Jamaica as a golf destination? Without a doubt

Yes, reggae and Red Stripe beer are Jamaican trademarks, but the golf on the island is top notch and should not be overlooked

Six years ago when Kevyn Cunningham was approached about the director of golf operations position at Half Moon Resort, it was an easy decision. 

The English-born former professional had a resume as long as the Mojave Desert is wide. The abridged story is this: After turning professional, he worked for IMG, running the David Leadbetter Golf Academy globally. Between 1997 and 2007, he lived in Jamaica, growing roots and purchasing a home. So he already had a connection to the Caribbean's third-largest island.

"Whenever people think about golf in Jamaica — and generally people think about Bob Marley and reggae or Red Stripe Beer before thinking about golf," says Cunningham via Zoom, "in our area here, we have three top golf courses in a five-mile radius. And I don't say that lightly."

Nor should he. 

Half Moon — Robert Trent Jones Sr. designed course
The Robert Trent Jones Sr.-designed Half Moon course opened in 1962, and has played host to professional tournaments through the years.

Montego Bay, a serene sun-splashed haven known for its beaches and distinctive beauty, boasts Rose Hall — an area that used to be a sugar plantation — with the disparate Half Moon, Cinnamon Hill and White Witch layouts dotting the property. Each is top-notch. Half Moon and White Witch are labeled as championship-style designs. And all three provide a different test. 

"I was told to be a golf destination, you need a minimum of three golf courses, which we have and they are literally two miles apart," says Keith Stein, Rose Hall director of golf operations, who manages Cinnamon Hill and White Witch, in reference to a conversation he had with consultants years ago.  

Proximity plays to the area's charm. It also helps they're all located within 20 minutes of Sangster Internal Airport.   

Of the three, Half Moon has been around the longest. Designed by the renowned Robert Trent Jones Sr. in 1961, the trademark 7,100-yard bow-tie walking course opened in 1962. 

As Jones' longtime chief lieutenant — 34 years to be exact — Roger Rulewich convinced the storied designer to donate his business records and designs to Cornell University, which named a research entity after him. Thankfully, the curated files give a peek into Half Moon's history.

Guy Steuart III, Half Moon's chairman, pored through some of Jones' records, astonished to find nuggets of information that may have well been pushed out to sea. In the files Steuart obtained, he found a 1958 aerial view that showcased a several-mile stretch of undeveloped land on Jamaica's North Coast. These aerials were stitched together as a foundation upon which Jones could do his handiwork. 

Steuart also discovered correspondence between Sunset Lodge (prior to becoming Half Moon Resort) managing director Harold deLisser and Jones circa 1951 discussing the potential course. 

When Jones finished, it contained his signature touches. Besides the bowtie layout routed through part of the 7,000 acres of the sugar plantation, which had originally been purchased by the late John Rollins, it featured extended tees that complemented long and narrow fairways adorned by royal palms. More than 100 bunkers were installed.

As with anything else, time took its toll. Non-indigenous trees crowded the land, constricting airflow. Drainage needed to be addressed, and so did the many bunkers. 

As fate would have it, shortly before 2004, Steuart took a trip to Metedaconk National Golf Club in New York. The next morning over coffee, he raved to "this Norman Rockwell character out of central casting" about how much he enjoyed the course. The character, pipe in mouth, was Rulewich who told Steuart he designed it. Not only that, he used to work for Jones.

"I went, 'Ohhh, really?'" says Steuart. "I told him we owned a place called Half Moon, which he obviously knew, and I said, 'Roger, we need a makeover? Would you be interested?'"

Sure enough, Rulewich took it on and modernized the course, carefully keeping Jones' vision intact. Many trees came out, hazards were reduced and capillary bunkering added for maintenance purposes. 

Three greens had a makeover, with infused subtlety. Rulewich changed the shaping of the ninth green, while No. 18 was pushed back to make it longer. The nines were flipped more so to how far players hit the ball today. 

Cunningham and Steuart agreed Rulewich maintained the integrity, both calling it a purist layout. 

"The course had become a little claustrophobic," says Cunningham, alluding to the trees and constricted airflow. "But it was quite fun to watch Roger Rulewich's brain work."

Depending on expertise, white tees set up about 6,300 and 7,100 for those looking for a challenge. Caddies, well-versed, are mandated. 

Says Steuart: "I would like us to do 15,000 rounds of golf. However, the tees are designed for 30,000. It's a very playable course for a resort, but it's also a test. You have to learn how to play your ball in the wind, while doing it from tee to green."

Speaking of challenges, Cinnamon Hill and White Witch compare favorably as tests. They're not exactly second fiddle to Half Moon.

Cinnamon Hill
Cinnamon Hill was originally designed by Hank Smedley in 1969 and then underwent an extensive redesign by Robert von Hagge- and Rick Baril in 2001.

Opened in 1969 as Three Palms Ocean Course, the renamed Cinnamon Hill was Hank Smedley's self-admitted design masterpiece. At one point it was considered one of the top 100 courses in the world. 

Set along the Caribbean Sea, the layout promotes breathtaking views along enchanting vistas and significant elevation changes.
In some parts, the terrain is lush and definitely interesting, evidenced by nearby graveyards and remnants of old homes. From the second hole, the former house of Annie Palmer can be seen. Palmer, better known as the "White Witch of Rose Hall," was a 19th-century iconoclast who — as legend has it — practiced voodoo, abused slaves and murdered three husbands. 

In 2000, under Michele Rollins' leadership, about $3 million was allocated for a redesign handled by designers Robert von Hagge and Rick Baril. They accentuated the topography with elevations that intertwined coastal and tropical inland golf. What's more, the holes were laid out on a wild rocky part of the plantation that set up intimidating carries and fairways that, to the naked eye, rolled into the horizon. The pinnacle holes, Nos. 16 and 17, route back to the water. Incidentally, the 17th green incorporates the ruins of an aqueduct built in 1761.

"Cinnamon Hill gets the most rounds because it is a fun golf course," says Stein, who moved to Jamaica from Toronto in 1992. "It's one of those tracks where you use all your golf clubs. 

"Half Moon is nine holes downwind and then nine holes back up into the wind. Holes that are up into the wind are penal. And with Cinnamon Hill, you're all over the place. You're downwind, you're crosswind, left and right, everything."

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, White Witch suffered. Arguably one of the top courses in the Caribbean, the von Hagge and Baril team dreamed up the championship layout that opened in 2000 on 200 acres of lush greenery and carved from the rolling countryside along the side of a mountain. It came to the tune of $7.2 million. The course stands about 600 feet above sea level and many holes, built on valley tops, require pricy maintenance. 

White Witch's elevated opening hole adds an element of fear as though Palmer's ghost created it herself. An exhilarating view, a drive on the 550-yard par 5 gets lost amid the expansive sky before dropping like a rock downhill, lost amid the faraway sea view. Of the three local layouts, it has the most scenic vistas. 

When the pandemic hit, the 6,758-yard, par-71 gem shut down. 

"We were down for almost three years and basically everything had to be redone, the clubhouse had to be repainted, new furniture, new shop, new greens, everything," Michele Rollins, chairperson of the Rose Hall Development Ltd., told the Jamaica Observer in December 2022.

As it continues to slowly get back on its feet, White Witch is only open during winter months due to the lack of volume, Stein says. 

"I did a whole bunch of math for the owners and we do about 80% of business between November 1  and May 1," he adds.

In terms of the nestled area, Steuart believes landing another tournament would be a boon. It would attract attention and create awareness as a golf destination. Half Moon has been no stranger to big-time tournaments, having hosted a number of PGA tournaments, as well as the European PGA Senior Tour and the Jamaica Open.

The three courses have worked together, with Half Moon offering stay-and-play packages. It's all about beefing up expectations and experiences. More important, it caters to every golfer from novices to scratch golfers. 

However, it all goes back to the core concept of maybe considering Jamaica as a golf destination, especially with three demanding yet alluring choices. Cunningham, Stein and Steuart are convinced that all it takes is one visit to get hooked. 

"We are raising the perception as a place you can go to," says Steuart, "and play golf."