A faithful reader wrote recently asking if we could do a report about the golfing scene in Panama. Not being much of a golfer myself, I handed the assignment off to a few friends who are avid players and they came back with some advice for those of you who share their enthusiasm.
Until only about five or six years ago, Panama was a one-course country. The only course was built in 1932 and lorded over by Panama’s elite. It was, and remains, a members-only facility with six-figure sign-up fees. Not terribly welcoming to casual visitors to the country. Unfortunately, the best course in Panama City at the moment—the Santa Maria Golf & Country Club in Costa del Este—is also a private facility.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that there are several other courses that have opened in recent years around the country, one of them even better than the Santa Maria course. With help from our friends at Live and Invest Overseas’ Panama Circle, we found six courses worth considering if you are looking to spend some time on the greens in Panama:
The Summit Golf Club
Avenida Omar Torrijos (Old Road Gailard)
Phone(s): (507) 232-4653
Green fees: weekdays, US$74.90; weekends, US$90.95 (plus 7% tax). Pensionados with a carnet get a 20% discount on weekdays.
Golfers looking for a physical challenge might want to give this 18-hole course a try. This unique jungle course is about 25 minutes outside of the city and surrounded by thick trees and foliage, so leave your expensive balls at home, as you are almost certain to lose more than a handful here.
There is a newish Radisson hotel on the property here, and internet sleuths can sometimes find golf-and-hotel packages on the Radisson website that generate substantial savings to those who are looking for a room along with their tee times. Because of Panama’s heat and humidity, it’s generally a good idea to stay at the hotel and get an early start anyway.
Summit was built in 1999 and is a 6,880-yard, par-72 course designed by renowned American Jeffrey Myers. It’s set on rolling hills overlooking the famous Gaillard Cut of the Panama Canal and the Camino de Cruces National Park. A number of holes have good vertical drops and very unique challenges.
The fairways are near perfect, but the greens are always rough and slow—probably more to do with the weather conditions than the efforts of the club. There are white clad groundskeepers on the course all day long cutting back the ever advancing jungle and working the course. It takes some getting used to, but you will be hitting over these guys quite often. Rather than move out of the way, they stand their ground hoping not to be hit.
Mantaraya Golf Club
Avenida Principal Farallón, Km.115, Carretera Interamericana
Phone: (507) 993-2255
Green fees: weekdays, US$63 for 18 holes and US$53 for 9; weekends, US$89 for 18 holes and US$66 for 9 (plus 7% tax). Hotels guests get a US$5 discount, and pensionados with a carnet get 25% off.
This 18-hole course near Playa Blanca on Panama’s Pacific Coast is part of the Royal DeCameron resort and was designed by architect Randall Thompson. The front nine holes on this par-72 course are said to be largely for beginners and not terribly challenging, but the back nine can be more interesting with a lot of risk-and-reward shots. The facility has hosted the U.S. Senior Amateur Golf Championship and features a pro shop, a driving range, and a full-featured clubhouse.
Tucan Country Club and Resort
Calle Bruja, Cocoli
Phone(s): 1 (866) 608-3640, (507) 211-7777
Green fees: weekdays, US$48 in the morning and US$37 in the afternoon. Fridays, US$53 in the morning and $43 in the afternoon. Weekends and holidays, US$70 in the morning and US$59 in the afternoon. Non-Panama residents pay slightly higher rates, and there are no discounts for pensionados.
This 18-hole course just west of Panama City near the Panama Pacifico development is a favorite of in-the-know golfers for the novelty of its wildlife. It’s not uncommon to see sloths and monkeys hanging around in the trees beside the fairways. The course is kept in great shape and features a number of subtle challenges and rolling greens. One patron said the beverage cart basically followed him around for three hours as he and his mates knocked out 27 holes. Again, because of the afternoon heat and humidity, morning tee times are recommended here.
Coronado Golf and Beach Resort
Ave. Punta Prieta
Phone(s): (507) 264-3164
Green fees: US$95 on weekdays, US$115 on the weekends. Hotels guests pay US$65 on weekdays and US$75 on weekends. No discounts for pensionados.
Another stunning 18-hole course on Panama’s City Beaches, this one is in the town of Coronado that has become so popular among foreign expats. This is another of our favorites in Panama for the simple reason that the resort is on our Access Panama Property Tours itinerary and several of our patrons have raved about it. The course was designed by George and Tom Fazio and is a par-72 at 7,092 yards.
VistaMar Golf and Beach Resort
Phone(s): (507) 345-4096
Green Fees: Regular rates are US$110 during the week and US$120 on the weekends, plus tax. From Tuesday to Thursday, they offer special twilight rates of US$50 from 1 p.m. onward and US$40 from 2 p.m. onward. No discounts for pensionados.
Another stop on our Access Panama Property Tour, this 18-hole course is smack on the Pacific shoreline and has a flat, open, easy layout. It’s a resort-style course that opened the back nine in late 2012 with great views of the mountains and the Pacific Ocean. In fact, they claim to be the only course in the world with ocean views on every hole. At just over 7,200 yards from the back tees and a manageable 5,400 yards from the forward tees, Vista Mar is challenging on distance and forgiving for those who haven’t seen a straight tee shot in years.
Buenaventura Golf Club
Rio Hato, Coclé
Phone: (507) 908-3200
Greens fees: Hotel guests pay US$115 during the week (Monday to Thursday) and US$135 on the weekends (Friday to Sunday); non-guests pay US$200 during the week and US$250 on the weekends. No pensionado discounts.
This is hands-down the best course in Panama at the moment. This world-class 18-hole course, designed by Jack Nicklaus and managed by Troon, measures 7,324 yards from the back tees at par 72.
A unique aspect of this golf course is the choice of paspalum platinum grass, a warm season turf-grass known for salt and shade tolerance, quick recovery, and a brilliant dark green color. This alone makes Buenaventura superior to all other clubs because of the sometimes-harsh weather and poor course conditions found elsewhere.
Buenaventura is several steps above the other clubs, and the same is true of the associated hotel, a JW Marriott. Buenaventura offers golf, restaurants, service, and facilities that are unmatched in Panama, with prices to match (upwards of $400 a night during the high season). As with Summit, you often can find golf packages on the JW Marriot site that will save you a few bucks.
Because of its steep rates (for the hotel as well as the course), it is rare to find the Buenaventura sold out. The golf course is not crowded and morning tee times are usually available. The same goes for the restaurant. Reservations are not required and you will have plenty of privacy throughout the resort.