If you’re looking for white beaches, 5-star restaurants and immaculate golf courses, go to Barbados. This is Tobago. It's a heart wrenchingly beautiful island, but in a perfectly imperfect kind of way. The beaches are rugged and the oceans rough. The paint is peeling off the hotel walls. The food could be the best you’ve ever had, but it might be served from a bucket out the back of a truck.
And the golf? I was about to find out.
A bell rang as I entered the proshop of the Plantations golf course. It was empty, but for a few XXL polos, some Pizza Boy pamphlets and a rangefinder from the 90’s. The suncream, glove, and balls I needed were nowhere to be seen and the countertop read “NO REFUNDS”. Not a 100% satisfaction guarantee, but par for the course in Tobago.
For as long as I can remember Tobago’s tourist industry has languished. It’s a small southerly Caribbean island, only 30 x 10 miles in size, but it boasts an extraordinary combination of surf, sand, coral reefs, wildlife and rainforests that one might expect to attract travellers from far and wide. Tobago was once tipped as the next great travel destination in the Caribbean but it remains undiscovered and its service industry underdeveloped.
As a net exporter of oil, Trinidad, Tobago’s big sister island, does not require tourism to fuel its economy. So whilst the likes of Jamaica and Barbados invested in infrastructure, training and international partnerships, Tobago received a paycheck and the days drifted at a leisurely pace. Most locals don’t really mind whether you holiday here or not. Why should they? Around 60% of the workforce is employed by the government and will be paid either way.
Demonstrating the point was a man in uniform sat leisurely by the rental clubs. He wore a COVID mask chin strap style. I asked if he might help me pay my nonrefundable green fee.
“No” came the response. “Brandy will help you when she’s back.” Fair enough.
“Do you play?” I asked.
“Why would I play a game where you lose the ball?” he said, flooring me.
Brandy walked in before I’d recovered and I paid the green fee. No going back now.
By the time I got to the first tee I’d shaken off his comment. It was 28 degrees with a cool Atlantic wind and palm trees as far as the eye could see. As good a place as any to lose a few golf balls. My playing partner waited.
“Am I about to get beaten by an Ames?” he asked.
I knew this was coming. Golf is in my blood. My Grandmother was champion of Trinidad and Tobago twice and Cousin Robert is CEO at the Sea Pines Country Club in Florida, but as a four time PGA tour winner who held down a T20 world ranking, cousin Stephen is undoubtedly the jewel in the Ames family crown.
Unfortunately, Stephen is also famous for one of the worst and most publicised wollopings in golf history. On the eve of the 2006 WGC Match Play Championship, he gave a bullish interview in which he threw a little shade toward his opponent. The next day Stephen received a 9 and 8 pasting that still features prominently on his Wikipedia page. That’s why you don’t mess with Tiger Woods.
Like any small nation, we revere and cherish our exports. Stephen may hold a Canadian passport but he flies the T&T red white and black as well. We choose to remember TPC Sawgrass the same year, where Stephen triumphed over Tiger and the other top 50 world ranked golfers to claim the Players Championship. His photo hangs proudly at Plantations next to another great export - a bottle of Royal Oak Rum.
My partner today, Ricky, was the pro in Tobago; he grew up playing with Stephen and my cousins. Ricky had no way of knowing that by the time it was my turn to drink from the family gene pool we were out of golf. I’m the 19th Cousin and the worst 13 handicapper you’ve ever seen.
Ricky, on the other hand, was the best golfer in Tobago and played off scratch. He estimated of the 54,000 people on the island there were about 50 active players, and whilst that doesn’t make us a golfing powerhouse, it does mean at least 2% of participants can go round Plantations on level par. Not Bad.
I teed up my ball, fully aware I was about to let down my good family name. But as we wound our way to the Atlantic Ocean over ponds and thick mangroves, onto fairways of Bermuda grass, all concerns were washed away. Ricky soon became accustomed to my loose driving and switched from competitor to coach.
“Would you try and control your woman?” He asked. I pictured my German girlfriend Leonore applying a headlock as I referred to her as “my woman” and shook my head.
“Then stop trying to control the golf ball,” he insisted.
I took a free swing and sent one deep. Ricky grinned.
We agreed, Plantations was in the best shape either of us had seen in a long long time. Sure, the fairways could have been cut a little shorter, the greens were a touch dry in places and a few of the bunkers were rock hard, but these were trifling details in the context of a wholly enjoyable Caribbean golf experience. A throwback to the glory days.
Ricky remembers when the island’s prospects were at its highest, and Tobago was home to one of the finest courses in the Caribbean. Shell’s wonderful world of golf, a CBS travel show that hosted exhibition matches in exotic locations, brought Bob Murphy, Dan Sikes and Miller Barber to Mt Irvine golf club in 1970 and European Tour players used Mt Irvine to warm up for the PGA. Now, chickens roam the greens and the fairway grass is knee height.
In some ways golf in Tobago is a microcosm of the island and its tourist industry. Utterly beautiful, full of potential but ultimately falling short of any five star billings. And yet, if you’re willing to compromise on a few creature comforts and fineries Tobago and its golf are an awesome and unique adventure well worth the green fee.
Strangely enough, this past trip felt for the first time in a long time as though the secret was beginning to get out. An underground scene of restaurants and local businesses made social media savvy by a year of COVID restrictions are catering to the first returning adventurers. Surfers beach, one of the best breaks in the Caribbean, was packed full of travellers. Amongst the typical Trinidadian clientele, were Germans, Swedes and Brits. A new airport is under construction that promises to bring larger international flights to Tobago’s shores. There are even rumours circulating that Richard Branson lodged a bid to purchase Mt Irvine Golf Course.
Until then, the few travellers that make it this far south in the Caribbean will find the island stays with them long after they wash the salt from their hair and the sand from their fingernails. One day, you’ll meet someone back home who has also enjoyed Tobago's treasures. You’ll find your voice drops to a whisper and your eyes sparkle as you share a secret the rest of the world couldn’t possibly understand.
As Ricky and I turned away from the coast of what I consider the most beautiful island in the world, and headed for the clubhouse, I felt a little emotional. Tobago, a small southern Caribbean outpost of 54,000 people, 50 golfers and one Players Champion had an operational course to be proud of again. Forty quid, cart included.