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Bermuda Bounces Back

The destination you hoped would never change finally had to. Where mossy fairways and sagging hotels once stood, the prettiest British isle now flashes modern (and less modest) attractions.

By: Ben Wright

Appeared in March 2003 LINKS

A few years back I watched a well-struck putt of mine wobble clumsily across patchy turf at Bermuda's Mid Ocean Club. After unleashing a few oaths, I formulated a theory: Like the great natural athletes, whose romping success leaves them unmotivated to practice, this naturally gorgeous island simply does not feel compelled to keep itself in top shape.

Even by then, Bermuda's inertia was exacting a price. Its fine clubs and resorts were falling out of favor. The honeymoon trade was lagging, golfers' complaints were growing louder and the luxury cruise lines were devising new ways to exploit the island's beauty while hoarding all the dining and lodging revenue to themselves.

Thankfully, warning signs were at last heeded, and today Bermuda's resort and golf industries find themselves on the happy side of a full-scale rebuilding effort. Not a moment too soon, either. In its new incarnation, the island has shifted emphasis a bit from vacation lodgings toward residential real estate bearing comma-strewn price tags. Hardly a budget-travel destination to begin with, Bermuda has taken venues where a splurging middle-class vacationer could find rooms-with-a-view and used them for grand residences marketed to a privileged and tiny minority.

Competition from the Caribbean and elsewhere forced Bermuda to change. Even the old guard at the preeminent clubs on the island, which had stubbornly resisted all significant improvements for decades, saw the light. As a longtime member of the magnificent Mid Ocean Club, I was constantly enraged by the dreadful state of the greens. They were riotous mixes of at least six different types of grass, including very coarse Bermuda. Mid Ocean has always been high on my list of the best layouts in the world, and I once wrote that if I had to play only one course for the rest of my life, this would be it.Still, I made no secret of blaming the greens there for my perennially inadequate performances in the club's major events. They played havoc with a putting stroke honed to a pitch of perfection on American bent and hybrid Tifton Bermuda grass greens of incredibly high quality. Only my love for Bermudans and their glorious little island in the Atlantic kept bringing me back, against all my better judgment.

But an aggressive club president, Michael Dunkley, the island's largest dairy farmer and conservative (United Bermuda Party) member of Parliament, and the much-abused Ricky Cox, chairman of the club's agronomy committee, have wrought a marvelous change. By the end of 2003, under the supervision of renowned American architect Tom Doak, and through the tireless efforts of superintendent Norman Furtado and his splendid staff, Mid Ocean's greens will all have been upgraded to TifEagle surfaces of quite beautiful quality and speed.

Even these dynamic young men were hog-tied by the membership to a three-year program. In my opinion, Mid Ocean, which is hardly tight for cash, should have closed down and replaced and refurbished all the greens in one fell swoop, and then limited play to allow them to mature. As it was, the seventh green became the guinea pig, and a real pig it became because seed was sent from Rincon, Ga., of an inferior quality. It has been re-sprigged free of charge as part of the 2001 program, which saw the second, sixth, 10th and 14th greens replaced--with conspicuous success. This year has seen the first, fifth, ninth, 11th, 12th, 15th and 18th greens replaced, and seven more temporary greens put in play.

Now only the third, fourth, eighth, 13th, 16th and 17th greens remain to be replaced, along with the lower practice green. But goodness knows how long it will take for the new greens to achieve a uniform speed. I would personally like the more vicious slopes on some of the greens softened to accommodate TifEagle, but I'll accept (with a sigh) the credo that nothing should ever compromise the original design of Charles Blair Macdonald.If the upheaval at Mid Ocean was radical, it is nothing compared to the mayhem wrought at two other venerable relics of the 1920s, Castle Harbour Hotel and Golf Club, and the Belmont Hotel and Golf Club.

The monolithic Castle Harbour Hotel is soon to be a completely demolished shell, eventually to be replaced by The Greenbrier Spa at Tucker's Point. Initially the new luxury "boutique" hotel will include 61 rooms costing almost $1 million each to construct, and a 14,000-square-foot spa. Its second phase will see the addition of 20 more rooms. The five-star Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, W. Va., will provide both operating and marketing support to the new hotel. Thus far, what's gone up in place of the old Marriott are stunning, sprawling residences, a sign of Bermuda's subtle trend toward privatization.

The Greenbrier's president, Ted Kleisner, was a former general manager of the '70s-vintage Fairmont Southampton Princess Hotel, the last luxury hotel to open on Bermuda. Construction of the resort at Tucker's Point is slated to begin late this year. Merchants and other locals who depend on the tourist trade are growing impatient for the project to get going. They have complained already about design changes that have reduced the number of guest rooms significantly.Meanwhile the Castle Harbour Golf Club, originally designed by Charles Banks, has been completely redesigned by Roger Rulewich and is already open for play, to rave reviews, as Tucker's Point Club. Cynics, and there are plenty of them in such a small community, sneer that the new layout is "still Castle Harbour." But that is a most unfair comment. All the old holes that remain have been completely upgraded, and considerably improved, and all the new holes are excellent. The greens are also planted with TifEagle Bermuda. The new course measures 6,361 yards in total length, a par-70 with five par-3s and three par-5s.

To those familiar with the old Castle Harbour layout, the first hole, with new bunkering, is now the 17th. The second and third holes are gone to make way for luxury estate homes, their lots selling for $3 million each. And sell they have. By late last summer, the ambitious residential real estate plans were panning out nicely here; some $40 million worth of house lots were under contract by then, during just 15 months of the sales effort.

Buyers of these lots are naturally considered strong candidates to join the new Tucker's Point Club as golf members. They will find the old par-5 fourth is now a much improved third hole, with new fairway and greenside bunkers, and the green moved much lower on the hill, and further back. The old par-3 fifth is now the fourth, with a completely changed--and huge--green. The old sixth, a ridiculous dogleg-right par-4 with a largely hidden landing area from the tee, has been flattened out at huge expense, and makes a fine fifth hole.

For me, the new ninth (it's the former 14th), which sports a newly dug lake in front of the green, is Tucker's Point's signature hole. The new 10th is the old 17th, and the old par-3 18th, with its absurd pond removed, plays as the 11th, considerably longer at 225 yards.

Rulewich has re-routed and shortened the old 12th, leveling out the fairway and placing a new green to the right, hard by the road, which allowed him to use the old 12th green as the new 14th, a par-3 played from the top of the hill at 175 yards into the teeth of the prevailing wind. The old ninth is now the 16th, with an enormous bunker at the angle of the dogleg-left, and a lowered green with a new bunker front right. The completely new 18th hole was cut out through the jungle to the right of the old second hole, and at 398 yards into the wind provides a testing enough finish.

Members must share my view of how fine a job Rulewich turned in. They have to pay a wholly refundable deposit of $75,000 just to get in, and 91 have already done so. With Bermuda emerging as a new global center for the insurance industry, there are already many corporate members, as one might expect of a club that boasts expensive housing, a beach and tennis club, and a private residence club all under one umbrella. Excellent value at the price, if you wish my opinion.In less than six months another enormous hotel structure, the Belmont, has disappeared from the skyline across from Hamilton Harbour, to be replaced by a new hotel that will go by the name of Belmont Hills. The old Belmont golf course beside the razed lodge has been totally ripped up, itself. Veteran California architect Algie Pulley and his shaper, son Jeff, have wrought their magic to redesign and rebuild the links on a claustrophobic site of well under 100 acres. For weeks the site looked like a war zone, with rocks and topsoil in piles everywhere, as the heavy machinery tore into the limestone beneath the tees, fairways and greens.

Such was the perfection of the Bermuda rock as the machines took down the level of the 16th fairway that the stone cutters moved in to quarry it from dawn until dusk seven days a week--a nice bonus for the ambitious new owners of the property and their general manager, John Mason. Pulley and his son relocated to Bermuda to work seven days a week. Jeff even got married in this most romantic of island settings, a popular venue for such ceremonies. Already all 18 of their greens are complete--once again the surface of choice is TifEagle--and are puttable, and most of the heavy earth moving work has been finished.

I am lost in admiration of the new layout, which will total only about 6,100 yards. There are at least two tiers on most of the greens, and the bunkering is severe throughout. Fairways are narrow enough to place a true premium on shotmaking ability, and the last four holes are as good a finishing quartet as one can find on the island.

Two large and beautiful ponds interconnected by a handsome waterfall have appeared on the seven holes south of the main road that bisects the course. The water is pumped up from the bottom end and reappears via a big rock with a hole running through it at the top. The ponds will come into play at no fewer than four of those holes. The parallel first and 10th holes are served by the biggest double green I have ever seen. It measures 17,000 square feet, but is quite shallow, and measures over 100 yards from side to side. A bunker complex guards the front of this unique feature, as do two sentinel palm trees set one-third and two-thirds across its front edge, actually cutting the green into three sections as one approaches it.

 Belmont Hills, as the golf club is now named, will play to a par of 70 with only two par-5s. The signature hole could well be the par-3 seventh, which, at 150-180 yards in length, has a green that hangs over the upper pond to its left. The club hopes to open this spring. I feel this date is a little optimistic, but if anyone can do it, the team of Mason, director of golf Alex Madeiros, and superintendent Jose Benvenides and their crew can. It makes no small difference that Kevin Petty, one of the owners of the layout, has an encyclopedic knowledge of Bermuda's trees and shrubs, and where they can be obtained.

But Riddell's Bay Golf and Country Club, dating back to 1922, is still the island's "garden" course, and is continually upgrading that aspect of its beauty. At 5,713 yards, it is very short by modern standards, set as it is on a peninsula measuring only 600 yards across at its widest.

There are major plans in the works by American architect Ed Beidel to give the layout a really big par-5 on the inward half. At present, its only three-shotter, the seventh, measures but 471 yards. Even better, the present par-4 ninth of 247 yards will be shortened by moving its green back down to the very edge of the bay, across which the tee shot will still be played, thus making the hole a bona fide par-3.

If Riddell's Bay is the most visually attractive course Bermuda can offer, Port Royal, the public course designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr., has undeniably the best practice area. The government could do little better than follow the example of its private-club counterparts and upgrade Port Royal with TifEagle greens. Of course, being less dependent on tourist traffic, Port Royal might naturally resist the rejuvenation going on all around it. I say, better it should capture the island's new spirit and join its golf neighbors who are so newly arrived in the 21st century.

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