Bounty in the Bahamas
BAHAMAS - There are 700 islands in the Bahamas, and almost as many stories of buried treasure. The archipelago's history is rich with tales of pirates plundering Spanish galleons and hiding their loot on deserted cays. Fortunes may still lie under the sand, awaiting the turn of a spade.
There are treasures, too, for those who would rather move sand with a wedge than a shovel. Golf came to the islands at the end of the Roaring '20s, when Nassau's Cable Beach Golf Club was built for the pleasure of the first American tourists, yachtsmen with names like Whitney, Vanderbilt and Astor. The tourism trickle became a torrent after World War II, prompting construction of nine more courses in the 1950s and '60s.
As a setting for golf, it doesn't get much better than the Bahamas - temperatures in the 70s and 80s, silky beaches, fine resorts and a plethora of places to dine on fresh conch, grouper and lobster. The half dozen islands with golf courses have diverse personalities, ranging from New Providence and Grand Bahama, where the casino lights of Nassau and Freeport never dim, to the languidly paced Out Islands.
The pace is about to change on one of the country's finest islands, Great Exuma, when the Four Season Resort at Emerald Bay (www.emeraldbayresort.com) opens in 2003. Think Four Seasons Nevis, but bigger. The island is so sparsely populated that most of the workforce is employed in the building of the resort. A Greg Norman course occupies a stunning peninsula of land on the resort and the luxury hotel, marina and master-planned community are in the works.
Grand Bahama Island
Four good courses are clustered in the Port Lucaya region of Grand Bahama Island, an area with everything you could want in hotels, casinos, beaches and shopping areas. But take a half day to venture beyond the last high-rise, where the island is old Bahamas, with quiet fishing villages and street vendors selling cold beer and hot conch fritters.
The Our Lucaya Beach & Golf Resort (www.ourlucaya.com) is home to the Lucayan Course, built in 1962. Club players will feel at home on wide, shady route in which each hole is isolated from the rest. The par-72, 6,824-yard Dick Wilson layout is subtle, adding a stroke here, a stroke there, especially on the elevated, heavily guarded par-3s. In 2000, this classic layout was joined by the first new course to be built in the Bahamas in 30 years. Robert Trent Jones, Jr.'s Reef Course is a par-72, 6,930-yard layout with big, undulating greens and wide fairways. A dozen lakes are positioned on the course so that water comes into play on 13 holes.
The Royal Oasis Golf Resort and Casino nearby has two mature gems which underwent a $6 million facelift by the Jim Fazio Group. The narrow fairways of the par-72, 6,750-yard Ruby Course (a Joe Lee original) wind through forests of pine, Brazilian pepper trees and coconut palms. Holes five and six wrap around an inland lake lined with flowering bushes. Some golfers notice a similarity between New York's Shinnecock Hills and the par-72, 6,679-yard Emerald Course, both being Dick Wilson creations. Fazio's renovation made the course more precise and enhanced the challenge for all levels.
New Providence Island
To the south of Grand Bahama is tiny New Providence and Freeport's sister metropolis, Nassau. The Radisson Cable Beach & Golf Resort fronts on famous Cable Beach, while the golf course lies on the other side of the resort on a pretty network of lakes and waterways. Laid out in 1929 by Jim McCormick, the par-72, 6,475-yard course is the oldest in the Bahamas. However, the track is brand new now, having undergone a total redesign in 2002.
A busy bridge connects Nassau with Paradise Island, formerly called Hog Island because of its porcine population. The porkers are long gone, replaced by a water-themed fantasyland named Atlantis, a 2,500-room resort with the world's largest outdoor open-water aquarium. African hotel mogul Sol Kerzner was the mastermind behind Atlantis and the restoration of the exclusive, Colonial-style Ocean Club Resort (www.oneandonlyoceanclub). The Paradise Island Golf Club, which bordered a small but busy airstrip, fell to the bulldozer a few years ago. The resulting Ocean Club Golf Course designed by Tom Weiskopf is a real stunner, with lots of ocean encounters and swirling breezes.
Also on New Providence Island is the Joe Lee course at the Clarion South Ocean Golf & Beach Resort, which the designer considers one of his finest. The PGA-rated, 6,707-yard par 72 has ocean views, nice lakes and a spectacular fifteenth green next to a "blue hole," an inland saltwater pool that connects to the ocean through nearly two miles of underground tunnels. Miss your drive and your ball will turn up in the ocean - eventually.
Sailing is the sport of choice in the Abacos Islands, and sailing golfers are particularly fond of Great Abaco Island's Treasure Cay Resort (www.treasurecay.com), which is steps away from a large marina, great beach, hotels and condos. The course, Dick Wilson's last island creation, is a secluded track along a narrow peninsula of land dotted with lakes and salt marshes. Particularly scenic are the eleventh and fifteenth holes, which overlook lakes frequented by waterfowl.
Great Harbour Cay
Joe Lee's favorite creation in the Bahamas is one that only a true treasure hunter will seek out. In its heyday, the Great Harbor Golf Club on Great Harbour Cay (www.greatharbourmarina.com) attracted celebrities such as Cary Grant and Bridgette Bordeaux. The resort went bankrupt in the 1980s, but there are always rumors of its impending - and justified - resurrection, for this island is an uncut gem. At least nine of the club's original 18 golf holes are maintained (check the status before you go), and Jack Nicklaus stops by occasionally on his yacht to play with the locals and have lunch. Rental townhouses and villas are available near the course and on the island's seven-mile beach.
Also awaiting resurrection is the Cotton Bay Club (242-334-6068) on the small island of Eleutherea. Pan Am founder Juan Trippe built the club more than 35 years ago as a private playground for his friends, and it flourished for many years as an intimate luxury resort. Trippe's son, who is developing the upscale Tucker's Point resort community in Bermuda, has plans to bring Cotton Bay back to its glory one of these days. Stay tuned. Check the status before going, but the Robert Trent Jones golf course, once considered the Bahamas' finest, is usually open for play. The 7,068-yard par-72 layout has generous fairways with no out-of-bounds rules, but is endowed with 129 sand bunkers.
It's human nature to overlook the treasures under one's nose. Case in point: the islands of the Bahamas, which offer tropical golf experiences a mere cocktail-and-peanuts flight from Miami or San Juan. For more information on the Islands of the Bahamas, call the Bahamas Tourist Board at 1-800-BAHAMAS and the Out Islands Promotion Board at 1-800-688-4752.
Architect Joe Lee, Pioneer of Bahamian Golf
Most of the older Bahamas courses were the work of architects Dick Wilson and/or Joe Lee.
"Building courses in the Bahamas takes infinite patience and ingenuity," says Lee. "We had to grade out hard rock, cover the rock with enough sand to grow grass, and find enough fresh water to support the turf," he says. "Despite those difficulties, we were able to come up with some courses that are beautiful and fun to play."
Though all of the Wilson and Lee courses have individual nuances, the philosophy these two men shared is obvious. There are no railroad ties, pot bunkers or blind shots. Everything is simple and in harmony with the land - lush Bermuda grass fairways lined with blooming hibiscus, oleander and bougainvillea.
"A golfer wants a challenge, but a fair challenge," says Lee. "I try to make everything visible - the surface of the green, the bunkers. The behavior of the golf ball should be reliable. It shouldn't bounce off a hidden knot or ridge or hole. Playing that kind of course is like playing a pinball machine. You won't find undulations on my greens, either. Putting should not be a disproportionate part of the game."
The designer sprinkles several "encouraging" holes late in the game so the player "doesn't feel like you've kept your foot on his neck the whole time and the best he can do is bogeys the rest of the way," he says.
You may bogey the easier holes, too, but Lee figures you'll blame yourself, not the design, and will come back tomorrow for your birdie.
Even though most of the older Bahamian courses have been upgraded and modernized, you can usually see the hand of their original creators in the simplicity of design and natural flow from hole to hole.
March 19, 2003