MONTEGO BAY, Jamaica -- Blame the White Witch.
That was the motto when somebody on my five-person pro-am team missed a putt on the White Witch Golf Course, a spectacular course named after Annie Palmer, the beautiful mistress of the Rose Hall Plantation. Legend has it that Palmer killed three husbands and a slew of lovers using voodoo and black magic before being murdered herself.
Her ghost supposedly still haunts the Great House, the centerpiece of the 4,000-acre plantation where the Robert von Hagge golf course was built in the 1990s. Palmer probably amuses herself by day by sending putts astray, especially in the pro-am named after her.
The ninth annual Jamaica Invitational Pro-Am "Annie's Revenge," presented by Appleton Estate Jamaica Rum, was a smorgasbord of five-star golf, food, rum and sun held over four days in November. Players teed it up at the White Witch and Cinnamon Hill Golf Course and stayed at the AAA Four Diamond, adults-only IBEROSTAR Grand Hotel Rose Hall.
First-class events such as this pro-am, and luxurious resorts such as the Grand Hotel, squash the stereotypes that Jamaica is unfit for your hard-earned vacation dollars. One of my playing partners, Peter Tiberio, has been coming to Jamaica for 15 years without worrying about crime or safety.
"That's a bad rap," he said of the island's reputation as a dangerous place. "As long as you stay at the resort, or go off and use a reputable taxi cab recommended by the resort, you'll be fine."
Golfers are more than fine staying in Rose Hall, one of the Caribbean's elite golf destinations. Three premier courses (plus a fourth, more for locals) sit within a few miles of several beachfront resorts 14 miles east of Montego Bay. Another option, the Tryall Club, is less than an hour's ride to the west. Montego Bay's beachfront strip, home to Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville Montego Bay and the white sand and turquoise waters of Doctor's Cave Beach, fills up daily with tourists, especially when a cruise ship docks in port.
Golf at Rose Hall
Yeah, mon! That's the only way to describe the elevated first tee of the White Witch. Your eyes tend to fixate on the endless horizon of blue in the Caribbean Sea when they should be taking stock of the menacing fairway bunkers several hundred feet below. That tee ball on a downhill-then-up-again par 5 kicks off a wild ride in the hills and jungles well above the beach. The White Witch casts her spell on golfers, wielding part fear, part exhilaration. No. 17 -- a sexy, downhill par 3 -- features the sea in full HD.
Cinnamon Hill goes a step further by intimately exploring the shore, thanks to a complete redesign by von Hagge in 2002 that built nine new holes and modified most others. The par 4 at no. 5 -- a dogleg left aptly named "Majestic Blue" for its scenery of the sea -- just might be the best hole on the island. If the wind blows off the water, then forget about hitting the green in regulation. The par-3 sixth hole requires players to take on the water and a diagonal bunker to reach the green. The back-to-back par-5 finish to the round is just as invigorating. The 17th tee sits 350 feet above the beach with the green framed by ruins of an 18th-century aqueduct. Impressive stone work and a foreboding hazard guard the final elevated green.
The pro-am played on these two courses is run by The Golf Connection, which hosts pro-ams in Barbados, St. Kitts, the Riviera Maya in Mexico and other exotic locales. Sponsors Appleton Estate Jamaica Rum and Cobra Puma Golf filled swag bags and donated prizes. Check thegolf-connection.com for the dates of the 10th tournament in the fall of 2015.
Half Moon Golf Club, a Robert Trent Jones Sr. classic that has been part of the pro-am rotation in the past, sits on mostly flat ground scarred with bunkers. While it might lack the elevations of the White Witch and the seaside holes of Cinnamon Hill, its conditioning and service remain top-notch.
The Tryall Club, a great place to visit right off the plane, has a decorated history of tournament golf. Fred Couples, Ernie Els, Nick Faldo and Larry Mize each captured a Johnnie Walker World Championship in the 1990s on this wind-swept country club home to two seaside holes and more hilly, jungle golf.
All four clubs require taking a caddie, so don't forget tip money (generally $20 per player plus any extra for good service).
Rose Hall: Grand accommodations
I've yet to find a better all-inclusive than IBEROSTAR.
The IBEROSTAR Grand Hotel Rose Hall, the highest tier of the Spanish company's brand, spoils guests with fantastic food, 295 suites bigger than most city apartments and 24-hour butler/concierge service. Guests can explore the pools and bars of the other IBEROSTAR hotels connected to The Grand, although unfortunate souls without the proper wristband can't get past security into your playground in paradise.
While the beach and pool are fantastic, it's the meals that makes the stay. The crepe station at the breakfast buffet became my sinful dessert stop every morning. The best part of the lunch buffet near the beach after a steamy round of golf was the sea breeze that blew through the open-air setting. Every Grand Hotel has a choice of four premier restaurants for dinner, including Italian, Japanese, and steak and seafood, in addition to a buffet. Pro-am players dined in style with two buffet parties on the beach and a dress-up gala in a ballroom the final night.
All-inclusive means free use of water sports such as kayaks and access to the fitness room and spa facilities and endless entertainment day and night from an engaging staff of Jamaicans ready to please. Butlers will stock the mini-fridge with requested items or pack/unpack suitcases.
I'm convinced if Palmer had been pampered at an IBEROSTAR, then she probably wouldn't have turned into the murderous "White Witch." Perhaps she and her hubby (which one, I'm not going to speculate) would have been just another happy couple slurping an Appleton rum punch on the beach. And maybe she would be too distracted to torture the golfers.