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The Tryall Club

Long before minimalism came into vogue, this natural wonder on Jamaica’s north coast epitomized the theory

By: James A. Frank

Appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of LINKS.

EVEN THOUGH THE TRYALL CLUB is as Jamaican as reggae and Red Stripe beer, its roots are in a very different country—Texas. The former sugarcane plantation half an hour west of Montego Bay became a private community in the 1950s after being acquired by a group of businessmen from the Lone Star State—including not-yet-Governor John Connally and not-yet-Senator Lloyd Bentsen—and turned into an exclusive playground for their families and friends.

Today, the club covers 2,200 acres from sea level to up Barnes Hill, which is lush with coconut palms and other tropical vegetation. Along the beach and the mountainside are 75 luxurious villas plus a dozen apartments adjoining the 18th-century Great House that is the center of club life. In a unique arrangement, accommodations are available for rent by outsiders, who will be welcomed as warmly as if they were charter members.

Also on property is a memorable golf course with its own Texas pedigree. It was designed in the late 1950s by Fort Worth native Ralph Plummer—one of those hard-working architects of the mid-century who, because his name wasn’t Trent Jones, has been overlooked—to take full advantage of the variegated landscape and constant breezes. It begins and ends by the Atlantic while its middle cleverly climbs the mountain (few of the shots are uphill while much of the walking/riding is) and reveals pulse-quickening views of vast ocean expanses and miles of coastline.

Plummer—a golf pro before he turned to design—did nearly all his work in Texas. During the Great Depression, he was a construction foreman for John Bredemus and helped build Colonial Country Club. (Byron Nelson, Jackie Burke Jr., and others have said Plummer deserves more credit at Colonial than history gives him.) After going out on his own, he had a hand in a number of notable layouts, including the Cypress Creek Course at Houston’s Champions Golf Club, where he worked with Jimmy Demaret; Preston Trail in Dallas, done with Nelson; and Fort Worth’s Shady Oaks, which he designed with Trent Jones and became famous as Ben Hogan’s home club.

Tryall is Plummer’s only creation outside the U.S., but it showcases his adherence to what architecturistas now call “minimalism”: Use the land as you find it, don’t add much to it, keep it natural. About the only significant digging he did was the creation of a few ponds within the first six holes, bringing some challenge to otherwise flat terrain near the ocean. And although there is at least one bunker touching every green, only a handful of holes have sand more than 100 yards from the putting surfaces.

What difficulty there is comes from the land’s natural slopes, banks, and twists; trees lining the Bermuda grass fairways (on the 5th and 13th holes, both par fives, single palms sit in the middle of the landing areas); a stream that slips in and out of the back nine; and the wind.

The two most memorable holes incorporate the wind—as well as the ocean—in markedly different ways. The par-three 4th plays west to east along the beach and over a watery inlet, the breeze coming briskly from the left. (The hole is not original, having been added in the early 1990s after the club acquired some ocean frontage.) The long downhill par-four 14th is pure Plummer: Ocean is the backdrop as far as the eyes can see, and the long approach shot must be hit off a downhill lie into a green that seems to float on the waves while being guarded by two bunkers and the wind hard into the golfer’s face. Simplicity at its most beautiful and treacherous.

Out, back, up, down, its holes covering every direction, Tryall places its obstacles in full view, asking nothing more than that the golfer hit good, smart shots. In 2012, the course was treated to a minor renovation: a few greens rebuilt (all are Tifeagle), some new tees, and landscaping that looks as natural as the surrounding  jungle. The most significant changes were to the driving range—which is now a first-class practice area if a little short (a really good drive will land in the first fairway)—and the open-air clubhouse/pro shop.

Through the years, Tryall has hosted big events, notably the Johnnie Walker World Championships from 1991–95. Nowhere near 7,000 yards back then (and still 164 yards shy from the back tees), it was assumed the pros would paint the leaderboards with red numbers. But Tryall held its own, proving then as now that a course doesn’t need gimmicks to be great or trickery to be thrilling.

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