GREAT EXUMA, BAHAMAS – So you’re gonna tee it up with a Hall of Fame golfer. How’s that gonna play out?
Actually, it was awesome.
My invitation to the kickoff event of the 2018 Web.com Tour, The Bahamas Great Exuma Classic at Sandals Emerald Bay, included 18 Pro-Am holes with Greg Norman, who designed the golf course.
“The Shark” was genuine, encouraged everyone by name, and welcoming to others for photos and autographs. It was so laid back that not one member of my team was intimidated or displayed the paralyzed swing of a star-gazed admirer. We scored a respectable 60, just one stroke out of the prizes.
Imagine a breezy, sunny, beautiful day along the turquoise Caribbean Sea. Then combine that with Sandals Emerald Bay Golf Course’s back-nine ocean holes that are as scenic as you can find in the world. Do they rival Pebble Beach? No doubt about it.
Watching the Shark’s golf shots all afternoon didn’t make me think here’s a guy past his prime — they made me recall his days of excellence, winner of 91 professional events around the world, including two British Open Championships and 20 on the PGA Tour.
“Golf technology has come a long way,” he mused. “I hit the ball 30 yards farther at 62 than I did at age 35.” And he’s probably the most physically fit at his age in professional golf.
Knowing that Norman’s business portfolio is massive we did ask him how much golf he plays these days. “Last year I played 10 times because I was entered in a father-son tournament. The year before that maybe five times.”
So what about Emerald Bay Golf Course?
Several words come to mind: scenic, difficult, challenging, and narrow. The front nine holes wind through a mix of seaside dunes, ponds, and no recovery mangroves while the back nine plays along the rocky peninsula of Emerald Bay.
So when I met Web.com tour player Nick Rousey he asked me a question: “Did you ask Mr. Norman why he made this course so tight?”
Normally, golf courses located on windy coastlines have wide, forgiving fairways.
“The narrow fairways are a result of the real estate opportunities,” Norman explained. “Actually, when I first arrived this development was a Four Seasons and the real estate component was laid out for houses on the water on the back nine (where the ocean holes are). We talked them out of that and it actually saved money. That way you only have one road, one pipeline, one electrical path.”
Amen for that decision.
And thank Sandals for breathing life into the project which actually sat deserted for three and a half years. “Once I got the lay of the land I knew this could be a real diamond in the rough,” Norman continued. “The front nine had lots of opportunities to use the ecosystem (jungle) and the back nine ocean holes are spectacular.”
“Strategically it is difficult because the narrow corridors — everything got squeezed down, but you should have seen it before. It was so tight, like single file, but if you pick the right tees you can utilize the maximum playable width. Originally the undergrowth would not allow you to miss a foot off the fairway, but today thinning out the undergrowth is ongoing maintenance.”
Norman said he liked Emerald Bay so much he bought two adjoining lots and believes that the Bahamian government will soon recognize its value. Exuma is much more isolated that other parts of this island nation, but the tiny one-gate George Town airport is just minutes away.
“It’s easy to get in and out of here and there’s golf, a great beach, and off-shore recreation,” Norman said.
Highlights of the golf course
No. 11 is a very playable par 3 of 148 yards and ditto to No. 13 another par 3 of 122 yards. Grab your camera — this hole is like its own peninsula and the view is awesome — surrounded by the pounding surf.
It’s the 12th, a 418-yard, par 4 that will possibly make you pucker and pump a hook into the ocean left, somewhat like the No. 18 drive at Pebble Beach. You can birdie No. 14. It’s a blind 303-yarder so take advantage.
Then beware of 15, a 572-yard, par 5, handicap No. 2. It will challenge every skill you have, especially on the second shot which has little room for bailout — blue waters left or deep brush right. My team struggled here, but Mr. Norman just pounded one over all the trouble to the green.
Even though the Web.com golfers are extremely talented this golf course yielded the highest scores of the entire 2017 season because of high winds (40 mph one day) that caused 46 rounds of 80 or higher one day. Just schedule your golf when the wind is not blowing – good luck with that.
Norman’s latest business deal
“For the past four years I’ve been working on something called the Shark Experience,” Norman explained to us at dinner. “Club Car is building 50,000 carts with Bluetooth-enabled screens that can stream music, sports, news – whatever applications the world can imagine – through speakers designed, by the shape of the cone and its angle of mounting, to keep the sound within the cart. To grow golf in these times you need to give people the choice of staying connected.”
Greg Norman Golf Course Design (GNGCD) is recognized as one of the best course design firms in the world, featuring more than 100 courses opened across 34 countries and six continents, with many having won esteemed design awards.
Sandals is simply superb
Even if the golf course humbles you, Sandals Emerald Bay will pamper you. It boasts 249 rooms and suites among 500 tropical acres with a mile-long white sand beach. Voted the Caribbean’s Best Golf Hotel, it also features a world-class 150-slip marina, tennis, two freshwater pools, 11 dining options, unlimited land and water sports, and a 29,000 sq. ft. Red Lane® Spa.
Dining here is top shelf from Bombay Club to Kimonos to Il Cielo to La Parisienne. Stick your bare feet in the sand at Barefoot by the Sea, have pub fare at Drunken Duck and my favorite for breakfast was the Bahama Bay buffet. The Jerk Shack serves tasty Caribbean chicken and sweet potatoes.
The resort is all-inclusive meaning you don’t ever need to pull out a credit card or cash. There’s premium alcohol selections, room service, optional butler service and bunches of beach fun.
Those olden day beach activities go a little wacky when one mentions swimming with the pigs. Uh, say what? The swimming pigs of Exuma have evolved from a little-known secret to one of the world’s most sought-after experiences. In an archipelago of 365 islands known for their blue waters, these snorting animals swim freely on their own island. And when you stay at Sandals Emerald Bay, you can meet these barnyard creatures in a unique Swimming Pigs Adventure.
Story by David R. Holland