The Tryall Club
Of courses built between 1950 and 1970, only Pete Dye’s The Golf Club , Red Lawrence’s Desert Forest, and Ellis Maples’s Grandfather Mountain are profiled on this web site. In a broad generalization, courses built during this dark age in golf architecture were long in length and short in both character and charm. The bunkering was unimaginative, repeatedly forcing the same kind of aerial approach shots. Monotonously long holes resulted in the birth of the dreaded ‘7,000 yard championship course’ phrase.
As with any generalization, there are exceptions with one of the most important being Ralph Plummer’s design of Tryall Golf Club. Opened in 1958, the course measured 6,324 yards. Still golfers of the highest calibre have failed for more five decades to tear it apart, thanks to its sloping greens and the ever present trade winds. Recognized early on as the Caribbean’s first course of genuine character, Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf staged a match here in 1962 between Dow Finsterwald and Peter Alliss. Finsterwald won with a score of 72 to Alliss’s 75.
Twenty years later, a desire by the Club to host important events manifested itself and the Mazda Champions LPGA – Senior PGA were held at Tryall from 1985-87. This event was supplanted from 1988-1990 by the LPGA Jamaican Classic, which in turn set the stage for the Johnnie Walker World Championships from 1991 through 1995.
Just prior to the 1991 Johnnie Walker World Championship, a sports columnist not so shrewdly predicted that one of the professionals would break 60 as this par 71 course still measured less than 6,800 yards. That year’s winner was Fred Couples and not only did no one break 60 but Couples was the sole person in the field to break par for the four day event!
The subsequent winners of the Johnnie Walker (Faldo, Mize, Els, and Couples again) were all major championship winners, suggesting emphatically a quality venue. What then are Tryall’s attributes that promote the best to flourish?
Certainly, the island setting adds much toTryall’s allure and inspires one to play his best. However, that speaks little to the enduring merits of repeated games here. The trade winds which average 20 miles per hour pose the same challenge as the winds in the United Kingdom: can the golfer control the trajectory of his shots? A golfer with the talent to do so shines here. Those who followed Nick Faldo during his 1992 win of the Johnnie Walker marvel to this day at his complete ball flight control with every club in the bag.
The first six holes at Tryall are routed near the coastline, and apart from the romance of such a location, Mother Nature didn’t imbue this flat portion of the property with many natural features. Thus, Ralph Plummer did what every good architect should: he created character and did it in a manner that is peaceful to the eye. The land in no way appears tortured and the holes rest naturally on the property. In their cornerstone book The Golf Course by Ron Whitten and Geoffrey Cornish, Whitten notes that ‘Plummer was known for the attractiveness of his layouts and for his remarkable ability to estimate cuts and fills and shape greens and bunkers by eye.’
The only man-made water hazards on the course are the three ponds encountered early on, namely at the one shot second and in the landing areas for the second shots on the par five third and sixth. (Forty-three years later, the Club acquired the property to build a true coastal hole – today’s fourth – which is also a water hole, albeit a natural one). Plummer used the fill from the ponds to raise the tee and green pads several feet, thus providing the necessary drainage for these flat first six holes. Without any extraneous land movement from tee to green, Plummer’s low profile design at Tryall presents a timeless appeal.
This complete absence of clutter is most appreciated, especially relative to other courses built after World War II. Plummer didn’t build three bunkers where one would suffice. Plummer didn’t follow Robert Trent Jones horrific example at Oakland Hills six years prior in 1952 by pinching in fairways with bunkers on either side. Instead of reducing width and ruining playing angles by overbunkering holes, nine of the fourteen non-par three holes at Tryall originally were free of bunkers off the tee (e.g. the third, eighth, ninth, eleventh, thirteenth, fourteenth, fifteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth).
Plummer also eschewed containment mounds and the framing of green sites. The challenge at Tryall intensifies as one gets closer to its greens – a tenet of classic architecture that allows the greatest range of golfers to enjoy a course. So fierce were Plummer’s orginial green slopes that the greens on holes 7, 8, 11, 12, 13 and 16 were softened when the Club switched from the old bermuda grass greens to today’s swift tifton dwarf greens.
Starting at the seventh, Mother Nature’s natural attributes are more profuse and Plummer took full advantage as he perfectly draped the holes onto the rolling foothills of the property. As with his other best west works like Preston Trail Golf Club, Great Southwest Golf Club, and the Cypress Creek Course at Champions Golf Club, Plummer’s routing makes intuitive sense to the golfer as one good hole follows another with the green to tee walks always short.
The golfer’s judgement is continually taxed at Tryall by the variety of approach shots required: the uphill approach at the ninth, the sharply downhill one shot tenth where one doesn’t want to be long, the uphill approach at the eleventh, the downhill one shot twelfth where one wants to be long, the uphill approach at the thirteenth, the downhill approach to the fourteenth. The continually shifting demands keep the golfer off-balance, a great architectural achievement as it means the golfer never tires of playing there.
In addition to the rolling topography, a creek bed falls from the hill top and Plummer used it masterfully: the eighth green lies just across it, the bed parallels the ninth fairway on the left, the tenth green is placed on its far side, and a great risk-reward diagonal carry is created off the eleventh tee.
When the flatter but more exposed first six holes are combined with the rolling nature of the subsequent twelve, the result is an irresistible full spectrum of challenges as we see below.
Holes to Note
Third hole, 520 yards; A dogleg left full of neat playing angles, the tiger golfer hoping to get close to the green in two needs to be mindful of three palm trees approximately 100 yards shy of the putting surface. For most the green is always out of reach as the hole plays into the prevailing tradewinds. Like the sixth, Plummer incorporated a large pond 90-120 yards shy of the green into the hole’s strategy, making the second shot much more than a simple layup.
Fourth hole, 175 yards; This hole is not original to Plummer’s 1958 design as the Club at that time did not own the property where today’s fourth green and fifth tee now reside. The fourth was added in 1992 by IMG for that year’s Johnnie Walker Championship. Only eight holes later at the twelfth tee, the golfer is 180 feet higher and can’t help but reflect upon the great variety found within the holes at Tryall. Though Plummer’s fourth hole (which essentially played from near today’s fourth tee to today’s fifth green) was a clever hole in its own right, the course is better today for embracing the shoreline.
Seventh hole, 435 yards; Texas based Ralph Plummer was no stranger to wind and fast and firm playing conditions. On several green sites (here, the twelfth and fourteenth holes), the high ground beside the green can easily be used to bounce the ball onto the putting surface. Though made somewhat obsolete by how far the ball now travels, the ‘kick plate’ can still be used by the average club member to his advantage. Seeing a ball bound sharply to the right and feed toward the hole is one of the most satisfying moments on the course.