Golf in the Caribbean

After a long fallow period during the 1980s, this multi-cultural collection of islands, scattered from the tip of Florida to the north coast of South America, has surged forward with several exciting new developments. Not only have vintage Robert Trent Jones designs been updated, but several new courses by the game's hottest designers have made a big splash.

In addition to far-sighted developers and island governments who recognize the value of golf as a tourism tool, a newly developed salt-tolerant turfgrass, paspalum, has begun to drive golf growth in the tropics. Course conditions in the islands, an iffy proposition in the past, are now much improved. Of course, the beauty quotient of Caribbean venues has always outweighed their cosmetic flaws, but golfers now can have it both ways.

Lucayan A lake guards the green at the Lucayan's par-four 18th.
John R. Johnson
At present, more than 20 islands in the Caribbean offer a first-class golf experience. The top choices are described below.

Bahamas

Grand Bahama Island (GBI), which has shed its "Freeport" moniker as part of a re-branding initiative, is rightfully promoted as the golf island of the Bahamas.

Stretched along GBI's south shore is Our Lucaya Beach & Golf Resort . Our Lucaya is the creation of a Hong Kong-based shipping company that has to date spent $450 million to build an upbeat resort with 1,270 guest rooms.

Our Lucaya's Reef Course , a links-style design by Robert Trent Jones Jr., was superimposed on a defunct layout and today presents an open, windswept test with water in play at 13 holes. Many of the greens are raised above fairway level and bracketed by large cloverleaf bunkers. The Reef stands in marked contrast to GBI's other venues, most of which are framed by dense vegetation.

The resort also offers the Lucayan Course , a Dick Wilson design ranked among his best. Carved from tall pines and palmetto thickets on rolling land, this 6,824-yard, par-72 test favors precision over power. Wilson, who employed angled fairways throughout, levels the playing field between long-ball artists and shorter hitters. There's also a Butch Harmon School of Golf at the Lucayan. www.ourlucaya.com

Fifteen minutes from GBI's airport is the 965-room Royal Oasis Golf Resort & Casino , which reopened last May after a $52 million facelift. Formerly known as the Bahamas Princess, Royal Oasis is built around a refurbished 36-hole facility. Jim Fazio, Tom's brother, was brought in to completely redesign the Ruby Course . Fazio changed hole configurations, widened corridors, installed new tees, dished out bunkers, and built larger, more undulating greens. At 7,012 yards (par 72), the Ruby is a big track with plenty of room to bang the driver.

Fazio also restored the resort's Emerald Course , a Dick Wilson design circa 1965. A subtle, flowing test woven through palmettos, pines, and thickets of lush vegetation, the Emerald's final three holes -- two strong par fours wrapped around a 221-yard par three that plays to a slick, tilted green -- provide one of the best finishes in the Bahamas. www.grandbahamagolf.com

Ocean Club Water, sand, and swaying palms mark the Ocean Club.
Russell Kirk/Golflinks

On Paradise Island, across a causeway from Nassau, is the Ocean Club , a posh enclave that was once the private estate of Huntington Hartford II, heir to the A & P fortune. After a $100 million investment, South African leisure tycoon Sol Kerzner has transformed the property into one of the world's most elegant getaways. Reopened in 2000, the tranquil, low-key resort, set on a two-mile stretch of beach, offers opulent guest rooms in two wings.

Superimposed on the former Paradise Island Golf Club is the Ocean Club Golf Course, a brilliant 7,100-yard, par-72 layout by Tom Weiskopf. Flanked on three sides by the sea, this spectacular course features an ocean view from every hole plus seven holes that touch the sea.

Site of the annual Office Depot Father/Son Challenge in December, the resort is a haven for celebrities who enjoy lounging on the terrace of a clubhouse, which is set on a hill overlooking the course and sea. Homeowner Ernie Els is the club's resident pro. www.OceanClub.com

Nassau's second golf spot is the Radisson Cable Beach Resort , a 700-room property that last year completed a $15 million renovation. The project included a redesign of the original 1928 Cable Beach layout. Reopening this month, the revitalized course features spacious fairways guarded by a network of lakes. www.radisson-cablebeach.com

Slated to open in May is the Four Seasons Resort Great Exuma at Emerald Bay, the first major resort to be built in the Exumas, a chain of 365 mostly uninhabited islands. In addition to the 219-room hotel, its low-rise units clustered around a beautiful, crescent-shaped bay and sandy beach, the resort, a 40-minute flight from Nassau, will feature a European-style casino, a full-service spa, and a deep-water marina. Also opening this spring is Emerald Bay Golf Club , a Greg Norman design plotted through mangrove swamps and coral rock outcrops. The highlights of the course are holes 11 through 16, which trace the perimeter of a rocky peninsula, bringing players face-to-face with the turquoise-blue sea as it lashes the encrusted shore. www.fourseasons.com/greatexuma

Barbados

Traditionally favored by British travelers, Barbados has been increasingly patronized of late by Americans and has become a major player in the West Indies golf scene. In fact, this "Cornwall of the Tropics" has four top-shelf courses.

Following three years of rebuilding, Sandy Lane , a glamorous jet-set resort on the west coast of Barbados, reopened in 2001 following a $400 million overhaul by its new Irish owners.

The creature comforts here are sumptuous, but golfers will find the resort's golf courses every bit their equal. Sandy Lane's original 18-hole course has been transformed into the Old Nine , a charming, walkable, tree-lined nine-holer, but the big buzz here is all about Tom Fazio's new creations, his first designs outside the U.S.

Sandy Lane's Country Club course, unveiled two years ago, is a 7,060-yard, par-72 layout carved into a broad slope high above the Caribbean Sea. A true resort-style course, it offers wide fairways, but they are angled and swept by tradewinds. Deep ravines and gullies gobble offline shots, while five lakes, well-placed bunkers, and liberally contoured greens serve to keep players honest.

Routed on higher ground nearly 300 feet above sea level is Fazio's Green Monkey course, which is slated to open later this winter following a lengthy construction process. Portions of the 7,211-yard, par-72 championship-caliber course occupy a former coral stone quarry, with 100-foot-high walls rising around several fairways and greens. Spectacular from start to finish, the Green Monkey, an engineering extravaganza with more than 100 feet of elevation change, is destined for greatness.

The Old Nine and Country Club courses are open to daily-fee play, but the Green Monkey is available only to resort guests. www.sandylane.com

Royal Westmoreland , a semi-private club on the island's west coast, set a new standard for Barbados when it opened in 1995. Designer Robert Trent Jones Jr. conjured a delightful layout on a former sugarcane plantation and limestone quarry 300 feet above sea level, melding golf architecture with landscape art. The layout's front nine is marked by decorative grasses, artful bunkering, and holes set into coral rock canyons, while the upcountry back nine is bisected by deep ravines. www.royal-westmoreland.com

On the southern tip of Barbados near the airport is Barbados Golf Club , which reopened in 2000 after a $7.2 million overhaul on the site of Barbados Golf and Country Club, a 1974 design that had gone belly-up. Ron Kirby, a former Gary Player design associate, was brought in to fashion a new public-access course on the old site. Beautifully landscaped with bougainvillea, this walker-friendly course offers preferred tee times to guests of several area hotels. www.barbadosgolfclub.com

Dominican Republic

The second-largest country in the Caribbean, the Dominican Republic occupies the eastern two-thirds of the island of Hispaniola. Led by its premier resort, Casa de Campo, the Dominican Republic is currently the hottest spot for golf in the islands.

Twist Pete Dye's arm, and he'll probably admit that his favorite course among the many he's designed is Teeth of the Dog at Casa de Campo , the vast 7,000-acre playground on the island's southeast coast that has evolved, thanks to a $100 million expansion and improvement since the late 1990s, into the most complete resort in the Caribbean. Named for the jagged coral rocks that buttress its seaside tees, Teeth of the Dog was hand-built by Dye and 300 Dominicans in 1970. Seven of the holes skirt or cross the Caribbean Sea; the remainder are routed through fields of sugar cane and stands of almond and teak trees. From the white tees, it may be the most delightful resort course ever built, yet from the tips at 6,989 yards (par 72), "the Dog" can growl on a windy day.

Currently ranked 35th in the world by GOLF Magazine, Teeth of the Dog, good as it is, may soon be eclipsed by a new Dye creation that stairsteps down bluffs nearly 300 feet above the Chavon River. Slated to open in April, the as-yet-unnamed layout, surfaced in two strains of paspalum grass and irrigated with sea water, is a massive course built on precipitous terrain, with sharp elevation changes and stunning views of the Caribbean Sea and Altos de Chavon, the resort's replica of a 16th-century Mediterranean village. For sheer drama, the layout is strong enough to take a bite out of Teeth of the Dog, which itself will close for a period of time later this year so that the indefatigable 77-year-old designer can renovate its playing surfaces. Visiting players also have access to the Links Course, an upcountry design by Dye that climbs into rolling hills.

In addition to Dye's new masterpiece, Casa de Campo offers a wide variety of hotel and villa accommodations, numerous restaurants and bars, world-class shooting, equestrian and tennis centers, and a new $30 million marina and yacht club with waterside cafes and trendy shopping outlets. www.casadecampo.cc

East of Santo Domingo, the nation's colonial capital, is Guavaberry Golf & Country Club , a Gary Player-designed course opened last summer. Affiliated with the Coral Costa Caribe Beach Hotel & Casino, Guavaberry was laid into rolling terrain dotted with corozo palm trees. Coral rock outcrops, roller-coaster greens, and huge waste bunkers characterize the design. www.guavaberry.org

Playa Grande Playa Grande's par-five fifth is one of 11 holes routed along the sea. John R. Johnson

There are very few secrets in the world of golf anymore, but a true hidden gem can be found on the north coast of the Dominican Republic east of Puerto Plata. This is Playa Grande Golf Course , the last project Robert Trent Jones actively worked on before his death. Completed in 1997 after a lengthy series of delays, this 7,046-yard, par-72 stunner has 11 holes routed on bluffs 100 feet above the sea, qualifying it as the "Pebble Beach of the Caribbean." The majestic layout bears all of Jones's trademarks: runway tees, cloverleaf bunkers, and giant rolling greens. Wedged between a jungled mountain ridge and the sea, this virtually unknown course offers one of the most intoxicating settings for the game in the tropics. 809-582-3302

At the eastern tip of the island is Punta Cana Resort and Club , where P.B. Dye, Pete's younger son, sought to reprise his father's Teeth of the Dog design. Holes weave in and out of a dry forest, but the layout, debuted in 2000, also takes players to the brink of the sea on both nines. www.puntacana.com

Cap Cana , a $500-million, 30,000-acre oceanfront development near Punta Cana, has already recorded $72 million in real estate sales, all before a single ball has been struck on one of three Jack Nicklaus-designed courses to be built at the facility. (The first course, Punta Espada , boasts several seaside holes and will be unveiled later this year.) Cap Cana will feature the Caribbean's largest marina, upscale hotels, a European-style casino, a 5,000-seat open-air amphitheater -- the whole enchilada. www.capcana.com

Jamaica

It is said that Jamaica, birthplace of reggae, has a little bit of everything to be found in the Caribbean. Most of the nation's golf courses are found outside Montego Bay on the island's north coast.

White Witch Jamaica's White Witch gets off to a thrilling start on No. 1.
Aidan Bradley

>The Ritz-Carlton Golf & Spa Resort, Rose Hall, a lavish 427-room property located 15 minutes from Montego Bay, brought a new level of luxury to Jamaica when it opened in 2000. Set on 4,000 acres, the resort offers the seclusion of a beachfront hideaway plus the White Witch Golf Course . Built on a rugged site by Robert von Hagge and Rick Baril, this upcountry spread is an engineering marvel blasted from limestone and marl, offering panoramic views of the sea from 16 holes. The White Witch beguiles, especially in the company of a cheerful "golf concierge" who imparts local knowledge. www.ritzcarlton.com

Next door to the Ritz-Carlton is Wyndham Rose Hall Resort & Country Club , which tapped von Hagge and Baril to revamp its dramatic but quirky golf course. Reopened in 2001 after a $4.3-million overhaul, the course is called Cinnamon Hill , after Johnny Cash's house nearby. The layout has an excellent blend of holes set along the seashore and nestled in the forest. www.wyndham-jamaica.com

Located across the coastal road from the Ritz-Carlton is Half Moon Rose Hall , a venerable retreat that boasts a vintage 1961 layout by Robert Trent Jones. The course, dotted with bearded palms, is not flashy by modern standards, but it offers a solid, traditional test. www.halfmoon.com

A major facelift several years ago transformed The Tryall Club west of Montego Bay from a good course to a great one. The links starts off along the beach before climbing into mountain foothills, where elevated tees offer expansive sea views. The 18th-century Great House on site offers multi-bedroom suites, while fully-staffed private homes are available for rent. www.tryallclub.com

Puerto Rico

This Latin-flavored island offers an enticing line-up of established venues as well as several exciting new projects.

Dorado Beach East Dorado Beach East returns players to the sea at the 18th.
John R. Johnson

Carved from a 1,000-acre coconut and grapefruit plantation an hour's drive west of San Juan, Hyatt Dorado Beach Resort showcases two exceptional layouts by Robert Trent Jones. With renovation completed by the Raymond Floyd Group on the East Course , Dorado's flagship track, work has begun on the West Course , its better holes bent in hairpin turns around a lagoon. The enhancements are timely: The resort will host the men's and women's World Amateur Team Championships in 2004. www.hyatt.com

While its sister property is a great place to relax, Hyatt Regency Cerromar Beach is a bustling resort that appeals to kids of all ages (the River Pool is 1,800 feet of watery fun). Like Dorado, Cerromar offers a pair of Robert Trent Jones layouts. With a full renovation complete on the South Course , Floyd is now redesigning the North Course , integrating the layout with a new residential project. www.hyatt.com

Flamboyan Course Palmas del Mar's Flamboyan Course. L.C. Lambrecht

Fronting a long sandy beach, Palmas del Mar Country Club on Puerto Rico's southeast coast offers two fine courses. The Flamboyan Course , a solid layout by Rees Jones opened in 1998, is a multi-theme design woven through wetlands, meadows, and coconut palms, with several holes bordering the Caribbean Sea. Jones also reworked the resort's Palm Course , creating three new holes and revamping several others. www.palmasdelmar.com

The Westin Rio Mar Beach Resort & Golf Club is a sprawling 600-room hotel on the island's northeast coast geared to corporate groups. The Ocean Course , designed by George and Tom Fazio in 1975, is known for its par-three fourth hole, where hundreds of iguanas linger around a pond that fronts the green. The newer River Course , one of Greg Norman's first design efforts, is a strong test with seven holes routed beside the Mameyes River. www.westinriomar.com

Crowning a 300-foot bluff overlooking the converging waters of the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean, Wyndham El Conquistador Resort & Golden Door Spa in the northeast corner of Puerto Rico resembles a spectacular tropical stage set. The resort, which recently announced a $20 million improvement plan, will attach a third nine to its rolling Arthur Hills-designed golf course. www.wyndham.com

St. Kitts & Nevis

St. Kitts, the larger of this two-island destination, will welcome this month the St. Kitts Marriott Royal Beach Resort & Spa , its centerpiece the new Royal St. Kitts Golf Course designed by Canadian Tom McBroom. Sited on a sandy peninsula flanked by the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, the layout has broad fairways and large greens to accommodate the breeze. www.offshoreresorts.com

Nevis Course Mt. Nevis backdrops the Four Seasons Resort Nevis course.
John & Jeanine Henebry

Separated from its sister island by a two-mile-wide channel, the tiny island of Nevis is home to Four Seasons Resort Nevis , a superb 196-room property on Pinney's Beach. The resort's Robert Trent Jones Jr.-designed layout commences at sea level, climbs over 450 feet into jungle-covered foothills, and returns home to the sandy shore. Along the way, players can see and hear monkeys chattering in the treetops -- and admire every shade of green in the palette. Because most guests visit the resort to relax or engage in water sports, tee times are at a premium for only an hour or so in the morning. www.fourseasons.com

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