Barbados' new trophy course aims to lure luxury-seeking golfers and establish the island as the place to putt in the Caribbean. The catch: Only guests of the lavish Sandy Lane resort can play here. Ah, the sacrifices we make for fine fairways . . .
Wednesday, March 24, 2004
ST. JAMES, BARBADOS -- Though not yet officially open, the Green Monkey is already famous as the Greta Garbo of Caribbean golf -- a mysterious and beautiful siren regally aloof from a clamouring public.
Built at a cost of $25-million (all amounts in U.S. dollars), the 7,389-yard course designed by Tom Fazio is carved through soaring coral cliffs on the grounds of Sandy Lane, one of the Caribbean's most exclusive resorts.
Given its pedigree, the Green Monkey is expected to challenge the dominance of such leading Caribbean resort layouts as Casa de Campo in the Dominican Republic, White Witch in Jamaica and the recently opened Great Exuma in the Bahamas.
But Sandy Lane's principal owners, including Irish businessmen John Magnier and J.P. McManus (whose holdings include a 29-per-cent share of Manchester United, the New York Yankees of English soccer), have been in no hurry to launch their pet project, delaying the official opening several times while they painstakingly oversee the planting of still another flower bed or shrub. Set on the popular west coast, 10 kilometres north of the capital of Bridgetown, the Green Monkey is the centrepiece of an estimated $400-million makeover of the entire Sandy Lane resort.
Course designer Fazio, widely considered the world's leading golf architect, slowly builds drama through the first eight parkland-style holes, then startles golfers with a rapid descent into an abandoned quarry, where 27-metre-tall coral walls dwarf the fairways. Featured throughout the visually stunning design is his typically heroic mix of wide-open landing areas for tee shots and challenging green complexes.
At a course where each shot offers striking views of the Caribbean Sea, the Green Monkey's 226-yard par three 16th is certain to become one of the world's most photographed holes. Golfers hit down into the old quarry to a green edged by a massive bunker featuring a grass island carved in the shape of a Barbados green monkey, a species introduced to the island from West Africa more than 350 years ago.
Tiger Woods, a friend of the owners, will reportedly be on hand to take the ceremonial first swing some time this year. Meanwhile, guests of Sandy Lane can enjoy preview rounds on a course that will remain restricted to guests of the resort even after the official opening.
Sandy Lane's policy of denying public access to the island's new signature course is a major disappointment to the burgeoning Barbados golf industry. Golf is being counted on to take the pressure off a traditional sun, sand and sea tourism strategy designed to showcase an island of remarkable contrasts -- from the windswept Atlantic coastline to vast meadows of sugar cane to the serene waters of the Caribbean coast, the site of most of the island's resorts. The former British colony is renowned for its white-sand beaches, hospitable people (known as Bajans) and its refined British atmosphere.
Facing increased competition from holiday destinations around the world, Barbados is going after its share of the world's estimated 50 million serious golfers, who, according to statistics, spend approximately 35 per cent more per trip and travel more often than other tourists.
"The Green Monkey gives us the trophy course we need to compete in the high-end golf market," says Claire Jordan of Golf Barbados, a co-operative marketing board formed to promote golf tourism. "Some people are disappointed that only guests of Sandy Lane have access to the course. But once golfers arrive here to play the Green Monkey, they'll look around and see that our country has a lot more golf to offer."
Long in the forefront of Barbados golf, Sandy Lane once boasted the island's only 18-hole course. Yet golf is just one of many attractions at this posh retreat that has drawn the cream of international society since opening in 1961. Maria Callas often swam to the hotel's gorgeous crescent-shaped beach from Aristotle Onassis's yacht. Actor David Niven invented cocktails at the bar. Slim Keith, Babe Paley and other houseguests of film legend Claudette Colbert, who lived next door, routinely popped in for lunch and dinner.
Closed for renovation in 1998 by the current owners, Sandy Lane reopened two years ago, completely modernized and more opulent than ever.
Each of the 112 marble-floored guest suites features large verandahs and plasma-screen TVs. A freeform swimming pool with spectacular waterfalls is the centrepiece of a sprawling Romanesque-style spa offering treatments that include the Jet Lag Reviver Massage and the Golfer's Tonic.
During Sandy Lane's extensive makeover, the original 18-hole course was reduced in size to a nine-hole layout known as The Old Nine, reserved for club members and hotel guests. Part of the reclaimed land was then reshaped into the new Country Club Course, a beautifully manicured 18-hole Tom Fazio track that, unlike the Green Monkey, welcomes the general public. Stretching 7,060 yards from the back tees, the verdant layout offers panoramic views of the turquoise Caribbean Sea.
Joining Sandy Lane's two championship courses in the top tier of Barbados golf is nearby Royal Westmoreland Golf and Country Club, the layout credited with igniting the golf boom in Barbados. Opened in 1994 by Prince Andrew -- who wowed onlookers by expertly splitting the fairway with his first drive -- the scenic Robert Trent Jones Jr. design is the centrepiece of a $400-million residential and resort development that, in principle, is restricted to guests, although visitors can usually secure tee times.
The building of the Royal Westmoreland complex in the early 1990s almost single-handedly pulled Barbados out of an economic slump. Locals are counting on the planned construction over the next several years of at least three high-end golf courses to have an even greater impact on the island's future. All will be open to the public and designed by top architects.
But the real future of Barbados golf is found on the far less expensive fairways of the Barbados Golf Club, a 40-minute drive down the coast from the Green Monkey and Royal Westmoreland. Built atop the old Durants course and funded by both the government and private interests, the club was opened to considerable fanfare by the country's Prime Minister Owen Arthur in 2000. The picturesque and challenging 6,697-yard track offers green fees as low as $20 a round for locals, a sharp contrast to the $300 charged at the Green Monkey.
"Barbados Golf Club is where Bajans are learning to love a game once played mostly by rich tourists," Claire Jordan says. "For golf to really grow on the island, we have to take it to the people."
Brian Kendall is the author of Northern Links: Canada From Tee to Tee.
If you go
The Green Monkey: Green fee $300; access restricted to hotel guests.
The Country Club: Green fee $200; public access.
The Old Nine: Green fee $85; restricted to members and hotel guests.
Royal Westmoreland Golf and Country Club: (246) 422-4653;
http://www.royal-westmoreland.com; green fee $150 for resort residents, $200 for visitors; access restricted, although exceptions are often made.