Central America is golf’s little known gem
by Ian Cruickshank
Golfers are the Indiana Jones’ of the sports world. However, instead of the bullwhip and brown fedora, they are decked out with ball caps and graphite shafted hybrids, roaming the globe in search of rare gems – those terrific, much sought after courses that are tucked away in exotic locales.
If you promise not to tell anybody, I’ll let you and a few fellow adventurers in on the game’s next great destination, the spot that today is mostly unknown but will eventually hit the headlines.
Central America is where it’s happening. Now I know what you’re thinking – the land of rainforests and rainbow coloured birds, banana trees and sugar white beaches, mountains and volcanoes has golf?
Start on Nicaragua’s Emerald Coast and the Mukul Resort, which opened in 2013 and is part of a new beach community that curls along a virgin 6.5 kilometre stretch of Pacific Ocean sand on Nicaragua’s west edge. The mountains and tropical coastal forest roll down to the very edge of the ocean and the squawks and chatter of the monkeys and the neon feathered birds ring out through the stillness. Now though, there is the occasional thwack of the golf ball.
The resort includes the Guacalito de la Isla Golf Club which was designed by Scottish golf architect David McLay Kidd, known for his awarding winning work at Bandon Dunes in Oregon and the Castle Course in St. Andrews, Scotland. The course, which recently hosted a Latinoamerica PGA tour event, begins and ends at Manzanillo Beach and in between rises and twists over the forest and the hills. The green at the eighth hole can only be reached by a suspension bridge built by local craftsman and is attached firmly to the mighty guanacaste and tamarindo trees. The 18th green, the exclamation point of a stunning par 3, seems to slide right into the beach, so that after the round, you could walk off the course and straight into the Pacific surf.
The major development is the brainchild of Don Carlos Pellas, one of the most influential men in Central America. The family’s 135 year old company has interests in financial services, sugar, healthcare, technology, transportation and Flor de Cana rum. The resort includes beach villas and cliffside bohios and when the Pellas family isn’t in residence, guest can book suites in their 20,000 sq. ft. beach home.
Nicaragua isn’t the only spot in Central America where golf is growing. In January 2011, the Black Pearl Golf Club opened on Roatan, a Caribbean island that juts up out of the ocean about 65 kilometres off the coast of Honduras. (Sunwing features flights to Roatan from Toronto.) The island is best known as the former hideout for 17th century pirates and more recently the scuba and snorkeling set who love to explore the stunning Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the second largest barrier reef on the planet. But golfers too are making their way to Roatan for the course designed by the father and son team of Pete and Perry Dye. The dad is infamous for his nasty island green at the TPC Sawgrass in Florida and he’s added a similar challenge at Black Pearl. The 11th is a 157 yard par 3 with a slippery green popped in the middle of a lake. The tough tee shot is leavened with a stunning view of the Caribbean.
Costa Rica also sports some good golf. The Four Seasons Resort in Costa Rica features an Arnold Palmer design which opened in January of 2004. Ranked in the top 100 courses you can play outside of the United States by Golf Digest, the course traces the high ground of the Peninsula Papagayo with views of the ocean on most of the course. The signature hole is the 6th, El Bajo, a 446 yard par 4 where the tee shot plummets 200 ft., down to a valley that leads to a green notched into a cliff above the water.
Another layout in Costa Rica worth investigating is La Iguana Golf Course at Los Suenos Marriott Ocean and Golf Resort. The Ted Robinson designed course is wedged between the Pacific Ocean and a 1100 acre stretch of lush rain forest and is studded with banana trees and orchids, monkeys and more than 150 species of birds and wildlife. It also boasts a very fine practice facility which is often rare in exotic, resort locations.
While Panama will always be famous for the Canal ( the 77 km. marvel is considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World and has recently been expanded to allow even larger ships to sail through from ocean to ocean) golf is also making an impression. The Buenaventura Golf Club at the JW Marriott Resort in Rio Hato is a Jack Nicklaus designed layout that boasts some serious big boy tees – the course can stretch to nearly 7,400 yards. But if you play further up, you can forget about the bombing the driver and just enjoy the views of the beach and the Pacific Ocean.
For a look at just about everything Panama has to offer, try the Summit Golf Club and Resort at the Radisson. The course curls across rolling hills the peak out above the Culebra Cut, the Panama Canal and the Camino de Cruces National Park. And the hotel, which is built on the high ground, features views of the city, the Canal and the forest.
To paraphrase the late, great Stompin’ Tom Connors, `Golf is everywhere man, golf is everywhere.’