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Britannia Golf Club on Grand Cayman: Jack Nicklaus sleight of hand creates two courses in one

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

Grand Cayman may be the largest of the Caribbean's Cayman Islands, but it's still tight quarters for a golf course. Jack Nicklaus' solution at the Hyatt Regency's Britannia Golf Club - a nine-hole track that can be turned into an 18-hole executive course.

Britannia Golf Club
Transformer: Extra tees and greens can turn Britannia G.C.'s nine-hole regulation track into an 18-hole short course.
Britannia Golf ClubBritannia Golf ClubBritannia Golf Club

GRAND CAYMAN, Cayman Islands - Anyone who has ever lived on a Caribbean island knows that improvisation and flexibility are important, if you want to keep your sanity.

The Hyatt Regency people knew this when they hired Jack Nicklaus to build the first golf course on Grand Cayman.

With little room on the small island (22 miles long and four to eight miles wide), Nicklaus and his team aimed to provide as much variety as possible in tight quarters. So they essentially built two courses in one: a par-35 nine-hole track with a second set of tees and greens that periodically turn it into an 18-hole, par-58 executive course.

Actually, if you want to be technical, you can play it three ways, the third being with a restricted-flight "Cayman ball" that travels about three-quarters as far as a regular ball. But, they don't do that much any more.

It's a fairly ingenious set-up. A par 5 on the regulation course, for example, becomes three par 3s when it's played as an executive layout. On regulation days, the executive-course tee boxes are hidden by the many mounds Nicklaus installed.

"It's a really cool design that way," Head Professional Dave Johnson said.

Those mounds serve another purpose: They keep this resort course player-friendly and fast-paced, funneling your ball back into play or sending it toward the middle of the green.

"Jack knew what he was doing for the resort set," Johnson said.

Johnson did a little improvising himself when it came time to install the new granite tee markers. Since no one on the property could move the 500-pound slabs, he called the local funeral home, which lent some heavy-lifting equipment. That's a real Caribbean move.

Britannia Golf Club on Grand Cayman: The verdict

The course was battered by Hurricane Ivan in 2004 and still shows signs of the beating. There are quite a few weeds in the fairways, the rough and even parts of the greens. Officials said it would take about a year before the Bermuda grass takes back over.

"It used to be real nice here," Johnson said. "It will be again."

A public course popular with the locals in summertime, the Britannia doesn't show off the conditioning of the island's other two courses, the 18-hole Links at SafeHaven or the nine-hole Blue Tip at the Ritz-Carlton, the latter of which was built after Ivan.

But it can be a fun play, with a range of blind shots, pot bunkers and two-tiered greens. Some of the par 3s are excellent, and on the regulation course the longer holes test golfers with tricky carries. The Caribbean views from the open layout are always a treat.

Hyatt guests pay $90 and $140 for nine and 18-hole play, respectively; public green fees are $100 and $150. Memberships are available for $1,000 a year. Owners at the Britannia Villas overlooking the courses get memberships free.

Grand Cayman hotels

The course-affiliated Hyatt Regency Grand Cayman Beach Suites is located on the famous Seven-Mile Beach, with development on one side and world-class views of the sun setting over the sea on the other.

Suites have a step-out balcony, king bedroom, living room with sofa bed, dining room, refrigerator, microwave, wet bar and other amenities. Some have a second, queen-sized bedroom. One of the two swimming pools has my favorite incredibly indulgent amenity, a swim-up bar.

Two restaurants, Hemingway's and Bamboo, look out over the water under swaying palms (the latter also features live jazz). The Seven-Mile Beach Bar is perfect for drinking a rum and Coke while watching the boats bob on the gentle waves.

Red Sail Sports, located on the ground floor of the hotel and also out at Rum Point, offers catamaran sailing, scuba and snorkeling, sailboats and sunset and dinner outings. A complete fitness room is available for those who prefer conventional exercise, and, of course, there's a spa.

Tim McDonaldTim McDonald, Contributor

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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