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Bahamas offers golfers ultimate playing, lifestyle experience

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The Bahamas Investor Magazine
January 21, 2014
January 21, 2014
Steve Cotterill

Enthusiastic amateurs and pro golfers have been hitting the links in The Bahamas for decades, ever since the Great Depression era when the first course was created on Cable Beach. With endless hours of sunshine and stunning views, there can be few better places to tee-off than overlooking the aquamarine waters and lush evergreen foliage of the tropical archipelago.

“Golf is unlike any other sport in that the area of play offers a variety of experience,” says Ed Fields, senior vice president, public affairs and retail services, Kerzner International Bahamas, which has the Ocean Club Golf Course as part of its resort offering at Atlantis Paradise Island. “There is no court or pitch. It is the ultimate sport that blends with the outdoors. People want to come to The Bahamas to play golf, because of the climate and the natural environment.”

The resort golf course was originally designed by Dick Wilson and redesigned by PGA Tour champion Tom Weiskopf in 2000. Now overseen by resort golf facility management company Troon Golf, the 18-hole championship course is 6,626 yards and a par 71 from the blue tees and sits idyllically at the eastern end of the island. The facility, which is now owned by Brookfield Asset Management Co (NYSE:BAM) along with the Atlantis Paradise Island resort, was recently ranked the eighth best resort course in North America and the Caribbean by Golf Digest magazine. It has hosted many televised events, including the Michael Jordan Celebrity Invitational and the Pure Silk-Bahamas LPGA Classic. “The best feature is that it is an ocean course, with some dramatic holes overlooking the sea,” adds Fields, who says he has a handicap of around 20 depending on how often he plays. “You can see almost every hole from the clubhouse; it is quite a spectacular view.”

Environmental design
Standing on a fairway under the expansive blue sky, looking down the back nine over the plush grass, it would be easy to think that The Bahamas was a gift to golf course designers. In many ways it is, but it still takes a lot of work to unlock the potential. “You start out with a piece of property and that, in many ways, is your blank canvas,” says golfing legend and chief designer of the Baha Mar signature golf course at Cable Beach, Jack Nicklaus. “But that piece of property is what dictates the kind of golf course you try to create.

The first thing you do is unlock the land. You begin to open it up to see what potential is there and what kind of golf course and experience it can yield.”

In the case of the Baha Mar course, which is due to open later this year, this includes a number of formations that have been used to create a “moonscape,” a reshaping of the flat front nine to give it some movement and a peninsula green at the 16th hole on Lake Cunningham. “The best golf courses are those where the land dictates the golf, and not those where the golf is forced upon a piece of land. Once you have the proper routing―where the holes will be created and how they will flow―you then create the strategy. Then, to give the course its personality, you see what natural features or unique land features, such as rock formations, are available to incorporate into the design.”

Working with the environment rather than against it is a key concern in the design, according to Nicklaus, whose company, Nicklaus Design, has designed nearly 380 courses in 36 countries and 39 US states. “Few people are more appreciative and respectful of the environment than those in the golf industry, and, as a course designer, I believe that we have the ability to lift the environmental profile of a site and its surrounding areas,” says the winner of 18 major tournaments including six Masters, five PGA Championships, four US Opens and three victories at the British Open.

At Baha Mar, efforts to preserve the native habitat for wildlife and protected trees include removing the common invasive trees, such as the Australian pine, casuarinas, and Brazilian pepper shrubs. At the same time he is incorporating 15 species of native trees, including protected species such as mahogany, horseflesh, Caribbean pine and silk cotton, as well as palms. “We feel very strongly that golf courses present us with an opportunity to not only protect the natural environment and wildlife at a site, but also to enhance it.”

Dedicated grounds staff
As well as being The Bahamas’ greatest asset, the island environment also presents some big challenges for the grounds staff of its golf courses. At the Ocean Club Golf Course, its coastal location means that drainage and wind damage can be issues, and the grass itself has to be a saltwater tolerant variety, so that there are no brown spots due sea spray. “Because the course is so exposed to the elements, there are substantial running costs and no matter what happens you have maintain it,” says Fields. “You could try to scrimp, but it would show.”

The Ocean Club staff were tested to their limits last year when the LPGA Tour made its first-ever appearance in the country, with the inaugural Pure Silk-Bahamas LPGA Classic held in May. Unfortunately, the event coincided with one of the worst tropical deluges in recent memory, with the storm dumping a foot of rain on the course in a matter of hours. As a result, the 18th fairway was swamped, with organizers forced to shorten the course to 12 holes and play three rounds over three days to reach the 36 holes required for an official event. South Korean Ilhee Lee picked up the trophy, with a five-under 42 on the final round for a two-shot win over American Irene Cho. The fact that the event took place at all is a testimony to the dedication of the Ocean Club staff. After the event, the LPGA commissioner acknowledged to Fields that this was one of the best grounds crew he had ever seen. As a result, the 2014 LPGA Classic will open the tour this month back at the same venue.

This, according to Fields, is a tremendous boost not only for the resort, but also for The Bahamas’ tourism product as a whole. “The LPGA is in partnership with the Ministry of Tourism, so it gives immeasurable exposure for Atlantis and the course,” says Fields. “It also puts heads on beds, with the players’ families, television crews and so on all needing accommodation. But it also puts us in the minds of the golf world; in the minds of people who want to travel for golf. We want to create as many reasons to come to The Bahamas, whether it be for entertainment, sports, gambling or family activities.”

With Baha Mar coming onstream at the end of this year, Nassau’s golf offering is about to become substantially enhanced. “With other courses coming online, the potential to attract this type of business increases,” continues Fields. “If you look at places that are golf ‘Meccas,’ there are hundreds of courses. Baha Mar also having a course only augers well for the overall golf community in The Bahamas.”

Golfing lifestyle
What differentiates The Bahamas from many of its competitors is not only the quality of the courses, but also the entire amenity package that comes with membership. Most clubs or developments offer golf, housing, and maybe tennis. Dining is generally at the clubhouse restaurant.

The experience, says Fields, is kind of “cookie cutter.” For those owning one of the properties connected with the golf course at the Ocean Club Estates, however, the list of amenities available is unparalleled.

“Atlantis and the Ocean Club Estates are probably unmatched in that sense,” says Fields. “Where else would you get a gated community, with a marina, golf course, 21 restaurants including celebrity brands, 19 bars and lounges, access to a water park, a casino and a clubhouse–all part of your homeowners privileges? It is the amenities package that makes it a success.”

When Baha Mar comes onstream next year, visitors and homeowners in the resort complex will also have access to a staggering array of facilities, including sculptured water parks, fine dining establishments, luxury retail outlets and gambling. For Nicklaus, the entire lifestyle package was part of the attraction of getting involved in the project.

“I spend a lot of time in The Bahamas. For years, I’ve boated, fished, and dived here. I visit at least seven or eight times a year. Seeing what is going to happen here at Cable Beach, from my standpoint as a frequent visitor, is terrific. You have the hotels, the infrastructure, and now, to be able to put a golf course as a centerpiece is special to me. This is going to be very special.”

Additional reporting by Anne Williams.

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