By James McAfee
Eco-tourism, where visitors get to experience nature in its most pristine state, remains the number one reason to visit the small Central America country of Costa Rica, but golfers haven't been overlooked either. Several outstanding golf resorts have set up operations here in the past decade and a half, providing quality golf courses that rival those back home, along with superior places to hang your hats at night.
Most visitors still enter Costa Rica through the capital city of San Jose, located at an elevation of 4,000 feet, with cooler conditions than those along the coast. It's only a few minutes to the Doubletree Hilton Cariari, formerly the Melia Hotel Cariari. I spent numerous nights there during my 30-month tenure as the director of golf at what was then the Garra de Leon Golf Course at the Melia Playa Conchal.
You can walk over to the Cariari Country Club, which carried the banner as the best course in Costa Rica for many years after being built in 1975. George Fazio did the design and nephew Tom Fazio built it on an old coffee plantation. Short by today's standards at 6,500 yards, it's no pushover, with tall pines bordering most fairways, putting the premium on straight drives. Otherwise, chipping back to the fairway is sometimes your only option. Approach shots must be accurate also as the greens are guarded by well-placed bunkers, waiting to catch errant shots. Cariari has hosted numerous international events over the years and should definitely be on your must-play list. One thing I always enjoyed was that you could walk and have a caddy, who could be very helpful on the tricky greens.
Just 20 minutes away is the Parque Valle del Sol where architect Tracy May renovated an original nine holes and built another nine holes between 1997 and 2001. It can be stretched to 7,017 from the tips, but you have more room off the tees as the trees aren't as big yet. You have great mountain viewsand it was the first course in Costa Rica to gain recognition as an Audubon Bird Sanctuary. "If you are suffering from winter rust, it's a great place to work out the kinks," adds Landy Blank of Costa Rica Golf Adventures.
In less than two hours by car you arrive on the central Pacific Coast and the Los Suenos Marriott Ocean and Golf Resort. The centerpiece of this oceanfront resort is the La Iguana Golf Course, designed by Ted Robinson. The course rests between the ocean and a tropical rain forest, giving golfers a chance to view plenty of the native wildlife. Adding to experience, each group is accompanied by a forecaddie, who also serves as a guide to identify what you are seeing and to help find your errant golf shots. It's a shoemaker's course with some spectacular settings for the greens.
North to Guanacaste Golf
It's a long hike by car over roads that sometimes are a little rough around the edges to Guanacaste where there are more great golfing opportunities. Getting there on a small plane from San Jose to Tamarindo is worth the small expense, but many airlines now offer flights directly to the Liberia Airport in northern Costa Rica that allow you to skip San Jose.
The closest course to Liberia is the Arnold Palmer design at the Four Seasons Costa Rica at Peninsula Papagayo. This spectacular 18-hole, par-72 championship course was designed with the resort golfer in mind. Spanning over 50 hectares (125 acres), this beautiful piece of property sits on the tip of Peninsula Papagayo, nestled in the mountainside along the Pacific Ocean. Twelve holes feature spectacular views of the ocean. The course plays 6,788 yards from the championship tees, but is accessible to golfers all all levels with four other sets, including the forward tees at only 4,880 yards. "Keep in mind you have to stay at the resort in order to play the golf course," Blanks noted.
My favorite course is now called Westin Playa Conchal at the all-inclusive Paradius Playa Conchal. I probably played the original 18 holes designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr., more than 600 times. A few years back, the course was reduced to a par 71 when some property next to the ocean became a beach club and spa, resulting in the loss of the par 4 16th hole and the old tee box on the par 3 17th. A new par 3 was added, now the 15th, and a new routing for the last six holes resulted. You now play to the 17th green from new tees on the other side of the water. "It's even better now," added Blanks. The 18th is one of the best risk/reward finishing holes I've ever played, Water comes into play down the entire left side. There's "mucho agua" to avoid in other places of the course, too, and a lot more elevation changes than you might expect, including a 200-foot drop from the 12th tee to a narrow fairway with woods on the left and a lateral hazard on the right.
Just over 30 minutes away from Reserva Cohchal is Hacienda Pinilla, a Mike Young design built on an old cattle ranch amid a dry tropical forest. You have plenty of room off the tees with wide fairways, but the real test is getting your approach shots on the bunker-guarded greens, including some pot bunkers like the ones you might see in Scotland. The wind adds to the challenge. "It can be coming off the ocean one minute and switch out of the south the next one," said Ken Moss, a former teaching professional in Costa Rica. A magnificent view of the ocean awaits from the tee on the par 3 15th hole. You can stay in villas near the course and a new J.W. Marriott Resort offers luxurious accommodations down by the beach.
To get the most out of a vacation to Costa Rica that includes golf, Landy and Susan Blanks are no doubt one of your best sources, operating from their Costa Rica Golf Adventures offices in San Jose. Throwing caution to the wind after a visit 17 years ago, the Blanks sold their restaurant in Charleston, SC and moved down for good. Costa Rica Golf Adventures can put together customized packages that offer you the best deals on lodging and golf along with other side trips for rafting, fishing or visits to the Arenal Volcano. The Blanks operate two pro shops and a golf store and stay current on what's happening on the golf scene through all their associations. They can be reached by phone at 1-888-672-2057.
One word of warning about going to Costa Rica, deserving of its title as "The Happiest Country in the World": "Once you visit Costa Rica, you'll go back again and again," said Landy Blanks. It's nice to experience "Pura Vida" or the pure life. The locals, or Ticos, are some of the friendliest people you will ever meet and most of them working in the resorts speak English.
Story by James McAfee, photos courtesy of the resorts and Golf Costa Rica.
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