Last year, when LINKS Magazine named the top 25 golf islands in the world, 7 of them—more than a quarter—were in the Caribbean. That’s a pretty good showing for a region that, all together, comprises about .16% of the earth’s land mass.
Yet, ask most golfers their opinions of the courses in our nearby neighbors to the south and the responses usually will run along the lines of “flat,” “ragged,” “boring,” and “all the same.”
If any of those comments have come from you, it’s time to set you straight. Because there’s a very strong case to make that, right now, the Caribbean is the most exciting golf region in the world, with a host of new and recently renovated courses and resorts beckoning with the promise not only of challenging rounds but the traditional island staples of sun, sand, and sea—not to mention spirits, sociability, and savings.
Here’s a taste of what’s hopping in the islands.
If big, glitzy resorts are your thing, go to Paradise Island, where the 3,500-room Atlantis Resort and its smaller neighbor, the luxurious One&Only Ocean Club, share access to a bold, Tom Weiskopf-designed course that hugs the water and is kissed—hard—by crosswinds.
But it’s the smaller, more private Bahamian hideaways where the most interesting things are happening. The Abaco Club, a 10-year-old private “sporting club” on Great Abaco Island, was purchased last year by Boston-based Southworth Development, which owns and operates a half-dozen top-quality clubs, resorts, and communities. Its existing Donald Steel-Tom Mackenzie course, already considered one of the region’s best, is a rolling “tropical links” that runs along Winding Bay on the front and hangs atop a ridge on the back, with expansive ocean views, brisk breezes, and exciting challenges throughout.
The new owners didn’t need to do much other than softening two greens and improving the conditions, both already underway. They’re also adding a state-of-the-art practice facility, designed by Bob Cupp, that will keep frequent visitors like Darren Clarke (who had his wedding at the club in 2012) happy with a double-ended range and short-game area created to replicate every putt, chip, pitch, and bunker shot found on the course. It will be available to members as well as guests who can rent one of the lovely homes or cottages up to three times before they have to either buy, join, or find another refuge.
Baker’s Bay is an owners-only Discovery Land Company community on Great Guana Cay with a Tom Fazio course that shows the commitment to great golf sweeping the region. Not yet five years old, the windswept 18—wedged between the Sea of Abaco and the Atlantic on the cay’s northern tip—is surprisingly elevated, dispelling any notions of Caribbean predictability and similarity. Fazio created some wonderfully testing short par fours and big-boy par threes that change character by the minute as the winds shift. (The scorecard lists prevalent wind directions for each hole by season; consider them only the roughest of guidance.) The closing hole is a long, Pebble Beach-like sweep along the crashing sea.
Don’t be surprised if you’ve never heard of Albany, a luxury resort community on New Providence Island. The 600-acre property—which has been slowly opening since 2010 and counts Tiger Woods and Ernie Els among its investors—has an Els-designed course described as a “desert links” with acres of sand, dunes, and water. It’s possible to rent villas or homes at Albany, where some of your neighbors will have tied up their mega-yachts in the 71-slip marina that can accommodate craft up to 300 feet long. That’s a full wedge shot.
St. Kitts & Nevis
The two islands that combine to comprise the smallest nation in the Western Hemisphere have launched an ambitious golf program, planning to double their inventory of courses from two to four while also adding two luxury resorts. Which means the highly regarded Robert Trent Jones Jr. course at the Four Seasons Resort Nevis and the Thomas McBroom-designed Royal St. Kitts Golf Club (associated with the St. Kitts Marriott Resort and Royal Beach Club Casino) will soon have some high-class company.
Kittitian Hill, a 400-acre resort that debuted in December 2014, features a hotel of one-room guesthouses and larger farmhouses along with Irie Fields, dubbed “the world’s most edible golf course.” Terraced along the slopes of Mt Liamuiga, St. Kitts’ tallest mountain, the Ian Woosnam design will provide views of the sea, mountains, and resort from every hole while weaving through lush tropical farmland where organic crops and fruit trees replace the usual course-side vegetation. The emphasis is on sustainability, from the materials used to the absence of carts and the employment of local caddies.
Tom Fazio’s course at Christophe Harbour on St. Kitts’ southeastern peninsula is targeted to open in 2017. From its cliff-top vantage point 500 feet above the sea, the course will feature panoramic views of both islands and vast expanses of water. The 2,500-acre property also will include a Park Hyatt hotel, beach club, and marina village with 300 yacht-sized berths.
For many years for many people, Caribbean golf began and ended with Dorado Beach, the 1,400-acre resort half an hour west of San Juan. Robert Trent Jones Sr. started building there in 1955, eventually completing four layouts that offered something for every taste. Now in the midst of a $400 million reimagining, the property would be almost unrecognizable to someone who hadn’t been back in the last decade, nowhere moreso than at the new Ritz-Carlton Reserve, which has reset the bar for tropical opulence. (There also are more affordable condominiums perfect for couples or golf groups.) As for the courses, they’re in the midst of some major face-lifting.
Robert Trent Jones Jr. has already restored the East Course to his father’s original vision, removing hundreds of trees so the ocean is in view from nearly every hole. Also, the layout was lengthened, bunkers reshaped, greens replanted with Champion bermudagrass for speed, and the nines reversed to create a more dramatic finish. The other three courses—West, Sugarcane, and Pineapple—will get their turns, but for now continue to offer an enjoyably diverse set of experiences.
At Puerto Rico’s northwest corner is Royal Isabela, a private club perched on rugged cliffs 300 feet above the ocean. The four-year-old Links at Royal Isabela was designed by architect David W. Pfaff along with the developers, brothers Charlie and Stanley Pasarell, island natives who were tennis stars in the 1960s. The dramatic layout plays through acres of native grasses and sand dunes and to the cliffs where shots must carry huge gouges over the roaring ocean. The community is private, but welcomes guests to 20 luxurious casitas, each with a private pool and ocean view.
Caribbean golf came of age with the opening of Pete Dye’s Teeth of the Dog course at Casa de Campo resort in 1971. This ocean-side beauty remains one of the region’s top tests, but is facing stiff competition in its own backyard.
Punta Espada (Tip of the Spear), in the sprawling Cap Cana development at the eastern tip of the island, is one of Jack Nicklaus’s finest creations and open to all. The eight holes that play along the ocean might be most memorable, but it’s an entire round of strategy and delight, battling the wind and avoiding the acres of sand.
Minutes from Cap Cana, the Puntacana Resort and Club has 45 holes of golf, highlighted by Corales, a five-year-old Tom Fazio design that combines meticulous conditioning with the exhilaration of golf along the pounding surf. The course throws a little bit of everything at the golfer—elevation, sand, water, wind—with both nines ending along the black-coral shoreline. The finishing three holes, collectively named “The Devil’s Elbow,” take the brunt of the wind and culminate with a how-much-do-you-dare tee shot over a cove that despite the perfect climate will give you the chills.
The other 27 holes at Puntacana aren’t quite as dramatic, but P.B. Dye built some good ocean-edge holes on the Tortuga and Arrecife nines, while the recently completed Hacienda nine shows a lot of Papa Pete’s influence with pot bunkers, rumpled fairways, and roller-coaster greens. The resort has a number of accommodation options, but if you can swing one of the beachfront villas at Tortuga Bay, go for it.
The north coast of DR, likely to see new development soon, already boats a first-class course. Playa Grande, designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr. about 20 years ago, will soon unveil the “complete rebuild” by his son Rees Jones. Every hole has an ocean view—10 greens and all the par threes sit on waterside cliffs—yet Rees says there are shot options for all, whether risk-reward shots or ways around the trouble. Both the revitalized course and a new Aman resort should open by the end of this year.
If you’re more interested in felt than fairway, check out the Hard Rock Casino Punta Cana (about 20 miles north of the Puntacana Resort and Club; yes, the names can get confusing). The 1,800-room Vegas-style mega-hotel has a huge beachfront, 13 swimming pools, nine restaurants, 23 bars, nightclubs, and a casino. There’s also a Nicklaus golf course on the property that’s most memorable for the flamingos in the water along the final hole. It’s a good warm-up before attacking the other, and tougher, courses mentioned.
Among those, be sure to include Casa de Campo, now just a 45-minute drive from Punta Cana on the new highway. Besides the must-play Teeth of the Dog, check out Dye Fore, three nines of wide, swooping, wind-blown fairways atop cliffs high above the Chavon River, with views over much of the 7,000-acre resort. The four-year-old Lakes is the newest and flattest of the nines: It features three huge lakes on five of the holes and plenty of bunkers.
This November, a new driving range and practice area are slated to open at Casa de Campo. Designed by Pete Dye and son P.B., the 25-acre facility will feature a 400-yard-long range as well as a short-game spread with bunkers, grass mounds, and other difficulties replicating the on-course characteristics.
The hotel rooms and many of the resort’s public spaces have undergone recent upgrades. There also are some terrific restaurants, like The Beach Club by Le Cirque, beaches, and other sports including horseback riding and polo. If the courses shoot down your ego, head up to the Casa de Campo Shooting Club, where more than 200 stations of trap, skeet, sporting clays, and other targets can help blow off some aggression.
Jamaica’s top resort courses are close to Montego Bay, notably Half Moon, Cinnamon Hill, and the wildly undulating White Witch. For a very different experience, try nearby Tryall Club, a private community with a rental pool of incredible villas. Tryall’s course is an early ‘60s classic recently tweaked with new tee boxes, rebuilt super-slick greens, and an overhauled practice area. The holes start and end on flat terrain near the sea; in the middle, they climb 200 feet up a mountain, cut through thick trees, and provide spectacular ocean views.
While Bermuda technically isn’t The Caribbean, it has two world-class courses worth bending the rules for. Mid Ocean is a 95-year-old C.B. Macdonald gem featuring a number of template holes lifted from the British greats. For the last 20-odd years, Tom Doak has consulted on green reconstruction and speed, helping bring one of the world’s great layouts up to date. The very public Port Royal was treated to a major renovation a few years back, removing trees, improving maintenance, and turning it into an oceanside stunner.
Finally, while there are rumors about new projects throughout the islands, what everyone wants to know about is Cuba. The expected cascade of American tourists should prompt the building of new courses and resorts in the not too distant future.
Keep checking these pages: The Caribbean doesn’t look to be cooling off any time soon.