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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.
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, 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.
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.
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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