BERMUDA -- It's time for a golf geography lesson.
Bermuda is not in the Caribbean, not even close. The tiny fish-hook-shaped island, which is just 22 miles long and two miles wide at its thickest point, is located about 600 miles east of North Carolina smack dab in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
The sun doesn't always shine so brightly on this northern outpost as it does in the Caribbean, but the Gulf Stream keeps the British territory plenty warm enough for golf in the winter months. Mild 60-degree days close the beaches essentially three months of the year. Locals call the winter months 'spa and golf season.' Its northern latitude does boast one major advantage: Flights from Boston, New York and New Jersey are simple jaunts for those on the East Coast.
'We looked at Florida, the Bahamas, and we saw the two-hour flight and that was the clincher,' Massachusetts resident Brad Carpenter said as he sat on a bar stool inside the clubhouse at Port Royal Golf Course, which will be home to the 2012 PGA Grand Slam of Golf in October. 'It is a hidden gem because of the closeness. That's 80 percent of why we picked here.'
It's a shock that Bermuda isn't an A-list golf destination in the winter. It's an affluent place, one that isn't plagued by the Third-World vibe of some Caribbean destinations. The 1-to-1 exchange on the U.S. dollar and the chance to clear customs on the island before the return flight are major reasons to choose Bermuda first.
Unfortunately, the breezy, cooler conditions and the high costs of living and visiting remain obstacles. There are no rental cars on the island to get around, only cabs (brave tourists rent scooters). The lack of direct flights from the Midwest doesn't help, either.
'We are kind of a hidden gem. We need more people to know about us,' said Adam Barboza, the manager of sports marketing for the Bermuda Department of Tourism.
The prices of the island's six 18-hole courses, two nine-holers and an 18-hole par 3 are more affordable in the off-season. What the courses lack in yardage -- only Port Royal is longer than 6,800 yards and none of the six are regulation par 72s -- they make up for with gorgeous settings and strategic routings. They generally remain in good shape year-round.
'When you compare it to other Caribbean islands, our courses are pretty good for the limited resources and how we have to build our courses,' said Alex Madeiros, the director of golf at Port Royal.
Where to play golf in Bermuda
The Mid Ocean Club, dating to 1921, remains a revered classic designed by C.B. Macdonald, one of the founding fathers of course architecture in America. The private club accepts public play on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and tee times can only be made 48 hours in advance.
Its ocean vistas on the first three and last three holes are fabulous, but it's the interior routing through hilly terrain that gives the course such personality. The fourth fairway climbs to a crest, revealing the fifth tee, home to a heroic Cape hole that tempts players to bite off more of the lake than they can chew. There's a photo hanging in the clubhouse of a despondent Babe Ruth, who is said to have lost a dozen balls during competition on the hole. Several roads with oncoming traffic cut through the back nine, yet those awkward moments can be forgiven for such a pure round of golf.
'I have played in Hawaii, played in Scotland and Pebble Beach. I still love this the most,' said member Ian Paul, who lives in Canada.
Essentially sharing the same address is Tucker's Point Club, a sporty resort course that is fun to play. Tucker's Point, formerly the Castle Harbour Golf Club, dances across severe terrain. Roger Rulewich redesigned the 6,491-yard course in 2002, but Director of Golf Paul Adams is still tinkering with fairway lines to unlock the flavor of the original Charles Banks design. The short par-4 17th overlooks Castle Harbour.
Rulewich spearheaded the massive $14.5-million facelift of the magnificent Port Royal in 2009. The government-owned course has hosted the PGA Grand Slam of Golf the past two years, pitting the four major winners (or their subs) against one another. Rulewich revived the greens, installed new irrigation and removed more than 1,000 trees to open up stunning vistas. Like its compatriots, Port Royal rides some dynamic land, leading to an epic stretch along the back nine. The par-4 15th tee sits next to the Whale Bay Battery, an old fort dating to the 1800s. The par-3 16th clings to the shoreline cliffs, a heart-stopping adventure.
'You are overtaken by the scenery,' said Carpenter, who picked Port Royal for his only tee time during a weekend getaway with his wife. 'It is a hard course, but even an 18- or 15-handicap can play it and enjoy it.'
The Fairmont Southampton Golf Course delivers a fantastic change of pace with the same fantastic scenery. This 2,762-yard par-3 course demands some serious shot-making along the south shore of the island, especially at the 216-yard 14th hole. Good players can use it to tighten up their short games, while the ocean breezes will challenge beginners, juniors and higher-handicap players.
'It has the ability to flex its muscle,' said Director of Golf Anthony Mocklow. 'Every destination should have a short course.'
Where to stay
The two best places to stay for golfers are Tucker's Point Resort, a Rosewood Resort that opened in 2009 just 15 minutes from the airport in the northeast section of the island, or the Fairmont Southampton in the southwest corner. The 88-room Tucker's Point, a former Marriott that was entirely gutted and rebuilt, exudes luxury with its gorgeous rooms, spa, library, outdoor courtyards and villas. The resort recently hosted the 150th anniversary party of Bacardi, which calls Bermuda home. Best of all, the resort has a 'relationship' with Mid Ocean that allows guests to play outside of the club's weekday-only policy.
The Fairmont offers nice rooms and a great location right across the street from Horseshoe Bay, one of the most popular beaches on the island. It is also closer to Riddell's Bay Golf & Country Club, the oldest course on the island, and Port Royal.
Where to eat
A jacket-only experience comes at The Point Restaurant & Terrace at Rosewood Tucker's Point. The ambiance and menu are sophisticated. A magical mural purchased from Pan-Am's New York headquarters depicts the former airline's many worldwide ports of call. For a night out in Hamilton, Bermuda's capital, try the Port O Call, where the spiny tail lobster and cheesecake rule. Flanagan's Irish Pub was a favorite of Northern Irishman Darren Clarke during his visit for the 2011 PGA Grand Slam.
The Waterlot Inn headlines a handful of fine restaurants at the Fairmont Southampton. The Waterlot Inn has been serving special meals for more than 340 years dockside at Jew's Bay. Just a short walk up the road is Henry VIII Restaurant, Sushi Bar & Pub, a local hangout renowned for its fish chowder, a Bermudian specialty topped off by spicy sherry pepper sauce and dark rum. For nightlife, the Swizzle Inn will quench your thirst for the Dark & Stormy, the island's drink of choice. It consists of Goslings Rum and ginger beer.
Just pray the phrase applies to the drink, not the weather during your stay.