What to make of a deserted island golf course that evokes a mix of James Bond, 'The Shining,' Bill Gates and Tiger Woods, in a land where they don't even know who Tiger is?
There are only 27 golf holes in Belize, a surprising dearth for a former British colony. Of the scruffy public nine on the mainland, there isn't much to note other than cold beer and tropical weather. Then there's Caye Chapel Golf Club, which is where a villain would host James Bond for a high-stakes closeout if the plot were taking that turn in Central America.
Flying in on a four-seat propeller plane, you see the course isn't located on an island so much as it is the island. The layout tidily leaves space for the compound buildings, a lagoon and the runway, which hugs the ocean before finishing behind the 15th green. The decorative palm trees dotting the runway create a unique turbulence that our pilot said makes it the most difficult landing in the area. Waiting for us, a man in camouflage pants whose vest says "Security." Wearing a pink shirt, my cleanest shorts and a smile, I and my slightly better-dressed wife can't look like much of a threat. Despite our arrangements, he speaks to us as a guard, not a greeter. He's brought two gas golf carts and waits until we're following him to get on his radio.
The guest villas resemble any wealthy residential neighborhood in Florida, except they're all empty. We pass a rusty basketball hoop, two tennis courts with no nets, and a vacant dock. (The pool, however, is in inviting shape.) Then we see the clubhouse, its complicated tile roof grandly commanding the crushed-shell plaza. We skid to a stop and the guard tells us to go in.
Forget Ian Fleming; this is "The Shining" if it'd been set in the tropics. Inside is a magnificent staircase, dust swirling in a shaft of sunlight above it. The walls hold the sorts of golf tchotchkes found at any public course in America. Imports.
A voice calls to us. Evan Young, the lone caretaker, appears from behind a door.
He kindly fumbles to offer us each a plastic bag of cheap golf balls and our pick from a ring of tattered, sweat-stained gloves. Seemingly out of reflex, he has us sign a waiver concerning alligators and then digs up a scorecard but no pencil. In a story also told by the rental clubs, Caye Chapel hasn't been "officially" open for business in years. But the right phone number and cash can make things happen in Belize. The rate to play it in its interim condition is just $75. It's a solid design with unparalleled beauty.
Larry Addington, a Kentuckian and a titan of the coal industry, designed and built the course in 1999 as a retreat for family and friends. When he wasn't there, he permitted hotels to arrange outside play for a green fee around $200. In addition to golf, Addington loved making dramatic, swooping arrivals in his speedboat. But he walked away from his private paradise without a fight after shocks from the financial collapse and a less-coal-friendly energy policy. After Addington's bankruptcy in 2012, the asking price for the whole island (which includes a dandy reverse-osmosis water-treatment plant) is $45 million, though Belize Bank would probably take $35 millio—in case you know anyone.
Workers come and go to maintain the course at a reasonable level, but Young is the only permanent resident.
A drywall contractor and originally from Harlem, Young did some of the initial work for Addington but is now being paid to stay on by the bank, which is also paying to run the air conditioning so the buildings won't decompose.
Bill and Melinda Gates recently came ashore via the helicopter from their yacht and played nine but didn't buy. George W. Bush has stopped by. I ask Young about rumors of a Tiger Woods visit, but get nothing. The bank representative who arranged our game told me otherwise, that Tiger had played when his yacht, Privacy, was docked in nearby Cayo Espanto.
Just 60 miles west, in the mainland rainforest, I'd met Belizeans who have never heard of a person named Tiger Woods. On the streets of San Pedro, a more bustling tourist town and scuba-diving mecca, golf carts are a ubiquitous mode of transportation. But you'll find local drivers who are unaware of the connection their machines have to a sport.