Just over 20 minutes away 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, and a few greens with false fronts. "The greens are sneaky fast," said Director of golf Jason Bauer. He adds that the wind adds to the challenge, especially from January to March. A magnificent view of the ocean awaits from the tee on the par 3 15th hole. Greens fees for 18 holes are around $150. Your options for accommodations range from places on property like La Posada or the J.W. Marriott to the more active scene in the nearby town of Tamarindo Beach.
Golf Near the Capital, San Jose.
Most visitors still enter Costa Rica through the capital city of San Jose, actually the Juan Santamaria Airport in the nearby city of Alajuela, located at an elevation of 4,000 feet, with cooler conditions than those along the coast. There are two quality championship courses available, the Cariari Country Club and Valle del Sol, with greens fees in the $100 range.
The private Cariari Country Club 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 6,590 yards, it's no pushover, especially when wet, with tall trees 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: from the whites, it can be challenging. One thing I always enjoy is that you can walk and have a caddy, who could be very helpful on the tricky greens. The mandatory caddies also go along with those riding carts. Some of the hotels can get guests on the course, but the best bet is to check with Landy Blank, who also runs the golf shop here with his wife, Susan.
If time permits, don't overlook 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 yards from the tips, but you have more room off the tees, allowing the big hitters to rip it and not worry about being in trouble. It's player–friendly from the other tees where most visiting golfers play. You will have interesting water features and some great mountain views. "If you are suffering from winter rust, it's a great place to work out the kinks," adds Landy.
Central Pacific Golf at The Dreams and The Dolphins.
Taking a scenic 90–minute drive, you arrive on the central Pacific Coast and the Los Suenos Marriott Ocean and Golf Resort near the beach in Jaco. The centerpiece of this ocean–front resort is the La Iguana Golf Course, designed by Ted Robinson. The course rests between the ocean and a tropical rainforest and is landscaped with exotic native plants. Director of Golf Jose Quesada says this gives golfers a chance to view lots of native wildlife, getting close to Mother Nature. While it can be challenging from the back tees at 6,698 yards, it's player friendly from the other tees, especially the whites at 5,896 where I played recently. Adding to the 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. One of the nice new additions is a GPS system on the golf carts that lets you know your yardages and gives tips on how to play each hole.
If visiting Tabor on the southern Nicoya Peninsula, the Los Delfines Golf & Country Club is a good 9–hole test that you might want to play. To get around Costa Rica, my wife and I rented a car since we were visiting four other golf resorts outside San Jose, but Landy recommends to his clients to travel via transfers he arranges. "Enjoy your vacation, leave the driving to others who know the roads," he said. Costa Ricans or "Ticos" are likeable and pleasant hosts, wanting guests to enjoy the pure life or "Pura Vida" when they come down for an unforgettable holiday.
Story by James McAfee, photos courtesy of Golf Costa Rica except where indicated.