Strong alliance forms on Caribbean island

By Tom Mackin, Contributor

MONTEGO BAY, Jamaica - If you have ever watched an episode of "Survivor," you know the key to success on the island of choice is forming an alliance with fellow competitors. The same theory is currently being put into effect in Montego Bay, Jamaica's second largest city. Three courses there have banded together, helping to make this Caribbean island, better known for its sun drenched beaches, powerful rum punches, and reggae music, an increasingly popular golf destination.

And it's all because of a witch.

For almost 40 years, Half Moon, a Robert Trent Jones Sr. design, was the only golf course on the east side of Montego Bay. But when Robert Von Hagge and Rick Baril unveiled their 6,718-yard layout called the White Witch in 2000, the buzz started and hasn't stopped since. The breathtaking design raised the bar for golf on the Caribbean's third largest island, and other courses took note, especially in Montego Bay.

White Witch Director of Golf Kenn Depew has witnessed the growth here since he arrived in February of 2000. The Michigan native, who previously worked at the Seaview Marriott Resort in Atlantic City, New Jersey, points to the numbers at his course. "We had 12,000 rounds in 2001, 16,000 in 2002, and 19,000 last year. And it looks like that figure will increase again this year. To make those kinds of gains when the industry is generally headed in the other direction is pretty impressive."

Now White Witch and its two neighboring courses, Cinnamon Hill and Half Moon, have joined together to form the Rose Hall Golf Association. What makes it any different from the countless resort groups and golf trails that have sprung up around the world? Well this one boasts a trio of diverse courses: one is good (and soon to get better), another is very good (with both ocean and mountain holes) and the third is absolutely stunning visually (you'll have to see it to believe it). And they are all right next to each other - so close that the 15th holes at White Witch and Cinnamon Hill touch each other, while the 4th at White Witch and 5th at Half Moon are a tap-in putt apart.

The Rose Hall group takes its name from what was once a 4,000-acre sugar plantation. American businessman John Rollins purchased the property back in the early 1960s, and today it includes a Ritz Carlton, the White Witch and Cinnamon Hill. Looming high above the property is the Great House, built in 1770 and restored to its former grandeur by Rollins. That was the home of Annee Palmer, the infamous English woman whose mistreatment of slaves on the property, not to mention the violent deaths of three husbands, earned her the "White Witch" nickname.

At Half Moon, all the trademarks of Trent Jones Sr. are on display, including wide fairways, large bunkers and runway style tee boxes. The years have taken a bit of a toll on the course, but fortunately for future visitors, Roger Rulewich has been hired for some remodeling work. The Massachusetts-based designer worked with Jones for many years, making him a perfect choice to blend old and new on this essentially flat layout. Work will take place on the back nine this summer, while the front nine will receive its makeover in 2005. While not a pushover, this is the easiest course of the three - it can serve as a gentle opener on the day you fly in, or help soothe the wounds of higher scores carded on its two neighbors.

The three-year old Cinnamon Hill course shows off two personalities that highlight the landscape of Jamaica. The front nine is wide open and flows right down to the shores of the Caribbean. The more challenging back nine snakes it way into the foothills of the Blue Mountains. Throughout the course remnants of old water aqueducts, inlaid stone walls, and the ruins of an old sugar plantation mill convey a bit of the history gone by.

If you don't like rollercoasters, you might not like The White Witch. But you have to play it at least once anyway. The thrills actually start at the driving range, where you stand almost on the edge of a plunging gorge and swat balls into an endless horizon. You won't be able to guess how far you' re hitting the ball, but the view is so dramatic you really won't care. The course itself is a thrill ride, so bring plenty of golf balls.

Montego Bay is just as strong in the accommodations department as it is when it comes to golf courses. You can choose from the Ritz Carlton with its pricey but superior service, the Wyndham and its water park for families, and Half Moon, which is spread out over 400 acres and recently spent $8 million on facility enhancements.

Naturally the majority of the players down here in the high season are from the Northeast, trying to escape the winter. "What's really surprising to people in the States though is the summer weather down here," said Depew. "It's not the sweltering heat you get back up there, and there's always a nice wind off the ocean." Not to mention lower prices and less fellow golfers. And you can catch events like the world's greatest Reggae Festival, which will be staged again in Montego Bay from July 18th to the 24th.

More growth could be in the future of the Montego Bay golf scene. Another course has been mapped out on the Ritz Carlton Rose Hall Golf & Spa Resort property, but that project won't proceed until the White Witch courses seesat least 25,000 rounds a year. Think that will happen soon? Absolutely mon.

The Verdict

Like on any other island, things are expensive when it comes to golf and accommodations in Montego Bay, but this is the perfect threesome of courses for a long, sunshine-filled weekend. If you're going to play one course twice, try Cinnamon Hill, the best overall test of golf - more interesting than Half Moon and more forgiving than White Witch.

Stay and Play

For more information on the "54 Holes, One Destination" package that includes play on all three courses, call Air Jamaica Vacations at1-800-LOVEBIRD.

Dining Out

Each course has outstanding restaurants. At the Half Moon, grab a post round lunch or come back for dinner at The Sugar Mill Restaurant, just a wedge away from the front door of the clubhouse. Take in the spectacular sunset views from the White Witch clubhouse, perched high above the Caribbean, and try the Three Witches Brew if you dare. At Cinnamon Hill, wash down the jerk chicken with a cold Red Stripe and enjoy the course views. In Montego Bay, go to the classic Town House or venture to the Hip Strip along the ocean for places like Margaritaville, Coral Cliff or Marguerite's.

Fast Fact

After you tee off on the 14th hole at Cinnamon Hill, head down the hill and look to the left. That black gate you see guards the entrance of the house where the Man in Black, Johnny Cash, and his wife stayed in for more than 20 years.

Tom Mackin, Contributor

As an Associate Editor at GOLF MAGAZINE for three years, Tom Mackin wrote about golf destinations in the United States, Mexico, Scotland, Ireland and Australia.

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