Montego Bay, Jamaica -- I love waking up at Tryall. I sip coffee on the porch of my villa as daylight slowly illuminates the golf holes down the hill from the Great House. The sea is remarkably blue this time of day, warming up for its never-ending color war with the sky. Before long I'll be on the course, following in the footsteps of rich and famous guests -- and the golfers who contested the Johnnie Walker World Cup of Golf here from 1991 to 1995. This windy track caused U.S. Open winner Curtis Strange to shoot a round in the mid-80s, and he was not alone in his misery.
I love waking up at Tryall because it's like waking into a dream -- a dream in which I have suddenly become a member of a fantastic private club.
That's what Tryall is, a 220-acre club run by homeowners and shareholders. Many of them are descendants of the group of Texans (including John Connally and Lloyd Bentsen) who bought the defunct estate in the 1960s. The 1800s Great House was a guest house then, a stone sentinel on the brow of a hill surrounded by coconut palms and rampant tropical foliage. The plantation had produced coconuts for about 40 years until its closing in 1939.
The Texans built family vacation villas throughout the estate, simple but elegant houses with lots of guest rooms, lots of outdoor dining and entertainment areas and, of course, swimming pools. And they engaged architect Ralph Plummer to route a golf course along the coastline and up into the hills above the Great House.
Tryall and its golf course, one of the best in the Caribbean at the time, became famous throughout the world. It still is today.
Fortunately, you don't have to be a shareholder to stay at the resort and play the course. When not occupied by family, many of the 56 fully staffed estate villas are available for rent, ranging from $6,000 to $12,000 per week, depending on the season. A row of 13 luxurious suites adjoining the Great House go for $250 to $400 a night depending on the season, with lower weekly rates.
Tryall has all the amenities you'd expect at a fine resort -- a highly regarded tennis center and program, a bird sanctuary, a full complement of water sports, an outstanding children's program, and fine dining -- often out under the stars.
Today there are many rivals for the title of best golf course in the Caribbean, many of them fresh off the drawing board and built using the latest technology. In the face of that competition, most aficionados would agree that Tryall still remains one of the top 10 island courses. It is a classy, classic track that will rear up and bite you if you don't show it proper respect.
The Tryall Club owners have not been standing still in the care of their little slice of heaven, particularly in recent years. The renovation several years ago that created Great House villas from a gaggle of small hotel rooms was a tremendous step. Last summer, a plan was initiated on the resort's half-mile-long beach that will keep the sand in place without harming the environment. The adjacent Beach Terrace, a popular gathering spot, has been expanded and improved. This summer the 200-year-old Great House is scheduled for restoration and redecoration.
The biggest change in 40 years came last fall when the shareholders decided to offer outsiders a chance to buy lots and build homes on the property. Three prototype houses are being built on choice hilltop lots near the new home of world heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis.
A few years ago the golf course trotted out shiny new carts and rental equipment and opened an 8,000-square foot practice green, a new practice bunker, and a second driving range which invites players to hit balls into the sea (this is good practice for the fourth hole). On the course proper, many tees and bunkers were renovated, and more flowering plants were added to the already lush layout. Last year an all-encompassing irrigation system was installed, and many holes were rebuilt and replanted with tiff-eagle grass.
Although the course has kept up with the times, it hasn't changed -- not in the ways that count. At 6,721 yards (6,221 from the tees most golfers will play), it is short by modern standards. It was not designed for Tiger and will never give up its personality to do so.
It may be the longest 6,221 yards you ever play. Remember Curtis Strange and his hapless Johnnie Walker opponents. Scores in the mid-80s. Don't get cocky. If the wind blows you are fodder for the Tryall gristmill.
That said, Tryall is actually user-friendly. You don't have the feeling after a few holes that you should gird your loins and prepare for battle. But while you're happily enjoying the oceanfront holes, the sashay past a lily pond, the tee shot that passes through the stanchions of a functioning 18-century water wheel, and the frequent views of the ocean at the resort's feet, the course is chipping away at your score. Quick, undulating and well-bunkered greens exact their toll.
There are plenty of places you can get into trouble, starting with the par-3 fourth hole, which plays from ocean-side tees across the Flint River to a generous sloping green. The fifth hole requires a rifle-shot drive down a 200-yard, tree-lined chute to a viable position in the left dogleg for an approach shot.
The back nine is shorter but no less tricky, with its many elevation changes, canted fairways and doglegs to subtle, table-top greens like those on holes 11 and 13. The last five holes drop back toward the sea, offering views of the ocean and the Great House along the way.
Caddies are required on the Tryall Course, and you'll be grateful for their company. Many have been at the resort for most of their lives and play to single-digit handicaps. They know the wind, the lay of the grass and every nuance of the greens.
After golf and a swim, I'll probably sit on the verandah with a cold drink, watching other golfers on the course below, and reveling in my experience as a temporary member of the Club.
The Tryall Club is 12 miles west of the airport at Montego Bay, which is "Grand Central Station" for visitors arriving by airplane or cruise ship. Ask your driver to stop at one of the roadside stands for a cold Red Stripe beer and a meat pie. You'll forget about the kamikaze motorcyclists on the road and be in a mellow Jamaican mood by the time you reach Tryall.
Although other resorts in MoBay (Half Moon, Ritz-Carlton Rose Hall, Wydham Rose Hall) offer opportunities to play Tryall, you'll want to stay at the Tryall Club to experience the full rush of contented living. Choose from an estate villa or a Great House suite. Either way, you won't be disappointed.
If you're in an estate villa, simply tell the cook what you'd like, from fresh seafood to pasta to rice and beans, an island staple. The Great House has a wonderful dining room and dinner is often served on the terrace under the stars. The Beach Bar restaurant serves great salads, sandwiches and seafood dishes -- and some wicked tropical drinks.
This resort has gone through many mindsets in the past 20 years, including an unfortunate off-putting clubby tone. It was also a bit ragged in service and facilities before the new generation of homeowners took charge. This is past history. Today it is in its best-ever, visitors-welcome state of mind. You will not feel like a peon; you will feel as if you own a piece of Tryall, an extraordinary place. You'll also discover that the resort is claiming a piece of your soul.
Tryall has been the venue not only for the Johnnie Walker World Championships, but also the Mazda Championship, the Jamaica Classic and Shell's Wonderful World of Golf.
March 11, 2004
Dale Leatherman is a full-time freelance travel writer specializing in golf and adventure travel. For nearly 20 years her "beat" has been the Caribbean, where she can combine golf, scuba diving and other sports. She has also written about golf in Wales, Scotland, Australia, Costa Rica, Canada and the U.S., particularly the Mid-Atlantic region.
Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.
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