By James McAfee
While eco-tourism remains the main attraction for visitors to the Central America country of Costa Rica, golfers are definitely not overlooked with six artfully-crafted and well-maintained 18-hole golf courses that rank right up there with the best in the United States and at the same time puts them in touch with Mother Nature because of the environments surrounding them
For visitors flying into Liberia instead of the capital city of San Jose, the closest golfing choice is the Arnold Palmer-design at the Four Seasons Resort Papagayo Peninsula, offering stunning elevated ocean views along the Northwest Pacific Coast of Costa Rica. It’s definitely one of the most luxurious resorts in all of Costa Rica, located on the tip of the Papagayo Peninsula, a promontory so narrow that the hotel has sandy beaches on both sides.
The Palmer design team took full advantage of the piece of land they were given to create some unforgettable holes, but ones that resort golfers can still find playable. Your experience begins atop one of Peninsula Papagayo’s highest plateaus, overlooking Bahía de Culebra. Spectacular water views await you at 14 of the 18 holes. The tee box on No. 3 is situated at the top of a cliff with a 360-degree view of the ocean. The signature hole, No. 6, El Bajo, features a dramatic 446-yard par-4 with a tee shot that plays 200 feet downhill to a receptive valley-shaped fairway. The green is perched out on a cliff with the ocean behind it. There is a good variety of holes, including some shorter, but tricky par 4s on the back nine. It’s pricey as you can expect to pay $200 or more for the privilege, but you no longer have to stay at the Four Seasons Peninsula Payapaygo to do so.
The Reserva Conchal at the all-inclusive Westin Golf Resort & Spa is about an hour’s drive away. It features a slightly different routing from the original Robert Trent Jones design on the back nine with the addition of two new par 3s after a beach club was added in 2008. This resulted in the elimination of the par 4 16th where the green was only yards away from Playa Conchal and the old tees for the par 3 17th. No. 18 remains a great risk-reward opportunity where the long hitters can risk going over the water with a chance for an eagle. The tee shot on No. 12 from the back tees at 395 to 420 yards is intimidating with woods to the left and a lateral hazard on the right.
The resort resembles a modern tropical village with 39 Spanish-style villas, each housing eight nice suites, plus an additional eight bigger suites down by the beach. In addition, there are now an additional 100 rooms in the Royal Beach Club, where guests upgrade if they wish to get added services like a butler and a private pool for adults only. The suites are spread out over a big area, but guests can take shuttles to get to the eight restaurants, pool and beach if they don’t enjoy walking.
Less than 30 minutes away is Hacienda Pinilla, a golf course that is as yet undiscovered by most of the international crowd. The Mike Young design exists in its own world, tucked down an unpaved road into a gated community that now includes homes, luxury condos, a boutique 60-room LaPosada Hotel, a beach club and a 310-room JW Marriott.
There is plenty of room off the tees, but accurate approach shots are necessary to avoid the many bunkers, including some like the ones in Scotland with steep walls. The sixth green is almost completely surrounded by bunkers, like an island. Golfers need to be careful to hit enough club for approach shots on some holes because of the false fronts on the greens. You get a great view of the Pacific Ocean from the tee on the par 3 15th where the green is only a half wedge from the waves. Wind and sneaky fast greens add to the challenge, but closely mown areas around the greens gives golfers chances to save strokes with good chips.
Golfers arriving in Costa Rica through the capitol city of San Jose have two good golfing choices, the Cariari Country Club and Valle del Sol Golf course.
Cariari was the country’s first 18-holer and was designed by George Fazio and built by his nephew Tom Fazio. With trees bordering most fairways, it definitely puts a premium on accuracy off the tee. Otherwise, you will often be chipping back to the fairway. Approach shots must also be accurate as the greens are guarded by well-placed bunkers. The Bermuda greens are tricky and you have to know which way the grain and slopes will affect your putts. Thank goodness, a good caddy, mandatory at the club as either a fore caddy or to carry your bag if you want to walk, can certainly help. It’s a private club, but visitors can play.
Valle del Sol is located about 20 minutes away. Tracy May renovated an original nine holes and built another nine holes to open in 2001. It’s a more player-friendly course with attractive water features and great mountain views, offering a great place to work out the kinks if you are suffering from winter rust.
Just 90 minutes away via a scenic drive on Highway 27, is the Los Suenos Marriott. occupying a palatial colonial-style building with 201 rooms nestled between the warm waters of the Pacific and the golf course, offering stunning ocean, mountain and garden views. The hotel is part of a 1,100-acre master planned destination resort with over 500 luxury residences, including single-family homes, lots, condominiums and lavish villas, a full service 200-slip international marina and an exclusive beach club for residents.
Nestled alongside an exotic rainforest, the hotel’s LaIguana course, designed by Ted Robinson, is a fun course with mesmerizing scenery, allowing golfers to get close to Mother Nature. There’s a large double green on Nos. 3 and 5. Sandwiched in between is the signature hole, a good par 5 featuring a landing area guarded by water and the forest and a small green guarded by a pot bunker in front of it. A 300-year-old tree stands in the forest behind the green. Except for the par 3 10th, the first 14 holes take you through the rainforest. The last four play in an open area with views of the ocean. With a GPS system on the golf carts, there’s no excuse to not know the exact yardage. Fore caddies also serve as guides, adding to the enjoyment of playing here.
Landy Blank, owner of Costa Rica Golf Adventures (www.golfcr.com), thinks the combination of top golf courses, a year-round climate and the natural beauty makes Costa a perfect place for golfers seeking a new adventure. So did the International Association of Golf Tour Operators (IAGTO), naming it the golf destination of the year for 2014.