Lifestyle

Monkey business: Tropical golf

Make like a pro and trade in that snow shovel for a few months of golf - in glorious Barbados.

A suggestion for golfers on how to get through the worst of winter: When you're digging out the driveway for the third time in a week or sliding toward the ditch on black ice, let your mind wander. You have a driver in your hands, not a shovel, and instead of being stuck in a snowbank, you're on the ninth tee at the sumptuously appointed Green Monkey Golf Club in Barbados.

Picture it. Beyond the fairway is the glistening Caribbean Sea. The prevailing breeze is at your back, rustling the brightly coloured bougainvillea and adding length to your soaring, dead-straight drive (remember, you're daydreaming). Since you must be a guest of the oh-so-swish resort at Sandy Lane to be able to have access to Green Monkey, there's a multiple-choice Shangri-La awaiting after your round. You can: a) hoist a Banks beer at the clubhouse bar; b) go sailing on the blue-green sea; c) get a massage and facial in the spa; d) drink rum punch at the beach bar, or, if you're a glutton; e) all of the above.

It doesn't have to be a fantasy — people go to Sandy Lane in real life. Tiger Woods and Elin Nordegren booked the entire 112-room resort for a week in 2004 to get married there. OK, so theirs isn't the best example of real life, but their choice — the happy couple could have gone anywhere — affirms the resort's best-that-money-can-buy pedigree. And yes, Sandy Lane's a very dear antidote to winter blahs (in high season, rooms start at US$2,800 and run up to US$25,000 a night at the top end; the Monkey's green fee is US$365). But you get what you pay for.

Recreation choices galore and otherworldly creature comforts — rooms have marble floors, oval bathtubs, giant-screen plasma TVs, matching chaises on the balcony overlooking the beach and bedside controls that let you open the drapes to view the Caribbean without lifting your head off the pillow — are important if you're sharing your mid-winter escape with a non-golfing spouse. They make it possible to steal, without guilt, a few hours on the amenities that count most — the courses.

Barbados, a beautiful island built on coral, has been a high-end beach- and family-holiday staple for generations. But it wasn't much of a golf destination until the Robert Trent Jones Jr.-designed Royal Westmoreland Golf Club opened in 1994 in a resort community of whitewashed homes just up the hill from the west coast. Boasting many sports-celeb residents, including 1991 Masters champion Ian Woosnam, its fairways are generous, but Jones poses many tactical challenges by routing holes around natural hazards such as ravines, ponds and even, at the dogleg-left, par-4 sixth, a small quarry.

It's a very fine course, but one course does not constitute a golf destination. Then, Sandy Lane commissioned famed American designer Tom Fazio to build two new sets of 18 holes on the gentle slopes above its existing property. Fazio incorporated the upper nine of the resort's original course into the 7,060-yard Sandy Lane Country Club, while leaving the pretty lower nine intact for players who prefer a more bite-sized round. The Country Club is where Mike Weir and Jim Rutledge will be representing Canada at the World Cup, Dec. 7-10.

You could save a lot by staying elsewhere — the comfortable Fairmont Royal Pavilion is just up the shore — if you are happy to play only the Country Club and Westmoreland. But the Green

Monkey is the course that will elicit the highest praise in Bajan golf. Much of the credit goes to Fazio, who is renowned for his ability to turn plain landscapes into golf exotica — with hotel and casino magnate Stephen Wynn's millions, he turned a bleak desert tract in Las Vegas into an 18-hole oasis now called Shadow Creek.

At the 7,389-yard Monkey, Fazio had a better property to work with, but the upper holes required some serious bulldozing to transform a sugar cane plantation into something that would suit the golfer's eye. Fazio's a landscape sculptor whose best designs — and this one qualifies — are curvy and full-bodied, as aesthetically compelling as they are tactically difficult. The first hole, for example, sits on what used to be a flat sugar cane field. Now it's a rolling par-4, where heaving bunker complexes and deep fairway swales force you to hit something less than a driver off the tee, thus making it play longer than its 378 yards suggest.

The prevailing wind, a constant factor that affects the aim and club selection of every shot you make in Barbados, cuts across the first six holes except at the par-3 fourth, where it's in your face. The real drama begins with the short par-4 seventh, which is downwind and reachable off the tee for very-big hitters.

Then there's the aforementioned ninth. Yes, it's a beautiful, panoramic view from that raised tee box, but this is no sightseeing tour. It's a mighty golf hole, with the hard face of a coral-stone quarry wall guarding the right side of the landing area and a deep drop-off to the left. The fairway is squeezed by encroaching waste bunkers that look like white-sand inkblots from above, and the green is some 600 yards in the distance.

The holes with less-remarkable geography are still wonderful to play. But the Monkey gets its reputation from its showpieces. There's 11, a par-3 that's an astonishing 270 yards from the tips, with rock walls on both sides, but it plays shorter because it's downwind and downhill. The 12th is a double dogleg par-5 with more quarry walls narrowing the fairway. The par-3 16th is a postcard hole if there ever was one. Stretching to 222 yards, it plays steeply downhill into the deepest of the former quarry pits. The green is backed by a pond; the front-right is protected by a vast bunker that contains a grass outline of a green monkey.

After that, 17 and 18 are a bit of a blur. So it's important, after this particular day of fantasy golf, to head for the open-air clubhouse bar — to recollect, as much as to total your score. The breeze is still gentle, the view as captivating as ever. And the only ice in sight is in your drink. Amen.

Hot threads

Even with the trade winds, it's hot in Barbados year-round — average temperatures range in the low 30s. So it helps to pack golf-specific clothes that are designed make your rounds more comfortable and shoes that keep you stable and dry after the occasional cloudburst.

Rain shirt: FootJoy short-sleeve rain shirt

Stuff this shirt into a bag pocket for those rare occasions when it rains.

Shorts: Ashworth EZ-Tech twill short

The comfortable, easy-care Ashworth short is a basic component in any golf wardrobe, and with EZ-Tech, it's guaranteed not to fade, pill or shrink. Ever.

Tehama linen pleat-front short

Linen is great in the heat but lousy for wrinkles. But Tehama, Clint Eastwood's clothing firm, promises this cotton-linen blend is wrinkle-free. Makes my day.

FootJoy Classics Tour RF

The industry standard, FootJoy offers a custom foot-bed in its Tour RF. The shoe has a calfskin upper, a full leather lining, a two-year waterproof guarantee and the endorsement of dozens of tour pros.

Shoes

ECCO classic saddle GTX

ECCO styles vary from wildly modern to dead traditional, but all are renowned for their comfort right out of the box. The waterproof GTX is designed to provide both stability and flexibility.

Facts

Price of Tiger Woods' 2004 wedding to Elin Nordegren at Sandy Lane, including weeklong rental of the resort: $1.5 million

Los Barbados means “the Bearded Ones.” It's derived from the hanging roots of the island's fig trees