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Cruising the Caribbean for quality golf courses

By Jim Kerr,

Sometime in the 1980s, I lugged my golf clubs aboard a cruise ship for the first time. Fellow passengers smiled in amusement, and one incredulous lady asked: "Is there a golf course aboard the ship?" It didn't seem like a fit, golf and cruising.

Since then, however, cruise lines have added thousands of new berths on dozens of new ships, putting them more and more into fierce competition with land-based vacation attractions and popular resort activities such as golf.

More than six million golf vacationers from the U.S. alone spend several billion dollars annually on golf-related travel. The compatibility of golf and cruising has become obvious to anyone who does both. Clubs are delivered to your stateroom with luggage and sit at the ready for whenever you decide to play.

Tee times and transportation are arranged either by ship personnel or onboard golf tour operators working with the line, eliminating any language problem or communication foul-ups. Instruction, practice sessions (sometimes with elaborate equipment and simulators), and even tournaments are often provided by on-board pros.

But best of all, you can play several courses in a variety of venues over a very short period of time without ever schlepping your clubs through airports. I once played five courses in four days in Bermuda, and five island courses in seven days in the Caribbean. I've also hacked away on myriad courses from Anchorage to New Zealand, Finland to Mallorca, Acapulco to Cabo - all while enjoying every other aspect of cruising.

Today virtually every cruise line has some form of golf program or accommodation process to lure and assist golfers at all levels of play. After several years of experimentation, some partnerships between lines and golf tour operators have faded, while others have bloomed. And although some cruise lines that pioneered golf, like American Hawaii Cruises, have either gone out of business or downgraded golf efforts, others have taken the little white ball and put it in play around the world.

Royal Caribbean Cruise Line launched the first comprehensive golf program with "Golf Ahoy!" I remember driving balls off the fantail (an activity long ago prohibited) of RCCL's old Sun Viking on a 1986 Caribbean cruise, and another episode two years later playing with the captain of a Norwegian Cruise Line ship at the Carambola course in St. Croix.

Some uninitiated passengers still look puzzled and amused when they see golf bags being loaded aboard, but cruising and golf have long since partnered worldwide, and, with dozens of itineraries and more than 60 courses to choose from, the Caribbean still holds the greatest potential. I've played at least two dozen courses in both the Eastern and Western Caribbean, mostly on cruises. A few years ago I even wrestled my clubs into a bobbing tender from Windjammer's Polynesia as I headed off to challenge the lush and mountainous Four Season's course on Nevis.

Royal Caribbean was also the first to offer pre- and post-cruise golf packages in Florida and Puerto Rico along with opportunities to play 21 different courses on eight itineraries. Nevertheless, cruise passengers were not always warmly welcomed on some of these courses, and not all of them were up to acceptable American standards, a situation which has, in most cases, vastly improved since those early days.

The new Cozumel Country Club, for example, may be the first course ever designed and built specifically with cruise passengers in mind. It is the island's first and only golf course, a $12 million Jack Nicklaus design that opened all 18 holes in November, 2001. The course is owned and run by ClubCorp International, a golf resort operator with such prestigious U.S. properties as Pinehurst and the Homestead. Mike Feild, director of operations for ClubCorp in Latin America, says 45 percent of the more than 20,000 rounds of golf expected to be played on the Cozumel course in 2004 will be played by cruise ship passengers.

"Carnival makes six to seven calls a week, along with other lines such as Holland America, Celebrity, NCL and Disney," says Feild. "The total number of passengers arriving in Cozumel in 2004 is expected to be 1.8 million, not to mention 700,000 crew members, many of whom also play golf."

This is a far cry from the past, when some lines were discouraged by the Lack of availability of tee times for passengers, as well as courses that were either substandard or erratic in their maintenance. In the last decade or so, improvements have been made on many Caribbean courses, with new ones opened in popular destinations such as Aruba, Barbados and Belize, where passengers are flown to a spectacular island course. Mexico, where not long ago golf was only for the elite, has many new resort courses along both the Caribbean and Pacific coasts.

Carnival, which only put its toe in the water regarding golf a few years ago, has leaped in with a complete golf program on all its 18 (soon to be 19) ships. They partner with Elite Golf Cruises, a Fort Lauderdale-based golf packager, which offers 40 different golf venues throughout the Caribbean, Mexico, Bahamas, Bermuda, Canada and Europe. On-board options, such as individual or group instruction, lighted practice cages bolted to the deck, sophisticated, state-of-the-art simulators, video tracking of your swing, and other novelties are available to keep die-hard golfers happy between actually playing on real courses. Callaway club rentals, shoe rentals and accessory purchases of golf balls, gloves and apparel are available on board for anyone who wants to play once or several times.

Elite sailed into its fourth year with Carnival recently with a new three-year contract that will include Carnival's new 2,124-passenger Carnival Miracle, slated to debut with a series of 12 three- to six-day cruises from Jacksonville, Fla., on Feb. 27, 2004. Later the ship will operate seven-day cruises from Baltimore and New York before launching seven-day service from Tampa in November, 2004. Golf venues along these itineraries, depending on departure points and cruise duration, will include Key West Country Club, Cable Beach Golf Course in Nassau (Bahamas), Lucayan Country Club in Freeport (Bahamas), The Links at Safe Haven on Grand Cayman, Cozumel Country Club (Mexico), Playacar Club de Golf in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, and Caye Chapel Golf Resort in Belize.

Individual golf can usually be arranged aboard on almost any cruise, but many lines now focus on the game, concentrating on broader options, program continuity and the full-time presence of on-board golf pros. Elite Golf Cruises provides a golf professional who sails on every cruise and attends to everything from transportation to the courses to pairing up players in a tournament. Like land-based resorts, cruise lines are pursuing corporate and incentive groups which require golf as a featured activity.

"You could be in a foursome or a group of 140 playing in a tournament," says Michele Knipp, director of marketing for Elite Golf, "and while on your incentive trip, you can play not one, but half a dozen different courses."

In addition to Carnival, Elite Golf has agreements with Costa Cruises, Holland America, Silver Sea Cruises, Seabourn and, most recently, Celebrity Cruise Lines. Through their combined marketing efforts, which include TV ads, brochures, direct mail, trade shows and Web sites, the prospect of golf is driving new business to all of these cruise lines. Holland America, which once snubbed Caribbean golf because of inferior course conditions and inability to book solid tee times for its upscale passengers, now embraces the concept and offers golf excursions on ten islands.

"Playing golf on a beautiful course in an exotic Caribbean port of call is an unforgettable experience for any golfer," says David A. Giersdorf, senior vice president of marketing and sales. "Some of the finest courses in the world are available to our passengers."

Robert Trent Jones, Sr., as well as George and Tom Fazio, designed several of these courses many years ago, including Carambola in St. Croix, Dorado del Mar in Puerto Rico, Sandals on St. Lucia and the course in Martinique, formerly known as the Empress Josephine. All have been considerably upgraded, or expanded to 18 holes in recent times, such as the St. Lucia course. Fazio's famous Mahogany Run course in St. Thomas, which declined due to financial problems in the 1980s, is once again one of the Caribbean's most picturesque challenges, thanks in part to cruise ship business. This is not to say, however, that all Caribbean courses match many other golf vacation venues, although the level of quality is generally reflected in the cost. Golf excursions on Holland America and Carnival start at about $60 (2003 prices, not including rental clubs) at courses such as Trinidad's St. Andrews Golf Club, and climb to more than $170 for a round at the newly rebuilt Sandy Lane course on Barbados. Other courses fall into the $86 to $135 range (2003 prices), with Cozumel Country Club currently at $140 (2003 prices) a round.

Golf has always been a somewhat more expensive option on Caribbean cruises when compared with other sports such as fishing, scuba diving, snorkeling and tennis. But the lines and golf program operators have made it possible to select which courses you want to play as well as your level of interest in on-board activities, which can range from instruction and simulation golf, to putting contests and chipping into the ship's pool. As far as playing the game itself, the true aficionado will find the possibilities awesome, like playing five Caribbean courses in one week while cruising from one port to another in comfort. It doesn't get any better. Now, if you can just get rid of that hook.

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