Bermuda's 400th-birthday bash has so far included a parade of tall ships, an international sport-fishing competition and a commemoration of the island's abolishment of slavery in 1834.
But many think the PGA Grand Slam of Golf this Tuesday and Wednesday at the lavishly renovated Port Royal Golf Course might prove to be the most important - and potentially lucrative - headline event of a year-long celebration that has been at least slightly dampened by a plunge in tourism revenue due to the global economic meltdown.
Visitor spending dropped 45.5 per cent in the first quarter of 2009, a direct result of fewer air arrivals and scaled-back spending. This is cause for alarm on an island of just 68,000 residents.
Televised in 100 countries, the PGA Grand Slam of Golf, a two-day shootout featuring Y.E. Yang, Stewart Cink, Lucas Glover and Angel Cabrera - the winners of the year's four major championships - will showcase the self-governing British colony's charms to the world's estimated 50 million serious golfers, one of tourism's most lucrative markets.
"Golf is an increasingly important part of the Bermuda visitor experience," says Premier Ewart Brown, who is also Minister of Tourism. To compete in the highly competitive world of golf tourism - and to offset losses in other sectors of the tourism market - Brown says Bermuda must continually upgrade the island's nine courses and aggressively pursue high-profile events such as the PGA Grand Slam of Golf.
Founded in 1609 by survivors of a British shipwreck, Bermuda has long enjoyed a reputation as one of the most beautiful and civilized places on Earth. Sailboats and luxury yachts dot the harbour at Hamilton, the bustling capital, where colonial-style houses topped by stepped roofs to collect rainwater are painted in a palette of pastel colours. Oleander, frangipani, bougainvillea and hibiscus scent the warm breezes of the Gulf Stream.
For an island just 53 square kilometres in size, Bermuda is remarkably rich in world-class golf courses. The game has been a major draw since 1922, when Riddell's Bay Golf and Country Club, a short and narrow Devereux Emmett design, opened on a narrow peninsula thrusting into the Great Sound.
A few kilometres north of Riddell's Bay is Mid Ocean Club, a superb 6,547-yard course that has symbolized Bermuda golf since opening in 1921. Designed by Charles Blair MacDonald and remodelled by Robert Trent Jones Sr. in 1953, Mid Ocean, which hosted the PGA Grand Slam of Golf the past two years, is where Bermuda's elite take their divots. Billionaire Ross Perot, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and actor Michael Douglas are all members.
Two other popular and challenging layouts are Tucker's Point Club, a hilly and stunningly beautiful private course that is the centrepiece of a posh resort community; and Belmont Hills Golf Club, a redesigned 6,017-yard layout offering panoramic vistas of the Great Sound and Hamilton Harbour.
And now, after a $15-million remodelling, Port Royal, which will host the PGA Grand Slam of Golf next year as well, is ready to challenge for bragging rights as Bermuda's top course.
Built by Trent Jones Sr. along oceanside cliffs on the island's dramatic south shore, the government-owned course has been brilliantly remodelled by Roger Rulewich, who worked with the legendary Jones during the original construction in the late 1960s. Even many of Port Royal's inland holes feature elevated greens and tees to better showcase views of the turquoise sea. Rulewich oversaw the lengthening of the course to 6,842 yards, the rerouting of two holes and the construction of new bunkers.
Port Royal also boasts one of the world's most photographed holes, the unforgettable 16th, a gorgeous wind-blown par-3 clinging to the side of a cliff above Whale Bay. Rulewich has cruelly stretched the signature hole to a length of 235 yards from the back tee.
Given the government's heavy investment, Bermudians are counting on a rejuvenated Port Royal to draw golf tourists and help spark a struggling economy. Long a hub of international business thanks to low corporate tax rates, Bermuda is bracing for an expected crackdown in 2010 by the United States on overseas corporate tax shelters.
But it's not all bad news. Starwood Hotels recently announced plans to build a new St. Regis hotel in Hamilton, the first major luxury hotel to open in the capital in more than 50 years. And this week the focus of golfers around the world will be on Port Royal and the PGA Grand Slam of Golf.
There's also a rumour circulating that the old government-owned St. George's Golf Course, which sits at the island's northern tip, is to be replaced by a Park Hyatt hotel and a Nick Faldo-designed championship course. For Bermuda, that could be the best 400th-birthday gift of all.
Special to The Globe and Mail
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If you go
Mid Ocean, Riddell's Bay and Tucker's Point are all private clubs. However, concierges at most hotels can reserve advance tee times for guests.
PORT ROYAL GOLF COURSE 441-234-0974; www.portroyalgolf.bm. Green fee: $138.
RIDDELL'S BAY GOLF AND COUNTRY CLUB 441-238-3225; www.riddellsbay.com. Green fee: $114.
MID OCEAN CLUB 441-293-0330; www.themidoceanclubbermuda.com. Green fee: $259.
TUCKER'S POINT CLUB 1-866-604-3764; www.tuckerspoint.com. Green fee: $259.
BELMONT HILLS GOLF CLUB 441-236-6060; www.belmonthills.com. Green fee: $114.
MORE INFORMATION www.bermudatourism.com