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In Jamaica, a Few Spirited Rounds

By Tod Pitock
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, September 20, 1998; Page E01

   


Anyone who thinks golf is not real exercise should be made to walk Tryall, the renowned course in Montego Bay, Jamaica. At a little more than 6,200 yards, it is not a long course, and the first seven holes are on a flat shelf running along the shores of the Caribbean. On the second hole, a par 3, the tee box and the green are separated by a frond-covered pond, and you begin to wonder if rumors of the course's difficulty weren't perhaps exaggerated.

Then the course starts to climb into the foothills, and the strain sneaks up. By the 12th hole, your legs are rubbery and the front of your shirt looks as if you've been doing aerobics in a room without air conditioning.

The course is splendidly scenic, and the elevated tee box of the 14th hole offers a panorama of whitewashed villas with balconies overhung with scarlet bougainvillea, verdant fairways with willows and palms and mammoth cotton trees, and an immense seascape horizon.

Yes, all this beauty, and I can't stop schvitzing. There's no chance I'll quit, though I confess it may have less to do with pride than price, because between the taxi, the caddy and the greens fees, I'm in the hole, as it were, for about $220. My ball, on the other hand, doesn't want to be in the hole at all. It has picked up on the fact that I'm tired and has become defiant, seizing upon any convenient excuse--a breeze, say, sweeping down from the smoky Jamaica mountains at my back--to mock me with a gratuitous excursion into some thick rough.

My caddy, an amicable and trusty adviser whom course rules required me to hire, is out of sight. Even he is whooped and has been conserving energy by picking out strategic meeting points and skipping uphill hikes whenever possible. I examine the layout of the hole. The fairway slopes down into a valley to the right, as though it's splitting off from the bunker-guarded green at the top of a hill. As the ball takes flight, I feel a hiccup of dismay as it fades right and bounds further down hill than I honestly care to walk. I console myself with the thought that it's all good conditioning.

On my way, my caddy reappears bearing a skull-size, hard-shelled, pumpkin-colored fruit. "It's a coconut," he explained, carving a divot from the stem with a pen knife. "Here, drink."

It is sweet, almost cloying, on the cool side of tepid, and altogether novel. And if it is not exactly what I had in mind, it does the trick--which pretty well summarizes my experience in Jamaica.

And so I play on.

My wife and I had come for a long weekend. This was the payoff for an intense stretch of four months working. I would play golf while she retreated into a hulking Victor Hugo novel, and then we'd explore the island a bit along the way. Although Jamaica isn't as famous a golf destination as, say, Bermuda, several of its nine 18-hole courses enjoy a solid reputation among the sport's cognoscenti. Add a relatively affordable off-season air-and-land package in a tony resort, and we needed no further encouragement.

From the start, it was colorful--you might even say spirited. My Air Jamaica seat mate would. He spoke patois to some invisible entity over his shoulder. Apparently displeased by whatever answer he got, he banged his head on the back of the seat in front of him. I requested to be moved and wound up next to a Jamaican expatriate who said what what he missed about his country was, among other things, the "freedom." I asked what he meant and his expression took on a longing gaze,

"Well," he said, "like you can drink and drive." Until then my wife and I had thoughts of renting a car. We decided we would take taxis.

While it stands out from many smaller islands, Jamaica is typical of what's optimistically called the developing world. Foreign tourists--particularly Americans and Germans, and notwithstanding the 36-hour journey, Japanese honeymooners--come to indulge a taste for luxury at plush all-inclusive resorts, which offer single-price packages covering everything from the flight and the room to food and scuba diving and windsurfing.

The Half Moon, where we stayed, is almost a fantasy, a 400-acre plantation of understated, tastefully appointed suites and cottages stretching across an immaculate crescent of ochre beach. The rooms feature spacious bed and sitting rooms, and most look out on the sea. The landscaping is exquisite, with flower gardens and sculpted bushes. Almond and palm trees line a brick path, which is kept clear by a wizened Jamaican man who patrols with a straw broom. If you can forgive the resort's mediocre overpriced food--unfortunately the norm in Jamaican resorts--almost nothing can dent the pleasure.

Beyond the Half Moon's border, though, it's immediately apparent that the fantasy inside bears little connection to the reality outside. Feeble-looking cattle wander over barren fields that once produced sugar. Roads are poor, and much of the housing consists of shacks with corrugated-iron roofs. It's a world apart from the Half Moon, but business people are quick to point out the direct relationship between the two: Only a small share of the tourist wealth trickles out from the forbidding security gates, which in effect lock profits in and locals out. "These resorts are turning Jamaica into a South Africa," lamented one driver.

The sense of desperation is palpable and discomfitting in Montego Bay, the northwest coastal city that is country's second largest after the capital, Kingston. Go to the craft market at Harbour Street, and the vendors--whose 200 or so stalls stock virtually identical wooden masks, baskets, Bob Marley T-shirts, beads and dolls--plead with you to take a look. Should your eye so much as brush an object, haggling begins--whether you have any real interest in the thing or not. You can find gifts or souvenirs, but it is the scene more than the goods that's worth seeing.

Between the golf and the decadently lovely resort and the effort to see some "real" aspects of Jamaica, it quickly became a trip with a split personality, which is pretty much what happens when you come to a poor country with a dollar in your pocket and a thought in your head.

Everywhere, though, the Jamaicans we met were garrulous and likable. Noticing my pregnant wife, a man named Clinton nudged me knowingly and asked if it was our first.

"Fourth," I said.

"All with the same woman?" He looked impressed at the affirmative answer.

The Half Moon's course, a Robert Trent Jones design that opened in 1961, the year before Jamaica gained independence from British rule, contrasts nicely with Tryall. At 7,119 yards from the blue tees, it's longer, flat and consistent on front and back nines. Wind is often a factor, as is an irrigation ditch running through parts of the course. The fairways are generous in two ways. Most are wide, and because they'd been deprived of rain prior to and during my visit, they had a lot of bounce, giving me tens of extra yards for free.

"What's that," I asked my caddy, "about 260?"

"Oh, no," he replied. "At least 280, maybe 290." (That he was bucking for a good tip only occurred to me much later, after I'd given him one.)

Unfortunately, what the fairways gave, the greens took back, because the same hard, brittle Bermuda-grass surface made them fast, and a properly assertive approach shot would hop up, over and off the back of the green like the proverbial Gingerbread Man.

About five minutes up the road is Rose Hall, one of Jamaica's "Great Houses." Scattered across the island, the Great Houses are the English-style manors once inhabited by sugar plantation owners and now open for tours. Rose Hall, locals insist, is haunted by a "witch," Annie Palmer, who according to the prevailing version killed three husbands and various lovers and slaves, who in turn murdered her in her bed in 1833.

"Sometimes she shows up on the tour," a man told me. "She just attaches herself to a line of tourists. The guide will count five visitors and then at the end of the tour there are only four."

She did not show up for our group, though when I went to play across the road at the Wyndham Rose Hall Golf and Beach Resort, my ball did indeed seem spooked. My caddy, by contrast, was quite relaxed. Wyndham requires players to hire a caddy and a cart, so his job primarily involved driving me to my ball. I felt like an aristocrat, and he was having a fine time, too. When I kerplunked a ball into the pond on the par-3 third hole, he yucked it up. "We call that water 'The Club,' " he said, reaching out to shake my hand. "Welcome to the 'The Club.' " When I sliced a ball on the eighth--a difficult but beautiful hole that sidles up to the Carribean, then doglegs left with the green jutting out above the water--he followed its flight using his hand as a visor: "Well, say goodbye to that one," he said.

Goodbye, indeed. Which was pretty much my attitude the next day when I decided to forgo a round at Montego Bay's fourth course, Ironshore Country Club. The sun had beaten the fairways like a cosmic pestle, and it was bleached, dusty and uninviting.

Instead, we went to encounter one spirit that--ghosts or no ghosts--clearly still holds Jamaica in thrall. That, of course, is reggae demigod Bob Marley's, whose image and songs are ubiquitous even 17 years since his death at age 36 from brain cancer. So, on our last full day, we hired a driver to take us to Nine Miles, his birthplace and mausoleum. The road that climbs into the steep mountains two hours into the island's interior is narrow and treacherous, and we might have enjoyed the lush country views more had we been certain we were going to live to tell about it.

Atop a garland of hills, Marley's resting place is a Rastafarian shrine. Young men in dreadlocks mill about, extolling Marley and Marcus Garvey, whom they regard as prophets, and Ras Tafari, who was known to the rest of the world as Haile Selassie, the late Ethiopian leader, as the messiah.

As with the vendors who sell Marley T-shirts, some are hoping to turn a buck. But many are sincere, expounding on Marley's music and recounting episodes from his life, cigarillo-size joints in hand. A soft-spoken, contemplative 23-year-old named Courtenay seamlessly wove quotes from Marley's lyrics and the Bible into conversation, explicating with heartfelt yet dispassionate clarity.

"I shot the sheriff," he said, to explain the lyrics of one of Marley's best-known songs, "and I shot the barber and the butcher because all three do the devil's work. The butcher kills, the barber cuts hair and the sheriff comes to cut the holy herb."

The sheriffs, though, seem to leave Nine Miles alone, and the holy herb, which Rastafarians believe opens the mystic doors to reality, is abundant. One man, claiming to be Marley's cousin, wanted his picture taken by a lovingly tended ganja garden, then reminded me of a more mundane reality by putting out a palm for a donation.

When we left Jamaica, only one thought haunted me--that I hadn't taken another crack at Tryall. It's the nature of golf to revisit certain moments and convince yourself that you'd do better if only you had another chance (see under: mulligan). One would imagine the spirits of dead golfers--exhausted by the walk, killed off by the results--might indeed drift over a course like this.

Where else, after all, might they be able to refresh themselves with a coconut?

Todd Pitock, a contributor to Golf and Travel magazine, has written

for Travel about Philadelphia and Johannesburg.


Details: Golf in Jamaica

Getting There: Air Jamaica offers nonstop service between BWI and Montego Bay. Round-trip fares start at about $480, with restrictions.

Packages: Nine 18-hole golf courses are scattered from the capital, Kingston, to the coastal resorts. The densest cluster--and thus the most popular--are the four in Montego Bay: Half Moon (1-800-626-0592, http://www.halfmoon.com.jm), Wyndham Rose Hall (1-800-996-3426, http://www.wyndham.com) and Tryall (1-800-238-5290), all resorts, and Ironshore (876-953-2800), a country club.

Here are a few of the numerous package deals out there (unless otherwise noted, the prices listed are per person based on double occupancy):

  • Coyaba (876-953-9150), a small, luxurious hotel on the resort strip in Montego Bay, offers a "Golf Sampler," which includes greens fees at the Half Moon, Wyndham and Ironshore courses, and reduced fees at Tryall. The package includes lodging and transport between resorts. Price: $725 (four nights; does not include air fare and meals).

  • Tryall offers a five-night "European Plan," including air fare from Washington, a villa and greens fees. Price: $1,174 (does not include meals).

  • All-inclusive packages are available through U.S. tour operators at the Half Moon and Wyndham in Montego Bay, Sandals in Ocho Rios and Breezes in Runaway Bay. Air Jamaica Vacations (1-800-523-5585) also offers packages; for five-night visits through mid-December it's quoting rates from $1,050 (Wyndham) to $1,550 (Half Moon), including golf, lodging and air fare.

  • If you don't want to be confined to one resort for meals and golf, consider air-land-transfer packages and pay on an as-you-golf basis. The greens fee portion of the "all-inclusive" may be the same whether you're on a package or a day visitor--at the Half Moon, for example, it's $130 either way--so the bottom line may come out about the same.

    Information: Jamaica Tourist Board, 1-800-233-4582, http://www.jamaicatravel.com.

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