JAMAICA - Of all the great reasons to play Jamaica's newest golf course - the Ritz-Carlton's White Witch in Montego Bay - perhaps the best is that any bad shot on its 18 difficult holes come with a built-in excuse: the course may be haunted.
The White Witch is affectionately named after Annie Palmer, a 19th century slave owner who lived in Mo-Bay's Great House of Rose Hall, which is a tourist attraction in its own right that has been restored to its original design and sits adjacent to the course.
Local legend has it (albeit sometimes with a wink and a nod) that the beautiful Palmer, who was trained in black magic and voodoo in her youth while in Haiti, brutally killed three husbands and tortured countless slaves in the Great House plantation before her own murder at the hands of an enraged slave in 1831. Since then, Annie Palmer sightings near the Great House have nearly been as common as tourists taking pictures from the House's balcony, which overlooks the Caribbean.
But if Palmer haunts her old mansion, as she is said to do, there is no reason to believe that she can't handle the gorgeous 18 holes that sit on the land that once belonged to her family. And believe me, after a round at the White Witch, you'll swear that someone else had a hand in all of those shots you send over cliffs, into heavy vegetation, and to the bottom of ponds. Not even the pros have yet to master the White Witch. In the recent "Shell's Wonderful World of Golf" match between veterans Hal Sutton and Notah Begay, both golfers shot an even-par 71.
Yes, the White Witch is a difficult course, but it's certainly manageable. More than anything else, this is one course that is so unique, you'll want to play it just to say you've been there. From the moment you hit the driving range (which is free before a round) and slap balls into a Death Valley-type hole carved out of the Jamaican mountainside, you'll see that what you're in for is not an ordinary round of golf. With its dramatic elevation changes, hairpin turns, swirling mountain winds, and panoramic views of the Caribbean (16 of 18 holes have sea views), the Robert Von Hagge-designed Witch is a delight, so long as you aren't intimidated by the course's layout and quirks. The landing areas are fairly generous, so it's important to put blinders on every once in a while and just pretend you're at the local driving range. However, don't forget to enjoy the views in between shots, as this is part of the course's fun.
"The course's topography is very mountainous," says Andrew Rogers, White Witch's Director of Golf. "The clubhouse is located 750 feet above sea level, overlooking the Caribbean, and by the time you reach the fourth green, you will have dropped 700 feet."
"The White Witch can be very difficult if you play from the 'White Witch' tees," which have a slope of 139 and a 74.0 rating," said Rogers. "But the course can also be very friendly if you play our shortest set of tees, the 'Pickney' tees, which have a slope of 118 and a 69.9 rating. The White Witch offers five sets of tees on every hole so it can appeal to all levels of golfers. Therefore, pick the tees that suit your game!"
Depending on the tees, the course plays from 4,830 yards to 6,718 yards. Each set of tees essentially creates an entirely different hole. "We tried to create a course that will give you a different experience each time you play," says course co-designer Rick Baril of Houston's Von Hagge, Smelek and Baril. "We have done that at the White Witch by creating multiple tees throughout. Whereas the low handicapper might have to carry a yawning ravine to reach the green, there will also be tees allowing the shorter hitter to get there as well."
The shorter tees are definitely for the faint of heart and the more novice golfer. From there, the elevation changes aren't as severe and the carries are much shorter. Also, other holes give golfers the option of playing it safe or attempting their best Tiger Woods impersonation.
"Probably the most unique hole is number 15," says Rogers. "It's a double fairway that offers a real 'risk vs. reward' option. Play it safe and go up the fairway to the left, and it's a 335-yard dogleg right, par four from the middle tees. Or, go straight for the green, with a 220-yard carry over a beautiful pond with a waterfall, and take a shot at a birdie."
Of course, even the safer option isn't always an easy proposition at the White Witch. On 15, if your drive doesn't make it to the turn, you're left with an uphill lie and a blind shot over a batch of trees to a depressed green. (Unfortunately, I'm now all too aware of this shot, which, sadly, isn't one of the better ones in my repertoire.)
Aside from the golf, the Witch's "concierge" program helps to make the course both more playable and enjoyable. Concierges are essentially caddies who accompany cart-riding players to cite distance - to the yard - read putts, clean clubs, and run up and down fairways in search of hooks, shanks, and slices. Of course, it can also be a little discouraging when your concierge, who admits to having learned the game nine months ago by watching TV, takes a shot on a treacherous par three and tucks it on the green after your entire group drops their shots in water.
But the service of the concierges, and the rest of the course staff, is nothing less than what would be expected from Ritz-Carlton, which manages the course from its 430-room luxury hotel across the road. "In addition to the sheer beauty of the course, the service that our golf staff provides, coupled with our unique concierge program, makes playing the White Witch more than just a round of golf," says Rogers. "It's a golfing experience."
It's difficult not to get spoiled playing at the White Witch, as not too many U.S. courses can match its appeal. Of course, a round at the Witch comes at a price ($225 in-season, including range balls, a cart, and a concierge). But for many, it's worth every cent. "Like Annie Palmer, the course is gorgeous," says Von Hagge. "It's alluring, it's tempting, and it's absolutely distinctive. There's nothing like the White Witch in the entire Caribbean basin - and maybe not in the world."
White Witch Golf Club
Rose Hall Great House Road
Rose Hall, St. James, Jamaica
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