-be-missed course in the Rose Hall Golf Association: the White Witch, part of The Ritz-Carlton Golf & Spa Resort, Rose Hall. Named after the original sugarcane plantation owner, Annee Palmer (no relation to Arnold), whose ghost is said to haunt the Rose Hall mansion, the 6,719-yard Witch was built by Robert von Hagge and Rick Baril in 2000 on mountainous terrain with panoramic views of the Caribbean. Tees perch vertiginously above fairways that cling to the tops of narrow ridges. When the trade winds are brisk, standing on the first tee can make you feel as if youÃ¢â,¬â,,¢re trying to drive your ball onto Fifth Avenue from atop the Empire State Building. The archetypal example is the first hole, a par five. The tee gives an eagleÃ¢â,¬â,,¢s-eye view of the fairway, but youÃ¢â,¬â,,¢d better hit it. ThereÃ¢â,¬â,,¢s oblivion on both sides. A cautious second shot will leave a steeply uphill pitch. Take an extra club or two for it.
THE TRYALL CLUB presides on the opposite side of Montego Bay from the Rose Hall courses and should play a part in any golf vacation to the island. Designed by Ralph Plummer, the challenging greens have hosted the Johnnie Walker World Championships, the Mazda Champions, and the Jamaica Classic, and can play as long as 6,772 yards. The clubÃ¢â,¬â,,¢s fairways stretch from seaside tees through coconut groves and lush jungle-lined hillsides. ThereÃ¢â,¬â,,¢s even an eighteenth-century aqueduct and waterwheel from the former sugar mill that comes into play from the back tee of the seventh. The best hole may be the fourth, added by Arthur Hills some 15 years ago. ItÃ¢â,¬â,,¢s a par three along the beach with water from the Flint River coming into play at the front of the green. Choose your club carefully.
You donÃ¢â,¬â,,¢t have to stay at Tryall to play there, but retiring to one of the membersÃ¢â,¬â,,¢ villas at the end of a round provides a fuller appreciation of the private club and Montego Bay tradition. Each villa comes with a staff that includes a chef, a housekeeper, a laundress, and a gardener. The staffed villa option is also available at Half Moon. Try it. Even if your golf game is rusty, just teeing up in this timeless setting will make you feel like royalty.
WHERE TO STAY
Golfers can improve their odds on http://www.luxetraveldeals.com/luxury-hotels-resorts/half-moon-caribbeanÃ¢â,¬Â>Half MoonÃ¢â,¬â,,¢s par-72 course with private lessons and classes at the resortÃ¢â,¬â,,¢s David Leadbetter Golf Academy. Accommodations at the 420-room property range from well-appointed guestrooms to lavish three- to seven-bedroom villas. The latter come complete with two golf carts, a personal chef, and a private butler to arrange everything from tee times to massages to horseback rides on the beach and a swim with dolphins in the lagoon. Doubles from $410, including breakfast and round-trip airport transfers.
Ã¢â,¬ÂºÃ¢â,¬Âº Unfolding on 5,000 acres of plantation land, The Ritz-Carlton Golf & Spa Resort, Rose Hall offers panoramic views of the Caribbean from 427 rooms, and greens on the championship White Witch course. Players can assuage humbled egos with their choice of 150 regional rums at Cohoba Lounge, as well as with sugarcane body scrubs and spa treatments incorporating Jamaican allspice and star apple. Doubles from $229.
Ã¢â,¬ÂºÃ¢â,¬Âº Guests at the The Tryall Club repair from Ralph Plummer-designed fairways to their choice of 13 suites and 69 privately owned villas staffed with a chef, housekeeper, and gardener. On Wednesday and Friday evenings the clubÃ¢â,¬â,,¢s 1,000-yard-long beach serves as social hub for a relaxed barbecue and seafood dinner accompanied by live music. Suites from $275; two-bedroom villas from $475. Ã¢â,¬â€œ JUSTIN PAUL