Brothers Jim and Robert Armour commissioned the uncle and nephew team of George and Tom Fazio to lay out the Mahogany Run golf course and it opened for play in 1980 with tight, winding fairways shoehorned into a compact site on the north side of St Thomas island, near Magen’s Bay.
When it debuted, one of the leading golf magazines described it as “more of an engineering marvel than an architectural one as the course had to be carved and blasted into an area of land just less than 110 acres” and the steep hills and tumbling valleys were certainly difficult to tame.
Accuracy is the watchword here. The layout measures a fraction over 6,000 yards so it’s relatively short but when you take into consideration the dense rainforest adjacent to all fairways and the fact that the total putting surface area of all the greens is a mere 77,000 square feet then you can understand why such a premium is placed on precision play.
The course revolves around a tantalizing “Devil’s Triangle” of holes where the club will present any golfer with a suitably inscribed certificate on completion of their round if they manage to negotiate their way around holes 13, 14 and 15 without marking a bogey on the scorecard.
The first of these holes, a drive and pitch par four, plays to a narrow fairway that doglegs left down to a tiny green perched high above a craggy cove. A wonderful par three follows along the cliff top and its long, narrow putting surface just about clings to the coastline above the Atlantic Ocean. The 564-yard 15th completes the trio, heading back inland, and the pond in front of the green catches many a golfer who tries to go for glory with their second shot.Florida-based resort developer The Ginn Company took control of the business in 2004 and the property, both on and off the course, has undergone a multi-million dollar upgrade since then.
This track has become a personal favorite after having played it numerous times over the course of several years while working onboard various cruise ships. The famed Devils Triangle holes 13 through 15 attracts most of the attention however the rest of the holes have great variety providing interest the whole way around. With the course being shoehorned into a small area the fairways can be quite tight in places with jungle nearby however easily the most challenging aspect of the course is the greens which break considerably it is not uncommon to have 5 feet of break on a 10 foot putt the greens are super-fast down grain and ultra-slow against the grain it takes a few rounds to get used to them but once you do it’s great fun and puts an emphases on the placement of your approach shots. Many of the greens are up against large embankments where it is possible to get some extremely fortunate bounces an approach shot 20 yards offline can often roll down the embankment and end up near the pin in some cases these embankments can be used tactically particularly on 13 and 14. There are some long green to tee distances which along with the terrain makes the course un-walkable so it is cart only which is my preference in the Caribbean anyway due to the heat. Some of the holes I enjoy most are described below.
Hole 1 Par 4 414 yards
A sharp dogleg right from an elevated tee you have a view of the entire hole and several of the other holes on the front nine a 180 yard shot down the hill will leave you in the center of the dogleg with 140 odd yards remaining to a green that slopes off dramatically to the right. From the tee players can be tempted to reach for the big dog and have a go at the green over the inside of the dogleg however the trees and rough on the inside of the dogleg combined with the creek that runs across the fairway 40 yards short of the green means this tactic usually ends with a large number on the scorecard.
Hole 3 Par 5 519 yards
One of my favorite par 5’s and in my opinion the best hole on the course the fairway is slightly offset to the very elevated tee box taking a direct line to the green and making the hole reachable in 2 is possible however it requires a long carry over trees and a scrub area the prudent play is to aim just right of the first fairway bunker down the left hand side. The hole has more bunkers down the left hand side of the fairway before a large greenside bunker on the left front the right side is open all the way and it is possible to use the contour of the fairway to run a long shot up the right feeding onto the green.
Hole 13 Par 4 327 yards
The first leg of the Devils Triangle requires a 200 yard shot from the tee which leaves you with a 100 yard downhill approach shots to a spectacularly located green with a small bay behind with waves crashing in below. Off the tee anything sliced will roll down the embankment back into the center of the fairway while anything pulled will be lost forever. The approach shot is difficult to judge due to the elevation change and the sheer beauty of what lies beyond I have several times seen pelicans dive bombing for fish in the waters behind the 13th. All groups will have their camera phones out at this hole and will need them again for next hole.
Hole 14 Par 3 159 yards
Leaving the 13th you take the path uphill and find one the most picturesque settings in golf the tee box sits on one cliff edge while the green sits on another 150 yards away both are hundreds of feet above the water with expansive views of the ocean and the other Virgin Islands. While the scenery is second to none the golfing qualities of this hole don’t live up to them the large embankment behind the green means most tee shots that go long will harmlessly roll back down onto the green which happens to be the flattest least interesting green on the course.
Hole 15 Par 564 yards
The 3rd leg of the devils triangle lacks the scenery of the 13th and 14th it is a reachable par five with a blind tee shot where the fairway starts to run downhill at about the 200 yard mark the second shot asks questions of the golfer due to a lake that covers the last 80 yards before the green the green itself is very accepting of long approach shots making it even more tempting.
Overall as previously stated this course is a cruise ship favorite that offers great variety aside from the holes above there is some very good side hill architecture on the 5th and 6th holes along with a few more elevated tee shots which I always enjoy. Despite the photo taking around the Devils Triangle it is usually possible to get around in a little over 3 hours. One word of advice to anyone about to play this course is to practice your putting on the green in front of the food stall it is a far more like the greens you will find on the course than the flat putting area next to the driving range.
This course was the main reason to visit the otherwise unremarkable island of St. Thomas while I lived on one of the nearby islands (which did not have a golf course) for a few years in the 2000s. As with most courses on sparsely populated islands, the course gets the majority of its footfall from tourists, although in this case this should be qualified as cruise ship tourists, who arrive in large groups and can block-up tee times in large blocks.
That said, the customer service on the course is exceptional, and they are very accommodating in sending you off other tees if it looks like you'll have a slow round. What the customer service cannot help is the wear which the course takes from such a large volume of non-members, which can mean that the quality of the greens, tees and fairways will vary throughout the year, being worse during peak tourist season from Thanksgiving to Easter.
As for the layout, there are some dramatic elevation changes (buggies compulsory) which can make reading your GPS very satisfying, or a real struggle, depending on which way you're headed. It's not unheard of to send a tee shot on the long par 5 3rd, for example, out past 300 yards leaving an iron into an elevated green with good bunkering. The downhill 9th feels like the highest point on the golf course and often has the wind behind, so even at over 400 yards in firm conditions you won't have much left to the green.
The 2nd is a tough driving hole up a steep slope and then a challenging club selection steep uphill into a large quick green, with OB all down the left. Otherwise, however, the front 9 is fairly unexceptional, with a few short par 4s which if played strategically (if the very-attentive beer cart has reached you, this is not always straightforward...) would offer birdie opportunities.
The real treats lie on the back 9, with the devil's triangle. The first hole of the 3 (13th) is the ugly sister of the 3, as really it's not much more than a mid iron and a wedge, but has a spectacular backdrop with the waves crashing behind the green. Drive your buggy up to the 14th tee, however, and you'll realise why this hole is probably the most visually exceptional hole I have seen in the Caribbean. 155 yard carry over the cliffs with a bay far below your feet, and the wind making club selection a real challenge. Good luck. The 15th is a tough driving hole, with the fairway sloping down to the right to the semi rough, and missing the fairway makes hitting the green in 2 impossible, and a lay up compulsory.
I must have played the course 12 times and am yet to hit the fairway (blame a 'power fade'). Finally, the 18th is a very good finishing hole. Uphill and often into the prevailing wind, even longer hitters will struggle to get near the green in 2 on most days in the tradewinds of the USVI. The landing area doglegs left, with waste areas right and left. Smart play would be to leave yourself a wedge into a slightly uphill green.Then get yourself into the clubhouse for an outstanding burger and a number of cold beers and a bottle or two of red wine before making your way on.
A fantastic day out.