St. James, Barbados – Let’s start by acknowledging that the best reason to visit this Caribbean isle may well be the caramel-colored elixir produced there, Mount Gay. And when visitors are not swilling that luscious nectar to the soulful beat of Ska music in Bajan rum shacks, they are sipping it on sun-drenched, sugar-sand beaches.
Of course, there are other allures of this former British colony, which was settled in 1625 and lies 270 miles northeast of Venezuela. Surfing and sailing, for example. Snorkeling and deep-sea fishing, too. History buffs can enjoy tours of one of the oldest synagogues in the Western Hemisphere (built in 1654) and also the only house outside the U.S. in which George Washington ever lived. Then there’s the dining, as food is taken as seriously in Barbados as rum. In fact, the roster of eateries is so impressive that Tim and Nina Zagat published their first dining guide in the Caribbean there in 2006.
But what about golf? A decade ago there was only one course of note in Barbados, an 18-hole track called Royal Westmoreland that Robert Trent Jones Jr. laid out in 1994. However, three superb courses have opened since the turn of the century, all in the west-coast parish of St. James.
I first played Royal Westmoreland, where Ian Woosnam has a home, in the fall of 2006. On that same trip, I played the Tom Fazio-designed Country Club course at the nearby Sandy Lane resort, where Tiger and Elin married in 2004. I was instantly smitten with the layout of both courses.
Royal Westmoreland winds through coral canyons and over grassy hills offering sweeping views of the Caribbean and lots of downhill tee shots over gaping ravines. Sandy Lane was just as enticing with its swathes of bougainvillea, the red and magenta-colored flowers bursting from the dull green scrubs like stars from a clear, dark sky. I also marveled at the famed green monkeys scampering around the groves of almond and mahogany trees.
I didn’t get to play the other 18-hole layout at Sandy Lane, another Fazio design named after those monkeys (whose fur is not really green but sometimes gives off a hue of that color). That’s because only guests at the resort, where rooms average $3,500 a night in the winter, may tee it up there, and I was staying elsewhere. But I did drive a golf cart around the Green Monkey and fell hard for how Fazio deftly worked it in and around a coral rock quarry, making some holes feel as if playing in an amphitheater. Tee times run for only an hour each day on that track, from 8:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m., and it handles no more than 1,000 rounds a year.
This past fall, I returned to Barbados to play the newest – and I believe best – course on the island, Apes Hill. It is the result of collaboration between Bajan industrialist Sir Charles Williams, who runs one of the largest construction companies in the Caribbean, and Jerry Barton’s Landmark Land Co., which has built a number of superlative golf courses and communities over the years, among them La Quinta and Kiawah Island.
Designed by Landmark’s house architects, Jerry Potts and Chris Cole, the lush layout is the centerpiece of a golf and polo community. The course cuts across hills that rise 1,000 feet above sea level and features meadows, dense tropical forest and coral rock outcroppings, with the Atlantic and Caribbean serving as distant backdrops.
The design at Apes Hill takes advantage of the diverse terrain to present a wide range of shot-making possibilities. Potts and Cole took note of the ever-present trade winds, giving the course a “linksy” feel by allowing golfers to run shots onto the greens. They put a premium on playing the angles too, rewarding drives hit to the proper side of fairways with much easier approaches.
A mix of long and short par 4s forced me, literally, to use every club in my bag, and Apes Hill has as good a collection of par 3s I’ve ever found on one course, with testy greens tucked in front of coral walls, along streams, beside grass-faced bunkers and next to dense swathes of jungle.
To be sure, Mount Gay makes a trip to Barbados a very compelling proposition. But golf is now a pretty strong reason to go, as well.