Trip dispatch: Making the most of golf in the Cayman Islands

This may not be the first Caribbean nation you'd visit for golf, but that helps it fly under the radar.
The par-3 11th at North Sound is the most picturesque of the Cayman Islands' 27 holes of golf.

GEORGE TOWN, Cayman Islands - When you don't have much of something precious, you're wise to make the most of it.

The Cayman Islands, a country of 72,000 people and nearly 120,000 registered corporations, doesn't merely make do with its modest complement of golf. It wrings considerable value out of just 27 holes, all located at the west end of populous Grand Cayman, whose population is more than 30 times that of Little Cayman and Cayman Brac, the country's other two islands, combined.

Hardcore golf enthusiasts, especially architecture junkies, will likely find the Cayman Islands lacking in the sort of stimulating design that makes places like the Dominican Republic and the Bahamas the Caribbean's go-to golf spots. But there is more than meets the eye here, and golfers who find themselves on an island-hopping cruise or mostly beach-focused vacation with a few spare hours should sample the golf.

The Ritz-Carlton Golf Club, Grand Cayman

The lesser-played of the Cayman Islands' golf courses, which went by the name Blue Tip early on, this nine-holer is accessible by members and guests of the tony Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman, plus owners of the multi-million-dollar villas within its gates.

Architect Greg Norman may have made his site visits here on calm days, because he routed the course's first two holes straight into the teeth of the near-constant wind out of the east. The fairways do prove more spacious than they look, but with no driving range on the cozy property (although The Bunker, an indoor practice area with 2 Trackman simulators, is good for both warmups and lessons), it is an intimidating start if the wind is up. For those who can keep a ball between the property line on the left and lagoons on the right, things get a bit easier quickly, as the middle of the course features more generous corridors before turning downwind prior to the island-green, par-3 finisher.

The Ritz's pristine turf is Paspalum wall-to-wall, which tends to tee the ball up very nicely, even on lies in the close-clipped rough. The greens are mostly flat. Norman's odd initial routing decision aside, this is resort golf through and through, best enjoyed with polo untucked and a can or two of Caybrew, the local lager.

As one would expect from any Ritz-Carlton property, the service is flawless. At the course, director of golf Ollie Riding is one of the friendliest you will find, full of stories of his own island-hopping days as a touring pro. A native of Curaçao, he came to the Cayman Islands just before the COVID-19 pandemic. The subsequent two-year reversal of golf's economic fortunes has happened in a big way at the Ritz, where Riding and his staff have grown membership from 85 to more than 200, with dues surprisingly reasonable for such upscale digs. Green fees: $199 ($159 for 9 holes).

Whatever happened to the 'Cayman ball'?

This limited-flight golf ball was developed in part by Jack Nicklaus along with a course in the Cayman Islands in the 1980s. Though the idea of enabling full swings on smaller parcels of land is a good idea in principle, this particular projectile never quite took off, and though its versatile design enabled to work as both a 9-hole regulation course and an 18-hole short course, it did not survive the most recent economic downturn. But as dedicated short courses are on the rise, perhaps there's a future for this type of golf in the country where the term was coined.

North Sound Golf Club

The Ritz's next-door neighbor to the north is Grand Cayman's 18-hole course, which dates to 1994. Designed by English architect Roy Case, it is the home of golf in the country. The Cayman Islands Golf Association resides there and hosts numerous tournaments, including an annual open and the 2018 Caribbean Amateur Golf Championships.

One would be forgiven for expecting the Cayman Islands' sole "big course" to feel more like a throw-in next to other more popular island amenities, but nothing could be further from the truth. North Sound buzzes with the kind of activity that any avid player would yearn for in a home course. Locals mix with and welcome tourists warmly, and laughter echoes across the course - laid out in two stringy, primarily east-west loops - constantly. The large, covered bar/patio area that abuts the practice putting and chipping greens is exemplary. Conditions are solid, with Bermuda fairways and roughs and smooth Paspalum greens. Bottle openers attached to the golf cart keys tell you all you need to know about the vibe.

What Norman missed at the Ritz, Case got right at North Sound. Not only does the course begin with three downwind holes, the opener is a friendly 130-yard par 3. With the tee box close to the clubhouse, there is a real possibility of a round-starting ace, which no doubt sets off pandemonium nearby.

Overall, the course is wide and playable, with longish par 3s like the 5th and 9th and the brutal-but-beautiful sound-side 11th providing good drama. Sweeping contours heave across several greens, making for interesting approach shots, especially for golfers who find themselves out of position off the tee. The par-5 18th swings hard to the right around a large lagoon, making for an appropriately grandiose finish. Green fees: $180 ($70 after 3 pm).

One of the fundamental criteria for a golf course is the extent to which it answers the question, Does playing it make me want to become a better player? In the case of North Sound, the answer is posted on a bulletin board outside the pro shop: a list of young Caymanians who find themselves in the World Amateur Golf Rankings. There are five in total, led by 19-year-old Aaron Jarvis, who in 2022 became the first native of the islands to play in the Masters, thanks to his victory at the Latin American Amateur Championship.

Jarvis, a freshman at UNLV, defied long odds when he beat top regional prospects from Argentina, Mexico, Colombia and several larger nations to become the Caribbean's first winner in the event's seven-year history. Jarvis will also take his talents to Scotland this summer; a berth in the Open Championship is another perk of his win.

But Jarvis is not alone. His older brother, Andrew, is a strong player as well, as is Justin Hastings, a member of the San Diego State University golf team. North Sound Golf Club raised all of them, with the help of a robust junior program and national support for golf development. These three factors help the Cayman Islands punch well above its weight and deliver a surprisingly deep sense of golf culture.

In a place with such limited golf options, success comes from recognizing what is available, appreciating it and sharing it with others. It may not have the flashy courses of the Dominican Republic or the Bahamas, but the Cayman Islands has a great golf vibe all its own. Rumor has it that a new course could be breaking ground in the next couple of years.

Cayman Islands: Other destination notes

  • The same relaxed pace of life and overall atmosphere that characterizes other island nations in this part of the world is alive and well in the Cayman Islands.

  • Grand Cayman is just 76 square miles, but it offers several different feels. There is quite a contrast between the industry and commerce of George Town, the more tourist-oriented Seven Mile Beach district and the far quieter eastern half of the island, especially the sleepy residential community of Rum Point, home to several local-haunt beach bars.

  • A large expat population from around the world means that the culinary standards in the Cayman Islands are among the highest in the Caribbean. There are well-reviewed Italian restaurants on the Island, and I had fabulous nouveau-Japanese at the Ritz-Carlton's Taikun restaurant, but the local cuisine is the star. Kirk Market, a local grocery store chain, has great local breakfast items like fried plantains and shredded salt cod, and the Sunday buffet at the George Town Yacht Club is excellent. I've never been toJamaica before, but if its jerk chicken is even better than what can be found in the Cayman Islands, I can't wait to try it.

  • Speaking of chickens, they are not native to Grand Cayman but they have been roaming freely about the island since 2004, when floodwaters caused by Hurricane Ivan liberated thousands from their coops.

  • Flying Cayman Airways is a pleasant introduction to the island, with the quirky and iconic Sir Turtle emblazoned on the tails of the brand-new 737s that comprise much of the fleet.

  • The Caymanian dollar (CID) is pegged at $1.25 USD; be sure ask if goods are priced in CID or USD. You can bring local currency with you but American dollars are widely accepted as well.

  • An overall Cayman Islands trip can be as activity-filled or beach-bound as you want it. Popular Stingray City, which sits just off Seven Mile Beach, offers visitors an opportunity to swim amongst the marine life. The Cayman Islands is one of the world's premier recreational diving destinations, with scuba and snorkeling galore.

  • Grand Cayman is in growth mode, with new Grand Hyatt, Mandarin Oriental and Curio by Hilton resort hotels coming online soon.

  • Renting a car in Grand Cayman? You'll be driving on the right.

  • Finally, a note on decorum: Caymanians appreciate their country being referred to as "the Cayman Islands" or "Cayman," not "The Caymans."
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Tim Gavrich is a Senior Writer for GolfPass. Follow him on Twitter @TimGavrich and on Instagram @TimGavrich.
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