Hitting into the wind: Golf in Cayman

While the Cayman Islands’ tourism industry has relied heavily on water sports such as snorkelling and scuba diving for more than 50 years, in recent times, sports tourism has emerged as a buzzword in the context of diversifying the country’s economy. Golf, which has been in Cayman for nearly 30 years, stands to play an important role in this new development.  

Usually when talking about sports tourism in Cayman, much emphasis is placed on hosting major events, such as June’s Flowers Sea Swim or the upcoming World Open for women’s squash in December, in order to draw new visitors to the Islands. Additionally, Cayman’s tourism management plan for 2009-2013 identifies athletic recreation as a way to enhance the experience of all visitors. 

According to the report, “Sports facilities and events in Cayman are important attractions but should be seen primarily as adding value for existing holiday-makers (and residents). Drawing in visitors should be seen as a bonus.” 

Grand Cayman boasts three golf courses comprising 36 holes, all in the Seven Mile Beach area. In late June, Premier McKeeva Bush revealed that a developer plans to build a multipurpose development including an 18-hole golf course in the Frank Sound area. 

Ivan’s impact  

Cayman’s first golf course Britannia opened in 1985, according to the Cayman Islands Golf Association. The nine-hole championship golf course was the first course designed by legendary golfer Jack Nicklaus in the Caribbean. The course can also be played as an 18-hole executive course. Britannia offers special rates to guests of Grand Cayman Beach Suites and is also open to the general public.  

According to the association’s website, “In addition, the executive layout could also be used as a track for the “Cayman” ball, a 50 compression ball which travelled about half the distance of the regular golf ball. However, the idea never really took off in Cayman, largely because of the windy conditions regularly encountered in the Caribbean, which could see a lofted ball being blown back over the golfer’s head!” 

In 1997, the Links of Safehaven opened as Cayman’s first and, to date only, 18-hole championship golf course. Designed by golf architect Roy Case – who has also designed courses in Florida, Illinois and Texas – and built by Gregori International, the Links was destroyed by Hurricane Ivan in 2004. The course was rebuilt and re-grown and reopened in fall of 2006. 

In 2007, the course was sold to Orion Developers, the company behind The Ritz Carlton-Grand Cayman, and its name was changed to The North Sound Club. 

Following the debut of the Links, the nine-hole par-three course called Sunrise Family Golf Centre opened in Savannah as part of the Sunrise Landing community. This course was also destroyed by Ivan in 2004 and has not reopened. Sunrise also featured a driving range, and a chipping and putting area. 

Now, the North Sound Club has the only driving range in Grand Cayman, said the club’s Director of Golf Jason Deerwester. 

“It is actually an aqua range where you hit floating golf balls into a lake. We have a bar and large patio for drinks after a round of golf,” Deerwester said. 

The North Sound Club hosts upward of 20 charity tournaments per year, and also holds private tournaments, club member tournaments, and golf association tournaments including The Cayman Islands Championships. 

“We have twice hosted the Caribbean Island Amateur Championships and once the Junior Championships. The Caribbean Golf Association is made up of 12 countries in the Caribbean and we are the only course on the island than can hold a competition of this magnitude. We will be hosting the 2013 Caribbean Junior Championships next June. In order to prepare Caymans’ juniors here on the island, you may have heard we hold several junior clinics and camps throughout the year. We are able to do this because we have not only the driving range, but two large practice greens as well,” Deerwester said. 

About 22,000 rounds of golf are played at the North Sound Club per year, he said. 

 

Dart saves the day  

The future of the golf course appeared to be in doubt late last year, but the club was saved by a capital investment from the Dart Group. Last November, the club announced it couldn’t renew its annual memberships because it couldn’t guarantee the course would remain open. In April, the club announced it was staying open and was taking memberships again. 

In June, Ritz developer Mike Ryan announced that Dart had invested in the club. The entity now managing the course is a company called Waterworks Ltd., according to Deerwester. Neither Ryan nor Dart will elaborate on details of the capital investment or the precise ownership structure. However, both Ryan and Dart Realty’s Chief Executive Officer Mark VanDevelde have said the investment will allow for upgrades to the course. 

Deerwester said, “We are currently in the middle of plans to improve both the course and facilities. The bunkers are undergoing repairs and new sand is being added. The clubhouse, bar, and restrooms are all being remodelled. We hope to have all this completed in time for our busy winter season.” 

In March 2012, the Ritz went into receivership and Ryan was removed from day-to-day operations of the resort. While Ryan was still in control of the Ritz, his intentions were to combine the North Sound Club course with the Ritz’s Blue Tip course and make it private. However, VanDevelde clearly stated that Dart intends to keep the North Sound Club open to the public. 

 

Blue Tip  

Designed by legendary golfer Greg Norman, Blue Tip opened in October 2006, 10 months after the Ritz opened. “Its original purpose was to be a golf course; the original plans actually included an 18-hole course. However, upon the first walkthrough Greg Norman suggested building a world class nine-hole course, so plans were changed,” said Blue Tip Director of Golf Dave Loomis. 

Unlike North Sound or Britannia, Blue Tip is private to hotel guests and Residence owners, giving it more of a “club atmosphere”, Loomis said. 

He said about 5,500 rounds of golf are played at Blue Tip per year, with those numbers holding steady since the course opened. 

“Blue Tip hosted its first ever Invitational tournament in May2012, raising more than $40,000 for the Cayman Islands Crisis Centre and the resort scholarship program for young Caymanians,” Loomis said. 

Additionally, the Blue Tip clubhouse sells custom-designed blue iguana head covers. From each sale, $5 is donated to the Blue Iguana Recovery Programme, and $2,000 has been donated so far this year. 

Both Deerwester and Loomis said environmental conditions make the courses in Cayman challenging to play compared to courses in the US. 

“The primary challenge a golfer faces here in Cayman is dealing with the wind. There are not too many days when the wind is not blowing straight back into your face while hitting a tee shot on our signature par 3 11th hole,” Deerwester said. 

Loomis said, “Maintaining the golf course is the main difficulty due to the time it takes to receive items (repair parts or golf shop inventory). Most Caribbean courses play more difficult than those in the US due to generally having a stronger breeze and more water hazards on the golf course.” 

 

Ironwood  

In late June, the Premier revealed that a developer hopes to build a $300 million town centre, residential community and 18-hole golf course east of Frank Sound Road, near the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park. Following Bush’s announcement during his replay to the debate on the interim budget, developer Eagle Assets Management issued a news release elaborating on the proposal. 

The developer, which is made up of local and international investors, intends to create the “Ironwood” community during a period of six years on 430 acres spanning the districts of North Side and East End. Construction on the project, which will also include a “sports village”, tennis courts, movie theatre, shopping and tourist accommodations, is slated to begin later this year. 

At the time, project spokeswoman Denise Gower, of Fountainhead Business Development, said the investment group has developed top-tier championship golf courses all over the world. 

Planning permission for what will be the first phase of the project – basically the town centre – has been in place since 2005. The plan was modified in 2006 to accommodate the planned East-West Arterial extension, which will run through the middle of the initial 54-acre plot, and was again modified in mid-March 2012. At the moment, the developer has permission to create a subdivision of about 170 lots and also to excavate a pair of 14-feet-deep lakes. On 1 August, the Central Planning Authority was scheduled to hear an application from the developer to subdivide a 29-acre parcel into 14 lots. 

Because the parcel bounds the northwest section of the Botanic Park, the application raised flags with the Department of Environment and National Trust. The department warned that a residential development could bring dogs and cats into the Botanic Park and threaten the free-roaming blue iguanas. The department recommended that government use the Environmental Protection Fund to purchase the developer’s lots to protect the Botanic Park. 

In January, the Caymanian Compass reported that the Environmental Protection Fund – fed by departure taxes – has an unused balance of nearly $40 million. Instead of using the money to buy land and support conservation, the government has used the fund to bolster the reserve funds the government is legally required to have. 

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View of Blue Tip golf course with The Ritz–Carlton, Grand Cayman, in the background.

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Blue Tip golf course

North Sound Club 2

The North Sound Club

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Blue Tip golf course. – Photo: Submitted

North Sound Club 17 green

The 17th green of The North Sound Club

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