Amongst aficionados of golf course design, the Caribbean has not traditionally been viewed as a standout destination. This, simply because the sun and surf that make the islands so appealing on so many levels is hell to pay on turf grass. The challenges of growing and maintaining first-rate playing surfaces have historically discouraged many top-shelf designers and developers from doing adventurous work in the Caribbean. But in the last ten years, this has changed, with the introduction of a new turf hybrid — Seashore Paspalum. Agronomic advances are making golf more viable on the islands; the new hybrids require far less pesticides than other grass varieties, are salt tolerant, and can even be irrigated with brackish water. In short, the new grass is fueling a boom in new, high quality courses in this part of the world.
White Witch, in Montego Bay, Jamaica, was in the vanguard of the Caribbean golf renaissance, opening for play in 2001. For Rick Baril, White Witch posed a once in a lifetime opportunity, arousing both excitement and anxiety. “My first impression of White Witch was nervousness,” Rick said. “The site is spectacular—it’s on the side of a mountain with ridges and valleys cascading down to the ocean, all covered with dense vegetation. There are views of the Caribbean everywhere. The client – the late John Rollins (of Rolling Truck Leasing) – wanted us to create a landmark in Montego Bay, something special that people would recognize. He gave us huge swath of rugged, unusual landscape to choose from and let us run wild with it. We had an incredible property to work with, but to not come up with an incredible end product would have been a great disappointment. That’s where the nervousness came in.”
White Witch takes its name from the former proprietress of the Rose Hall Plantation, Annie Palmer (no relation to Arnold), a figure from the 1820s whose history is hopelessly intertwined with Jamaican folklore. There are many variants on her tale—in short, it was believed that Mrs. Palmer was a practitioner of voodoo who dispatched of several husbands (including Mr. Palmer, who brought her to Rose Hall) when she became bored with them, and likewise, murdered male slaves after taking them to her bed. Annie met an untimely, violent demise of her own, and some believe that her ghost still haunts the Great House at Rose Hall. There have been no reports of sightings of Mrs. Palmer at White Witch, though Rick was more than a little spooked by the original layout of the property. “The conceptual plan of White Witch showed the golf down in the valleys, and the houses on the ridges above. When we walked the valleys, I noted how narrow they were, and could picture the torrents of water that would come thundering through when it rained. If we put the course in the valley, all of our topsoil could end up in the ocean. So the decision was made to put course at the top of the ridges. I can’t imagine what this must have cost the developers in terms of the homes they might have built with multi-million dollar views. But it certainly let us create a playing experience that’s visually spectacular.”
Most would agree that White Witch makes the most of its perch above the Rose Hall property. With 600 acres to play with, each hole is isolated from the next, giving you a very private experience. Sixteen of the 18 holes look out on the Caribbean, and somewhat remarkably, most of the holes play down hill. “There’s really great pleasure to be had in hitting the ball from an elevated spot,” Rick continued. “At White Witch, you get to hit many shots that put you at the top of the world. One of my favorites is the tee shot at #1. The ball goes forever. Number ten is another — it’s a big par 5 dogleft left, and you can cut off as much as you dare if you can fly the ravine to left.” Ample elevated tees and downhill carries make for dramatic golf, but they don’t translate into an easy track. While the fairways are ample, you need to find them, as the flora off the fairway can be thick to the point of impenetrable – “go off the fairway and you see teeth and eyes looking back at you,” Rick joked. There are a number of jungle and/or ravine carries, and the wind – which is a thankfully cooling presence in the summer months – can make club selection tricky.
The most famous hole at White Witch – and one of the most photographed holes in the Caribbean – is the par-3 17th. The hole plays 195 yards from the back tees across a jungle chasm fronted by a handsome rock headwall to a green that’s perched on a sloping ridge. “You come off the 16th green and take the cart path through the jungle,” Rick described. “When you come out, you first witness the sea spread out before you – Cuba’s 85 miles in the distance – then you notice a beautiful green that’s surrounded by four bunkers. There’s a tree in back of the green in the shape of an open umbrella that appears to be wonderfully manicured. In truth, the shaping comes from local cattle – the foliage is eaten back just as high as the cows can reach. The tee is 30 or 40 feet above the green, so it’s another hole where the ball seems to hang in the air indefinitely.”
White Witch may be reason enough alone for many golfers to travel to Jamaica, but should you need more reasons, there are three more scattered around Montego Bay. These include the Tryall Club, once a venue for the Johnnie Walker classic; Half Moon Resort, a Robert Trent Jones, Sr. design that was recently updated by Jones’ right hand man, Roger Rulewich; and White Witch’s sister course, Three Palms, operated by Wyndham. Beyond golf, there’s a chance to drink in the island’s beautiful beaches and laid-back, reggae-fueled vibe. “You can get a full dose of Jamaican culture in Montego Bay ,” Rick added. “Montego Bay is a party place, and the people fun-loving and very friendly.” If you feel that a little fear will enhance your travels, you can always opt for an evening visit to the Rose Hall Great House, which was painstakingly restored by Rollins (at a great expense) – and hosts more than a million visitors a year.
Rick Baril is a senior partner in the golf course architecture firm of von Hagge, Smelek & Baril. Since joining the firm in 1982, he has designed courses in the United States, Mexico, France, Spain, Italy, Denmark and Morocco. Rick’s efforts have helped von Hagge, Smelek & Baril garner its first ever nomination for the Gold Medal Award for European Excellence.
Getting There: White Witch is near Montego Bay on the north west side of the island of Jamaica. Montego Bay is served from the eastern United States by many carriers, including U.S. Airways (800-622-1015; www.usairways.com), American Airlines (800-433-7300; www.aa.com) and Air Jamaica (800-523-5585; www.airjamaica.com).
Course Information: White Witch (876-518-0174; www.ritzcarlton.com) plays 6,859 yards from the back tees to a par-71; it has a slope rating of 139. Green fees range from $125 to $179, depending on the season. Green fees include caddie service.
Accommodations: The Ritz-Carlton Golf & Spa Resort, Rose Hall (800-542-8680: www.ritzcarlton.com) has 427 luxurious rooms. Montego Bay is Jamaica’s most popular tourist retreat; you’ll find a list of other accommodations in the region at the Official Visitors Guide to Montego Bay, Jamaica (www.montego-bay-jamaica.com).