ROSE HALL, Jamaica - It's been 30-plus years since Donnie Dawson saw the man he'll never forget.
The details remain vivid. The straw hat. The ragged pants and beat-up shoes. The odd-looking features. That smile. It's the day he saw a ghost at Cinnamon Hill Golf Club.
"It still seems surreal," he recalls.
Telling magical tales about Jamaica is part of Dawson's job as the Deputy Director of Tourism - The Americas, for the Jamaica Tourist Board. But he's adamant his incredible ghost story is real. He swears that Cinnamon Hill is a "haunted golf course". It sits in the shadow of the Rose Hall Great House, reputed to be haunted by the spirit of Annie Palmer, the "White Witch" who murdered slaves, lovers and husbands before being killed herself. Palmer's grave resides near the house. Other grave stones dot Cinnamon Hill's routing. They are especially prominent near the fourth and 14th tees.
"When you play Cinnamon Hill, there is a different type of energy," he says. "You have that haunting feeling when you go around the golf course, especially when you get on the back nine in the hills. I won't play the back nine by myself in the evening. It feels like you are being watched."
A ghostly encounter
His fateful day sometime in the 1990s began normal enough ... an afternoon round with his favorite caddie, a man he called "Teeth". "His entire front teeth were in different colors, gold and emerald," Dawson recalls. "When he smiled, he lit up like a Christmas tree. He was funny and laughed a lot. I liked him."
For golfers who are not paying attention, they can almost miss the small cemetery near the tee box on the fourth hole, a 177-yard, par-3 over water. The centuries-old burial plot is actually tied to the family of English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning and is still used today. It's tucked behind a stone wall covered in overgrown brush. That stone wall is where Dawson saw a man he'd never seen before at the course.
"We are going up to the tee box," Dawson recalls. "The cemetery is on the right. There is this guy sitting on the wall. I got up to the tee box and was about to tee up my ball when he said, 'Don’t tee your ball up. Let me give you a ball.' He had a good ball, so I hit it. It was a beautiful swing, straight at the pin.
"The next thing we knew the ball disappeared into the hole. I was excited. It was my first hole in one. We went straight to the green, and when we got there, there was no ball in the hole. I looked at him (Teeth). He looked at me. There was no ball! We looked back to the wall. He was gone, disappeared. 'Holy Mackerel'! Was that guy for real? The hair on the back of my neck stood up."
That's when "Teeth" took off running. Jamaicans are a superstitious people. He wasn't sticking around to see what happened next. After looking for the mysterious man back at the tee, Dawson eventually went to the clubhouse.
"The pro came out and I relayed the story," he recalls. "He phoned my caddie. He was down the street. He was shaken. He didn’t want to come back to the course. They had to force him. He was in tears about the experience."
Dawson has played the course hundreds of times since and regularly shares the tale with his playing partners: "People always say, 'There has to be something logical that happened. Maybe you didn't see the ball land in the water? How could you hit a ghost ball?' The entire area was once a sugar plantation. You can see the old aqueducts. A lot of slaves died on the plantation. A lot of owners died on the plantation. Everybody says that whole course is haunted."
Now here's the part that really gets my head spinning. I was jacked up after Dawson told me the tale last November when our group arrived at the fourth tee while playing in the Jamaica Invitational Pro-Am "Annie's Revenge". I've always loved horror movies and books about haunted houses. After walking around the cemetery to take a few photos, I took my turn on the tee and juiced a 7 iron. My ball landed next to the pin and just missed the hole. Everybody in the foursome thought it would go in.
"I will never forget your tee shot on four—especially following that story from Donnie!" reads a message on my Instagram from Johnny Newbern, a golf writer from golfwrx.com who witnessed my near ace.
It was, without a doubt, my best shot of the week. Dawson believes something interfered in that moment. A story of a ghostly ace followed by a real one? That would have been some seriously spooky shenanigans. It seemed to be more proof his story is real.
"Maybe the guy was sitting on the wall, and we didn’t see him. You just saw the energy" in action, Dawson says.