Looking for the next “hot” golf destination? Do you prefer cityscapes, ocean views or the tranquility of the rainforest? 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, ocean 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. Here is my countdown of the top 9 championship golf courses that you need to play in Panama.
9. Tucan Country Club & Resort
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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. Green fees range from US$37 to $70.
8. Santa Maria Golf & Country Club
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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. 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 because it is new but feels like you could be playing on any golf course in south Florida. This Nicklaus Design opened in 2014 to property owners, members and their guests only.
7. Summit Golf Club
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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 found the course to be a little rough in spots with a few quirky holes due to the placement of the multiple tee blocks. Green fees range from US$75 to $90.
6. BlueBay Coronado Golf and Beach Resort
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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. 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 I played in Panama. Green fees are US$65 to $115.
5. Vista Mar Golf & Beach Resort
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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 layout 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 will be replaced so conditioning should improve in 2017. Green fees are USD$110 to $120.
4. Buenaventura Golf Club
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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. 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. 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.” Green fees range from $US115 to $300.
3. Club de Golf de Panamá
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“Mature and stately” would be the best way I can describe the Panama GC because of the towering trees that line the fairways and the dramatic elevation changes. 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. Club de Golf may again reign supreme once all the renovations are finished in preparation for the third annual Latin America Amateur Championship. This is a private club but guests of members can play here for a US$125 green fee.
2. Mantarraya Golf Club
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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. 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. Green fees for 18 holes range from US$63 to $88.
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.
1. Lucero Golf & Country Club
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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 is simply the most visually stunning in all of Panama. Architect Michael Poellet has taken every advantage of the natural landscape with a 360° view that included Volcán Barú and the Pacific Ocean, more than 140 kilometers away. It felt like 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 when the renovations are completed in January 2017. I have no doubt that Lucero will soon be recognized as the best golf course in Panama. Green fees are US$80.
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.
Written by Dave Finn
Have you played golf in Panama? Let us know where you played by leaving a reply below!