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The White Witch at Rose Hall in Jamaica: An 'alluringly dangerous and unpredictable' - and top drawer - golf course

Dale LeathermanBy Dale Leatherman,
White Witch Golf Course at Rose Hall - hole 14
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Golfers approach the spectacular 14th hole at White Witch Golf Course from an elevated tee. (Courtesy of ritzcarlton.com)

ST. JAMES, Jamaica -- One of Jamaica's most famous legends is the White Witch of Rose Hall, the beautiful 19th-century mistress of a 4,000-acre sugar plantation who cast wicked spells, cruelly abused her slaves, and killed three successive husbands.

Locals are quick to say that Annee Palmer still haunts the Rose Hall Great House and the grounds of the estate -- and maybe she does.

I certainly blamed her for several wayward putts when I played her namesake golf course, the White Witch.

The Robert von Hagge/Rick Baril creation debuted in August 2000 as the centerpiece of the Ritz-Carlton Rose Hall near Montego Bay. Shortly after its opening, the golf course was caught in the television spotlight as the venue for Shell's Wonderful World of Golf.

Von Hagge and Baril also collaborated on Cinnamon Hill Golf Course, completely transfiguring an old track at the nearby Wyndham Rose Hall Resort. The course opened as the Ocean Course in January 2001 and was later renamed.

With the advent of these spectacular new courses, Montego Bay immediately ascended to the top tier of Caribbean golf destinations. Next door to the Ritz-Carlton is the elegant Half Moon Resort, with its venerable Robert Trent Jones Sr. layout. Farther to the west is the former Johnny Walker venue at Tryall Resort, long considered one of the Caribbean's finest tracks.

White Witch Golf Course: It's that good

But if the White Witch Golf Course were the only game in Jamaica, savvy golfers would still make the trip. It's that good.

It's natural to expect a traditional tropical layout in this setting, so the Witch's mountain-type terrain and absence of palm trees comes as quite a surprise. However, tradewinds, colorful foliage and spectacular ocean views on 16 holes are constant reminders that you are indeed in the islands. This 600-acre swath of Annee's estate is rocky, precipitous and wild, but also incredibly beautiful.

Von Hagge says that, like Annee, the course is "alluringly dangerous and unpredictable. Just as her personality might shift without warning, so do the winds, turning a 6-iron shot in the morning into a 5-wood late in the day."

The 6,718-yard course sticks to the high ground where there are cool breezes, and plays across ravines and hollows where the heat could be oppressive. At the height of a Jamaican summer, this could make the difference between fun and misery. But this elevated route also makes the course visually -- and often physically -- intimidating, with long carries over jungle-like terrain.

Play begins with an eye-opener -- a 550-yard, par-5, which drops abruptly off the tee to a canted fairway, then climbs steeply past a succession of huge bunkers on the right to a small tabletop green tucked out of sight off to the right. It is the most daunting hole on the course from the tee, and one of the prettiest.

The 10th hole is as deceptive as Annee herself, a 621-yard, par-5 doglegging around bunkers on the edge of a ravine. Fortunately it's downhill off the tee. Cutting the corner, while risky, can pay off with a ball on the green in two, despite the hole's length.

The 164-yard, par-3 14th hole can be as tough as it looks, depending on the wind. The shallow peninsula green lies more than 100 feet below the tee, on the far side of water. The elevated tee provides a great view of the dogleg 15th hole, as well as the fairway of the difficult par-5 16th.

The par-3 17th hole is 161 yards slightly downhill to a small green surrounded by sand bunkers. Unless the wind throws a tantrum, this is not a hard hole. But it is among the most memorable for its beauty -- white sand sharply contrasting with rich green turf and the blue backdrop of ocean. A windswept tree silhouetted against the sky provides just the right finishing touch.

When Rick Baril says that each hole is memorable and distinctive in its own right, it's not just "designer-speak," but a fair assessment of the White Witch. As I played the course for the first time with Baril and course supervisor Wes Russell - who know every nuance of the track -- I was struck by the fact that their enthusiasm, hole-by-hole, was as fresh and genuine as mine. That speaks volumes for the White Witch.

As one would expect of a Ritz-Carlton property, the golf experience is decidedly top drawer, from pewter bag tags inscribed with each player's name, to a well schooled cadre of white-suited caddies called golf "concierges," to the luxurious changing rooms and elegant dining veranda of the White Witch Clubhouse.

The Ritz-Carlton Golf and Spa Resort at Rose Hall

The Ritz-Carlton Golf and Spa Resort at Rose Hall, Jamaica's only AAA Five-Diamond property, is a stunner. The hotel proper contains 428 guest rooms (with individual balconies) wrapped around a precisely landscaped courtyard. It fronts on a 1,500-foot beach, a large freeform swimming pool, and a spacious open-air bar and restaurant. The resort's full service spa is staffed by personable people whose skills are as fine as the facilities.

Rose Hall Great House

A visit to the Great House is a must. One sultry evening my golf foursome left a lively poolside cocktail party to visit Annee's former (and perhaps present) haunt. The three-story stone mansion, built at inestimable cost in the sugar baron era of the 1770s, was restored in the past decade by the late industrialist John Rollins. It draws nearly a million visitors a year -- but few of them after dark.

Yellow lights glowed in the mansion windows, and even though the heat of the day still radiated from the stone stairway leading up to the wide front door, I felt the hair rise on my bare arms. I noticed that my companions had stopped talking. It was a bewitching night, and we were in the right place for a ghost story.

Our Jamaican guide obliged us with all of the gory details as we peered into rooms where Annee wined and dined, courted, bedded and dispatched her husbands and various lovers. A portrait of the mistress with unidentified children (she had none of her own) seemed innocent enough until our guide pointed out that the lady's eyes followed us around the room.

In the wine cellar we examined a gallery of photos taken by visitors -- blurry images of a white-robed figure at the mansion windows, or standing behind grinning tourists, or reflected in the mirrors in Annee's boudoir.

On impulse, I left a cup of rum punch in a niche of the massive stone wall. What could it hurt? Perhaps my putts would roll true the next time I played the White Witch.

More photos

White Witch Golf Course at Rose Hall - hole 17White Witch Golf Course at Rose Hall - hole 3

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.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Comments

    John Stalnaker wrote on: Nov 28, 2013

    Just returned from the First Thanksgiving Invitational and was in awe of the beauty, challenge and splendor of the White Witch. Hole #2 was the scene of my "almost" hole in one. One more rotation and it was in. I hope I am invited to return next year to defend my trophy.
    Don't pass up this Caribbean gem, there is no other quite like it.


  • The witch

    Paul wrote on: Jan 30, 2013

    Just played it this week and it is spectacular. For an island course the conditions were good, most all greens just fine with a couple suffering from some sort of disease. the elevation changes and views are tremendous and it's a treat. Very difficult from the black tess so be careful there based on your handicap. The staff was great especially Fabian, my caddy. For sure play it if in the area.


  • White Witch Golf Course

    Frank Sausedo wrote on: Jul 23, 2009

    I try to get to Jamaica every year just to play the White Witch. I have played courses all over the US, and this is by far my all time favorite. Tracie Blake, who sets everything up for me, and her staff are the best in Jamaica and maybe even the US. I could, and should, write a book on the course. I have played it no less than 30 times and it never gets old. Every hole is its own course. There is not one hole that is just ok, they are ALL Spectacular, from view, condition, beauty, and difficulty. Anyone needs to know anything about the WITCH, just email me. I will be there again this October 09 for my 21st trip to Jamaica.


      • RE: White Witch Golf Course

        joe wrote on: Jul 23, 2011

        who is the superintendent at the course, I'm thinking Keith Stein Jr., who is an old family friend.


      • RE: White Witch Golf Course

        Troy wrote on: Sep 23, 2010

        Staying in Runaway Bay, do you think it is to long of a trip from there to play the white witch?


      • RE: White Witch Golf Course

        Jeremy Sousa wrote on: May 17, 2010

        Frank - I'm going to Mont Bay in June and I've heard that the White Witch is only open to those who stay at the Ritz. Is this true? I haven't booked our hotel yet, but wasn't planning on the Ritz. If I have to stay there in order to play 'The Witch' I will though since I've heard it's amazing. Have you played Tryall? How does it compare? Thanks for your help!


          • RE: RE: White Witch Golf Course

            F. sausedo wrote on: Sep 16, 2010

            sorry for the late response, hopefully you played the course already. No, you can stay at any resort and play the White Witch. Call the course and ask for Tracie Blake, she will accomodate you. It is by far the best course in Jamaica, or anywhere else for that matter.


      • RE: White Witch Golf Course

        lane wrote on: Jan 19, 2010

        how much are green fees at white witch?
        did u stay at the ritz?


          • White Witch Golf Course

            Howard wrote on: Feb 25, 2010

            Check out the Ritz-Carlton Rose Hall website for greens fee information. Rates drop from $175 for Ritz-Carlton guests to $120 as of Saturday, May 1st. Coincidentally, I am playing White Witch for the first time on May 1st. Looking forward to the challenge and the beauty!


  • white witch golf course

    Paul Mcdonald wrote on: Sep 1, 2008

    This golf course is a must for all true golfer around the world, I play off 13, and I was very happy with my 90. if you are a high hanicapper bring plenty of balls. because their no hiding play on this course.


      • RE: white witch golf course

        carl wrote on: Dec 29, 2008

        hi what was the cost to play at the white witch golf course in jamaica


          • RE: RE: white witch golf course

            mohammed oyibo wrote on: Feb 25, 2009

            what is the cost of playing in white witch golf course


              • RE: RE: RE: white witch golf course

                Me wrote on: Mar 25, 2010

                My son and I are going to Jamaica on a cruise. He will be playing White Witch. It was advertised at $160.00 through the cruise excursions. I do not play but am trying to find out what it would cost for me to just ride around on the cart. Most courses have a small fee.


      • RE: white witch golf course

        Augusto Andrade - Portugal wrote on: Nov 27, 2008

        Fantastic Golf Course! Unfortunatly I could play only the front nine, because the storm. If I can, I'll come back to finish the back nine. Congratulations! Augusto


  • Honeymoon 1987

    Deborah wrote on: Aug 6, 2007

    We had our honeymoon at Wyndham Labour Day weekend 1987 - 20 years ago. We played golf on the famous golf course and bought a carved large statue of an eagle from the people on the golf course and we named the statue (in our living room now) after our caddy - Cecil. He was awesome teaching us how to cure sun burn with berries and aloe vera.


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