By: John Gordon

Why would you go to Central America just to golf?

You wouldn’t.

But, says Mike Young, you should definitely golf when you visit this tropical paradise.

Young is an Atlanta-based golf course architect who has done a number of projects in Central America, the first of which was Hacienda Pinilla on Costa Rica’s northwest coast. “Golf is just one of the many amenities you can experience when you come here. But don’t expect the typical North American or Caribbean resort experience. This is an unforgettable life experience.”

When I first visited Costa Rica’s Guanacaste Peninsula with Young several years ago, I looked out at the waves rolling in from the Pacific and thought: “This must be what Waikiki looked like 50 years ago.” Unspoiled, breathtakingly beautiful, searingly scenic. It is a surfer’s paradise, with rollers up to 18 feet high. It is also a fantastic backdrop for a golf course like Hacienda Pinilla.


Hacienda Pinilla Resort

With five kilometres of gorgeous beachfront, the luxurious, full-service 4,500-acre resort features not only Young’s outstanding 7,200-yard course and numerous guest accommodation options, but also an exclusive residential development. Home to a vast wildlife preserve, the sprawling property invites guests to explore by hiking, biking, zip-lining or on horseback. Parrots, monkeys, iguanas, and turtles are everywhere. Every water sport is available, of course. The fishing is excellent, too.

In routing the course, typified by risk-reward opportunities, Young utilized the natural contours of the land, which mimic the ocean’s movement with rolling fairways and remarkable green sites. Most strikingly, the 14th and 15th greens are perched beside the ocean. Tif Eagle bermudagrass greens, lush fairways and steep-faced bunkers are surrounded by trees and waste areas. Another 18 holes and more hotels are being contemplated for the site, which Young calls “the most desirable property in Latin America.”


La Iguana at Los Suenos Resort

Not far from Hacienda Pinilla is the Reserva Conchal Beach Resort, Golf & Spa. Designed by Robert Trent Jones II, the 6,900-yard, par-71 course is tough, but fair. The emphasis is on accuracy: Erratic shots will be long gone, to become curiosities for the multitude of iguanas that inhabit the adjacent jungle. The five-star Westin Hotel is accessorized by numerous pools, a private beach club and a full-service spa.

Some other Costa Rican options include:

La Iguana at Los Suenos Marriott Ocean & Golf Resort: This Ted Robinson design is located in Playa Herradura, about 100 kilometres from Juan Santamaria International Airport, Costa Rica’s major airport. The 6,700-yard, par-71 course is routed through the jungle in such a way that the golfer gets a true taste of the tropical flora and fauna. There is a top-notch range and putting green as well. Speaking of “top notch,” the luxurious award-winning Marriott resort is the centerpiece of the 1,100-acre property overlooking the Pacific and surrounded by rain forest.

Parque Valle del Sol: The Tracy May-designed Valle Del Sol course is located in an exclusive residential community that also includes a tennis academy. The golf academy is the largest in Costa Rica. Various stay-and-play packages include five-star accommodations at the Hotel Real Intercontinental, Costa Rica Marriott, Hotel Alta and the Double Tree Cariari.


18th green at Guacalito Golf Course at Mukul Beach, Golf & Spa

Cariari Country Club: Just outside the national capital of San Jose, Cariari Country Club was designed by George Fazio and built by his more famous nephew, Tom Fazio. (The same duo was responsible for The National Golf Club of Canada in Woodbridge, Ont.) Opened in 1973, the par-71 layout is not long at 6,600 yards, but narrow fairways and large greens put your scoring skills to the test.

Four Seasons Resort Costa Rica at Peninsula Papagayo: This Arnold Palmer design has been ranked among the “Top 100 Courses Outside the United States” by Golf Digest. Like many Palmer courses, it was tailored to the resort golfer’s game and is blessed with ocean views on 14 of the 18 holes. The resort was among the top 25 luxury hotels on Central America for 2013, as selected by the Travelers’ Choice Awards.

While “golf boom” is a huge overstatement when it comes to Central America, the appetite for the game exhibited by North American visitors as part of their overall vacation experience is not going unnoticed. Aside from plans for more courses in Costa Rica, Nicaragua, its neighbour to the north, is starting to wake up to this reality.

While we wait for Young’s dramatic Montecristo layout to open (anticipated next June) in an upscale oceanfront community near Managua, Scottish architect David McLay Kidd (Bandon Dunes, Castle Course at St. Andrews, Fancourt) has just unveiled his Guacalito Golf Course at the new $250-million Mukul Beach, Golf & Spa.


14th green at Hacienda Pinilla

The few existing courses in Nicaragua will also be bolstered by a Jack Nicklaus Signature courses scheduled to open late in 2014. Like Costa Rica, Nicaragua is counting on its incomparable natural beauty, friendly people, and comparatively stable political climate to attract tourists. Says Kidd: “This country is astonishing and people are going to figure it out.”

One caveat … While all of these courses are well worth playing should you visit Central America, conditions may not be up to North American standards. That is not to say they are poor, but generally more “very good” than “excellent.” Rental clubs are usually available although they may not be the latest model. Rates vary greatly from high to low seasons, but I recommend you do not go during the rainy season, usually from May through November.

But go … and golf! As Mike Young says, it will be “an unforgettable life experience.”

Costa Rica Tourism:

Nicaragua Tourism: