Golf professional Chris Lewis was lining up a 15-footer for birdie on the first hole at Baker’s Bay, a year-old private course on the Bahamian islet of Great Guana Cay, when the music started up—the crunching guitars and persistent drums of a late-model rock band. It turned out the source was just down the fairway—a boom box perched in the back of a golf cart. Nearby, a couple of college-aged guys stood chatting amiably while rehearsing short-iron swings.
They were barefoot, wearing brightly colored swim trunks. And no one seemed to give this a second thought.
It doesn’t take long to realize that Baker’s Bay Golf & Ocean Club (Great Guana Cay, Abaco; 242-577-0635; bakersbayclub.com) is not your dad’s stuffy country club. Unorthodox attire? No problem. Another taboo, slow play, actually seems to be encouraged. After all, if your group is the only one on the course, what’s the rush? Walking off the green, Lewis explained, “Most of our members are also members of clubs back in the States. They’re tickled when they come here because they get to do the opposite of what they do back home.”
Of course, with many of those clubs back home shuttered for the winter months, avid golfers look south to warmer climes. The Caribbean’s many natural advantages—gorgeous coastlines, exotic and colorful vegetation, superior wind and weather conditions—might make it seem the perfect destination. But when it comes to golf, topography is destiny, and most Caribbean courses are either pancake-flat or built on the sides of mountains. In other words, less than ideal ground. However, in the Out Islands of the Bahamas (loosely defined as everything excluding the main population centers of Nassau and Grand Bahama), a pair of exclusive courses—Baker’s Bay and, on neighboring Great Abaco Island, the Abaco Club—feature the rolling terrain that’s just right for golf, combined with distinctive design.
With 285 estate homesites, 75 developer residences, a semi-public-access marina village and a 185-slip marina (capable of handling all but the most mega of mega-yachts), Baker’s Bay is a big-footprint project. Homesite prices average $5 million, making it very much the province of CEOs, celebrities and pro athletes like golfers Phil Mickelson and Ben Crane, who are both members. Opened in 2010, it’s still a work in progress, but visitor accommodations, services and amenities are up and running at an extremely high level.
The course at Baker’s Bay was designed by Tom Fazio, with construction overseen primarily by his sons Logan and Austin. In general the Fazio style is what one might call Mannerist—aesthetically refined, technically accomplished, theatrical, perhaps a bit affected. Some critics see his work as heavy on eye candy and light on strategy, and Baker’s Bay will not change their minds. Fazio’s many fans might counter, though, that a hole need not be overly complicated to be a good test of golf.
One measure of Baker’s Bay’s success is that while it’ll challenge anyone from the 7,390-yard back tees, moving up a set provides a user-friendly experience for the average player. This is partly thanks to the efforts of superintendent Neil Edwards, who keeps the greensward in immaculate condition. The ball sits up handsomely on the fairways, practically begging to be smashed; bunkers are deep enough to be respectable hazards, yet wedges cut beautifully through the local beach sand; greens are receptive and roll smoothly, at just the right pace.
Baker’s Bay offers more than its fair share of memorable holes, especially on the homeward nine, where a couple of clever short par-fours bookend the stunning downhill 13th. Taking in 360-degree ocean views from this tee, the island’s highest point, can easily distract from properly judging a dicey cross-wind drive. The 18th is (predictably) an oceanside par-five, but the prevailing winter wind blowing out to sea makes it a dramatic finisher.
About 25 minutes from Great Abaco’s Marsh Harbour airport, The Abaco Club at Winding Bay (Marsh Harbour; 866-770-2619; ritzcarltonclub.com) is a private facility managed by Ritz-Carlton as one of the company’s Destination Clubs. In general it’s a members-only affair, but visitors can often be accommodated, especially those who may be interested in joining.
The club was founded in 2004 by Peter de Savary, the swashbuckling entrepreneur behind several of the last decade’s ultra-high-end developments, most notably the Carnegie Club at Skibo Castle in the Scottish Highlands. Though he sold his stake to Ritz-Carlton back in 2006, the property still reflects his basic vision, with the bar and cabanas clustered down by the beach and the clubhouse, restaurant, spa and estate lots perched on a dagger-shaped bluff overlooking Winding Bay and the Atlantic Ocean.
The golf course, codesigned in 2004 by the English architect Donald Steel and his former associate Tom Mackenzie, plays over grounds both low and high. The first seven holes run parallel to the bay, and the next seven return on the inland side, at which point a brief hill climb takes the player to the finishing holes on the bluff. This out-and-back routing plan, though rarely seen among new courses, is common among the traditional links of the British Isles.
Steel and Mackenzie conceived of this course as a “tropical links,” and in the most basic sense, the aesthetic—rumpled fairways, deep, penal pot bunkers and woozy greens, all shaped in a sandy-soil environment—is indeed a faithful homage to the courses of Ireland and Scotland. In a tropical setting, the links look is certainly different, and for the most part it’s quite appealing, especially on holes like the par-four fifth, where it’s hard to tell where the beach ends and the golf course begins.
But how a course looks and how it plays can be two different things. Fescue, the traditional links turf—and often the secret to firm and fast playing conditions—won’t survive in this climate. Its stand-in at Winding Bay is a modern, saltwater-tolerant grass called paspalum. It’s a bit too lush in the off-season—putting from off the green doesn’t quite work—but the turf picks up pace during the prime winter months. This is important because the architects designed the greens to allow for a running approach—almost all have openings in the front. Should one miss, a nifty array of short-game options (chip, pitch, flop, putt) from the various greenside dips and swales await. This is one of the Abaco Club’s most enjoyable qualities.
It’s a course anyone can enjoy, from weekend hacker to this year’s British Open champion, Abaco Club member Darren Clarke. As at Baker’s Bay, the course concludes with a spectacular oceanfront par-five—this one plays from a clifftop tee into a bowled valley, then back up to an elevated green defended by a rank of pot bunkers. The Out Islands are perhaps best known for being a sailor’s paradise, with aquatic activities from coral-reef snorkeling to sport fishing competing for a visitor’s attention, but with holes like this one to tackle, it’s clear that being a golfer here isn’t too bad, either.