Dave Finn, one of the most reliable travel writers in the field, typically doesn’t go in for the “Top X” listing technique, but he made an exception with his recent piece on golf in Panama. Central America has stabilized in the last decade, focusing much effort on welcoming visitors from around the world. Golfers benefit, and we hope that you enjoy this Top 9 list from Panama.
Looking for the next “hot” golf destination? Do you prefer cityscapes, ocean views or the tranquility of the rain forest? Panama may be small in size but is big on style. Situated at the lower end of the continental divide that separates North and South America, the country’s topography has been used to its advantage to create links style, parkland and mountain courses. It’s easy to get around in Panama and with 13 uniquely different golf courses, you’re bound to find more than one that will challenge you and appeal to your style of play.
Earlier this year, I joined a group of 10 golf travel writers and tour operators from across North America to visit and play eight of Panama’s championship 18-hole golf courses. Fortunately, I returned to Panama a few months later and played a gem that they sadly did not get to experience, but more on that later.
During our tour, I polled my esteemed colleagues and asked for their opinions. Here are some of their comments and our countdown.
Located 15 minutes from Panama City, Tucán is home to a large ex-pat community. Tucan got its start as a US Military recreational course and has undergone a number of changes in recent years. Nine holes offer panoramic views of the canal and the city while the others border the Panama Forest Reserve. This part of the country is relatively flat and while the course does have some elevation changes, the biggest source of challenge are the extraordinarily large, undulating greens. As my friend and fellow writer, Robert Fagan said: “Tucán was a diamond in the rough that with some significant renovation/refinements could be among the best, but not yet.” Still, this course is very accessible if you are staying in Panama City for a few days. Green fees range from US$37 to $70 per round including a cart equipped with GPS.
Surrounded by a new 700-acre upscale residential complex, Santa Maria is ideally located between the city and Tocumen International Airport, offering stunning views of downtown Panama’s skyline. If you have never visited Panama, teeing off with one of the most metropolitan cities in Latin America as your back drop will certainly add to your an unexpected element to your game. The topography here is also rather even, sporting wide fairways but with plenty of water and sizable bunkers to keep you on your toes. The Platinum Paspalum fairways and greens were in pristine condition. Very pretty but as Kuan Kuo, CEO of Elite Golf Travel, told me and I agree “Great condition since it’s new but it looks like any other South Florida golf course with a housing development. This Nicklaus Design opened in 2014 to property owners, members and their guests only.
The Radisson Summit Hotel sits within a mile of the famous Centenary Bridge and only a 5 minute drive to the Canal’s Miraflores and Pedro Miguel Locks, another gift, left behind by the Americans when the canal was completed. Built in the 1930’s, this course has been completely renovated featuring multiple tee boxes, generous landing areas and moderately contoured putting surfaces. Summit sits atop the rolling hills overlooking the famous Gaillard Cut of the Panama Canal and borders on the Camino de Cruces National Park rainforest. I heard that it was not uncommon to encounter monkeys who might be inclined to snatch your ball, but the day we played they were illusive. I found the course to be a little rough in spots with a few quirky holes due to the placement of the multiple tee blocks. Still, all in all, its layout is much more diverse than Tucan or Santa Maria. Summit is within striking distance of the downtown core and also features a full service practice facility, a six-hole par three course for kids and 103 rooms and suites on premise. Green fees range from US$80 to $97 including 7% sales tax.
Coronado is a 75-minute drive from Panama City and is one of the oldest courses in Panama. Designed by the legendary George Fazio with some help from his young apprentice, nephew Tom Fazio, this mature layout is as tough as nails. Most of the holes offer a narrow chute from the tee blocks with heavily tree-lined and subtle rolling fairways. In the summer months, January through to April, you can expect to be playing in strong breezes that add to its level of difficulty. The good news is that the open rough under the trees is well manicured and definitely playable.
I found the Bermuda grass fairways and greens to be quite firm and dry making the conditioning not as good as others we played in Panama. Robert S. Fagan stated in one of his articles “Coronado is straight forward, solid, and absent any fancy mounding or fancy bunkers, but an excellent test of golf worth playing if you’re in the area.”
Green fees are US$95 to $115. Hotel guest pays $65. There is also an adjacent nine-hole executive par three golf course where you can hone your short game and still have time to explore the beautiful black and white sand beach or the coastal town that is a popular retreat for ex-pats.
Vista Mar is only a few miles past Coronado near San Carlos and part of a new 740 acre development. There is no hotel on the property yet, but there are plenty of rental condos. This lyout may be one of best in Panama with spectacular views of the sea and mountains. You’ll find some positioning on the fairways that make for some very tough approach shots. The tee blocks and greens were in fine shape, but I could not get over the fact that the fairways were burnt out. I understand that the piping and irrigation pumps are will be replaced so conditioning should improve in 2017.
Kuan Kuo said “This is a golf club that I’d like to a member of. A great golf course and nice amenities. The course is challenging with a good variety of holes.” Regular green fees are USD$110 to $120 but have a Thursday twilight rate starting at $40.
J.W. Marriott took over this 122 room resort in Rio Hato four years ago and had completed some significant upgrades to an already magnificent property. Troon Golf is now managing the golf course and has kept the layout in superb condition. Even though the topography is relatively flat, this Nicklaus Design seems to embrace the natural landscape by adding well-placed bunkers and stunning water features on twelve of the holes. There are few trees to protect you from the elements so the prevailing winds will be a factor here.
This course is always green thanks to the heat resistant and salt water tolerant Paspalum Platinum grass. Still, there is plenty of dead pan bunkering throughout the course and lots of deep faced bunker that are strategically placed around the greens to make you think about your approach shots. You will find that this course is rarely busy because it is private and reserved for members and guests of the hotel, although they do allow eight rounds per day for other players that want to enjoy this magnificent golf course. Marc Atchison, Editor-in-Chief at TraveLife.ca printed “Nicklaus has peppered the course with lots of his signature bunkers and weaved it around the magnificent corotú trees and water that dot this championship masterpiece.” Green fees for hotel guests range from $US115 to $130. Non-guests rates are $200 to $300.
We had plenty of accolades for this course that has hosted The Web.com Tour’s Panama Claro Championship the last week of January for the past 13 years. “Mature and stately” would be the best way I can describe the Panama GC. Towering trees that line the fairways and the dramatic elevation changes add more than visual interest; they’ll also cause you to up your game. The entire course appears to have been carved out of the jungle with water evident on 12 holes, but thankfully I did found the fairways to be wider and more receptive than they look. This Bermuda grass course was in good shape but not pristine since they hadn’t had rain for over three months. Bob Sherwin from Golfswest.com said in his article “This was my favorite course in our tour probably because it reminds you so much of familiar country-club style course in the U.S. It’s challenging with quirkiness.
Club de Golf may again reign supreme once all the renovations are finished in preparation for the third annual Latin America Amateur Championship. Even though this is a private course, guests of members can play here for a $125 green fee.
Located near the town of Farallon, about a 90 minute drive from Panama City and only steps from the new Scarlett Martinez International Airport, Mantarraya is the crowning jewel of the all-inclusive Royal Decameron resort. Based on the layout and current conditions, seven of my ten associates ranked Mantarraya as their favourite course (not including Lucero). Even though the fairways are relatively wide with subtle rolls, I was pleasantly surprised at the level of difficulty served up by this resort course. There are 14 holes where water will come into play, and while the average size greens have slight undulations, they are extremely fast, so your pace of putting is critical if you want to emerge the winner.
Andrew Wood, Founder of Legendary Marketing, said: “Mantarraya Golf Club is many people’s favourite track with its’ beautiful undulating fairways, mature trees, and classic layout.” Stephane Tessier from Sportvac Voyages said that the “Royal Decameron Golf & Beach Resort is the least expensive golf destination you will find in all of the Caribbean right now.” Green fees for 18 holes range from US$67 to $95 including tax.
Okay, let’s hear the drum roll! Unfortunately, my fellow associates did not get to play this course on our initial trip, or I’m sure that they would share my opinion that this mountain course should be ranked #1 in Panama.
Playing atop a mountain is like playing on top of the world and Lucero, Panama’s highest golf course delivers. Sitting almost 3500 feet above sea level in the highlands near Boquete, this course owned by Canadian Sandeep Lal, is simply the most visually stunning in all of Panama. Architect Michael Poellet has taken every advantage of the natural landscape, and I was hard-pressed to pick a favourite, but if I had to choose, it would be either the 5th and not because I got an eagle the second day, or the 14th featuring an infinity green. Standing at the tee off blocks on the 5th, I had a 360° view that included Volcán Barú and the Pacific Ocean, more than 140 kilometers away and thought this has to be Lucero’s signature hole but after making my putt on the 14th, I was no longer sure. Even though that hole got the better of me, I couldn’t help but stop for a few minutes to savour the fact that I was playing at the edge of the world.
While the Lucero is not yet in pristine condition, the course holds more than a promise. Substantial improvements have been made to the bunkers, and the grounds keeping team is in the process of changing all the rye grass fairways to Zoysia. The bent grass greens are already in great shape, and when the renovations are completed in January 2017, including an improved drainage system, I have no doubt that Lucero will be recognized as the best golf course in Panama. Green fees are US$85 including taxes, and a cart is mandatory.
In addition to offering world-class golf, Panama is a very affordable, exotic destination and one of the safest countries in Latin America for tourists, travellers and retirees alike. It’s easy to get to Panama with daily direct flights from many major cities in the Canada, the US and Europe. Panamanians are among the friendliest people in the world, and many speak English fluently, so it’s also easy to get around once you’re there. After taking in the sights and sounds of the capital, in no time you can find yourself on the Caribbean or Pacific beach, atop a volcano watching the sun rise or hiking a trail in a national park before indulging in a fabulous meal or taking in the nightlife. As simple or as sophisticated as your tastes, Panama has it all.
Dave Finn is our Canadian Correspondent. To read more about his golf travel adventures visit www.golftravelandleisure.com