PANAMA CITY - When a country is shaped like the 13th hole at Augusta National, and its most famous landmark is a “water hole,” chances are it has some pretty good golf courses.
Panama actually has a dozen courses and they rival anything in North America — they range from good, to very good, to WOW!
Which shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering Panama, where the Pacific and Atlantic oceans are connected by the Panama Canal, has had a long love affair with the sport. In fact, the game was first introduced to Panamanians 40 years ago by the U.S. military when they were sent to guard the canal while it was under American control. In recent years, thanks to the influx of retirees and tourists from the U.S. and Canada — Panama offers them generous tax breaks to resettle here — demand for golf has surged and clubs seem to be springing up everywhere.
And where else in the world can you play golf on the Pacific coast in the morning and the Atlantic in the afternoon without boarding a plane?
The rapid growth of golf also reflects Panama’s status as one of the fastest growing economies in the world — GDP here last year reached 6.5 per cent, rivaling China’s economic output — and it remains one of the safest countries in Latin America for foreigners to visit.
The fact that over 100 international banks are headquartered in Panama City means executives are always looking for quality courses on which to impress their clients, so no expense has been spared to bring in top course architects — among them Jack Nicklaus and Tom Fazio — to design new courses or revamp older layouts.
Left: Panama has a long history with golf and many courses are close to Panama City. Middle: Conditions on Panama courses is top notch despite the harsh conditions. Right: Caddies in Panama are experts and very pleasant people.
With Panama about to open its new expanded portion of the canal, which, starting in 2016, will be able to accommodate mega ships carrying over 15,000 containers — the present canal is limited to ships with 6,500 containers — the economy of this diverse country is expected to get even stronger, which will undoubtedly attract more investors, most of whom would love to play golf between deals.
My introduction to Panamanian golf comes on a stunning sunny morning when I’m driven a short distance from my Panama City hotel to the Club de Golf de Panama, located near the city’s international airport in Cerro Viento.
This is one of the country’s original courses and it’s steeped in history; Club de Golf de Panama has hosted a PGA Tour event (Web.com) the last 12 years, which gives you an indication the challenge this course’s super slick greens and rolling tight fairways presents players.
The club actually opened in 1918 and costs $125 (all figures U.S.) to play, if you’re lucky enough to be invited for a game by a current member.
The routing at Club de Golf de Panama is truly remarkable and offers lots of different looks from the tee boxes, but you’d better bring your A Game if you hope to score well on this beauty.
Next stop: Santa Maria Golf and Country Club, located halfway between Panama City and Tocumen International Airport. Stunning seems such an inadequate word to describe this breathtaking course, where you get remarkable views of Panama City from almost every tee.
Santa Maria is one of the country’s newest courses and best reflects Panama’s new-found prosperity. The perfectly manicured layout is the centrepiece of a high-end residential development, featuring deluxe homes and condos that will soon be joined by a luxury hotel.
Every hole on this Florida-style course qualifies as a “signature hole” and the conditioning sets it apart from most other courses in this sun-drenched country that sees little rain along its Pacific coast in the dry winter months.
One of the pleasures of playing golf in Panama is the welcome extended to foreign players. There’s no better proof of that than the reception I’m given at the Tucán Country Club and Resort by Elizabeth Archer, a transplanted Canadian who manages the course and makes me feel right at home.
Tucán, located on the west bank of the Panama Canal, is another of the courses that owes its existence to the American era in Panama but has been totally upgraded to meet the challenges of modern golfers. An upscale housing development anchors this course — its fashionable apartments and villas are perfect hideouts for “golf buddies.”
“We (Elizabeth and husband David Wittington) came to Panama four years ago and we love it here — we don’t intend to leave,” says the charming Elizabeth, who adds “golf in Panama is a unique experience because the people of Panama are very welcoming and very warm, which adds to the fun of playing here.”
Elevated tees on many of the holes at Tucán afford golfers some memorable views during a round. This course exudes character, and while fairways and greens are challenging, they remain fair to all handicaps. The driving range and practice facility would not look out of place at some of North America’s high-end courses.
Left: You will come across some rare birdies during your round in Panama. Middle: The people you meet in Old Panama City are delightful. Right: After rounds there is Old Panama City to explore.
Every inch of this 6,618-yard layout is fun to play and the back nine is a bit more challenging than the front. Because of the harsh weather conditions, scorched fairways become hard quickly in Panama, which results in golfers getting extra distance. No wonder so many gofers like it here.
The remarkable thing about Panama is that you can be standing in a forest of office towers in Panama City one minute and in a tropical forest the next. That’s what I experience when I visit the Summit Golf Club and Resort, where I check into a stunning Radisson Hotel perched high on a cliff overlooking the course that affords guests stunning views of the city, canal and surrounding wilderness.
“Is that a wild boar?” I ask my cart mate as we approach the third hole at Summit after checking into the hotel.
“I think it’s a large guinea pig,” says my partner, who points to another nearby hole where an alligator is basking in the late-day sun. Summit, which borders Camino de Cruces National Park, is an ecological wonderland where beautiful butterflies, wild animals and rare birds share space with golfers.
American architect Jeff Myers let the area’s rolling landscape dictate the design of Summit, and the 6,626-yard course and its picturesque surroundings is a delight to play. The remarkable views one gets of Centenary Bridge — oceangoing ships must pass under it to get through the canal — from many of Summit’s tees makes it hard to concentrate on your shots.
Lots of small lakes dot the Summit course, so accuracy is key to scoring well here. The course and hotel are equipped to handle big golf groups but make sure you leave enough time to visit the Radisson’s small but excellent butterfly conservatory. Just beware that monkeys and wild cats lurk in the thick forest surrounding the property.
A two-hour drive from Panama City brings me to the Royal Decameron Hotel, an all-inclusive Pacific coast beach resort favoured by Canadians, whose Mantaraya golf club is one of the most pleasurable of all Panamanian courses to play.
The challenges at Mantaraya are many — starting right off the first tee when golfers have to navigate around a massive tree that sits right in the middle of the fairway. While visually intimidating, the tree really shouldn’t come into play unless you are a long hitter. Thankfully, I’m not.
Oh, if you think the first hole is difficult, wait until you to get No. 10, where there are TWO huge trees waiting for you off the tee in the fairway.
Between the fairway trees, the always-present trade winds that blow off the Pacific, and a stretch of long holes — 13 to 16 — Mantaraya will test every part of your game. If you fail, however, you can always lick your wounds on the white sandy beach at Royal Decameron Resort with limitless rum cocktail in your hand.
Above: Vista Mar is the newest course in panama and will only get better with age.
After a few days of warming up on some of Panama’s “golfer-friendly courses,” it’s time to put my game to the ultimate test on the Jack Nicklaus-designed Buenaventura Golf Club next to the chic JW Marriott Resort in Rio Hato.
The Troon Golf-managed course is first class in every way. Its state of the art clubhouse, restaurants and practice facility qualifies it as the best club in Panama. It’s also the toughest thanks to a prevailing winds, which are so strong that over time it’s shaped the tress that line the fairways.
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.
At about $200 a round, it’s the most expensive course in Panama to play, but worth every cent if you are a scratch handicap who can handle the wind.
On my weeklong tour of Panama, I also stop at a few other courses and come away impressed with each. The Tom Fazio-designed Bluebay Coronado course, for example, is another tough track where winds off the ocean will inflate your score. The course is routed around some very impressive condos, vacation apartments and a luxury hotel.
Don’t be surprised if you’re hitting driver, 3-wood, 3-wood on many of the par 4s on this 7,116-yard behemoth.
The Sheraton Bijao Beach Club and Resort in Santa Clara is a nine hole beauty where there’s been a real emphasis placed on conditioning. Tight fairways and elevated tees make this gem challenging, but the Ron Garl design is a treat to play. This course proves that good things do come in small packages.
My Panama golf tour comes to an end with a visit to Vista Mar, one of the most visually stunning layouts in Latin America. This “American-style” links course, designed by Michael Poellot, is the crown jewel of the Vista Mar Resort complex, which features upscale homes overlooking a remarkable marina where million-dollar yachts are usually anchored.
Golfers get breathtaking panoramic views of the Pacific and the jagged mountains that dominate this area of Panama from most of the tees at Vista Mar, and the experience here will leave you speechless. A pump problem has left the course parched while I visit, but when the pumps are back up, this could easily rate as the best of all the courses in Panama.
To make your round at Vista Mar truly complete, make sure you enjoy a meal in the club’s main dining room, where the kitchen staff, under the direction of Chef Pascal, makes the best seafood paella outside Spain.
Panama is becoming a rival to other long established affordable vacation destinations for Canadians and it’s mainly because of the country’s fine assortment of golf courses.
Copa Airlines offers direct flights to Panama from Montreal and Toronto. / For information on golf courses in Panama: Club de Golf de Panama: www.clubdegolfdepanama.com / Summit Golf Club: www.summitholelgolf-panama.com / Tucán Country Club and Resort: tucancountryclub.com / Coronado Golf Club: www.bluebaycoronadobeach.com / Mantaraya at Decameron: decameron.com / Vista Mar: vistamarresort.com / Sheraton Bijao Beach Club: bijaobeachclub.com / Buenaventura Golf Club: www.buenaventura.com.pa / Santa Maria Golf and Country Club: www.santamariapanama.com / In case you are wondering, it costs, on average, $410,000 for a ship to go through the Panama Canal — one way. / Tiny Panama boasts a population of 3.9 million. / The Pacific and Atlantic are separated by 88 kilometres at Panama’s narrowest point. / There are seven ethnic groups in Panama and 25 per cent of the country’s delicate eco-system is protected by government decree. / Panama City is the first country in Central America to have its own subway system.