Road Holes — 12 March 2016 by Bob Sherwin
Panama golf: Beachy beauties

RIO HATO, Panama – This is the second of a two-part series on golf in Panama. The first part Friday dealt with courses bunched around Panama City.

This segment deals with courses down the west coast of the country, along the Pacific coast.

Coronado Golf and Beach Club

This course has hand print of noted designers George and Tom Fazio. It’s a traditional course, originally opened in 1941, with mature Corotu trees and as assortment of challenging holes.

What gets your attention immediately is the wind. Directly in your face not only on the first hole, a 430-yard par-4, but the first four holes. That includes the extremely tough par-3, 198-yard second hole into a stiff breeze. That’s followed by the No. 1 handicap hole, the 451-yard, par-4 third.

“If you can be around 1-over after the first four holes, then you can have a good day,” said Leo Gutierrez, a former competitive golfer who is a member of the club.

Easy for him to say. He’s a scratch golfer. If you have trouble hitting into the wind, maybe you should go straight to No. 5 and save yourself the aggravation. Play just 14. holes and you should break 80.

The course and the wind does turn, just in time, for a 515-yard, par-5 dogleg left fifth hole. It’s the third longest hole in the 7,116-yard layout. There are four par-5s, all more than 500 yards, including the 599-yard ninth.

What helps is the area is in a rain shadow during the rainy season, July-November, so the ground is generally fast and firm much of the year. Also, it has Bermuda grass on the greens, not paspalum, which makes for a more reliable roll.

The 16th, signature hole, at Coronado.

The 16th, signature hole, at Coronado.

The par-3, 199-yard 16th is the signature hole (right). Wind is usually a factor as you need to carry virtually the entire distance because it’s an altar green. Typically Fazio design, if you can’t carry, a false front will have you rolling backward pell mell from the hole.

There a real-estate component to the property with a couple really impressive looking condo towers that can be seen from most of the course. There is not, however, a beach. That’s a ways away, a long walk to the Playablanca beach area, but a wonderful pool setting near the first hole.

This is a fast-growing area with a large American colony. You’ll feel at home here.

Vista Mar Golf and Beach Resort

Remember this name. One day this still unfinished resort/course could be the focal point for coastal tourist in Panama. It has a plan and a potential. Millions already have been poured into the property, including one of the finest marinas in Central America.

The newly completed multi-million dollar marina at Vista Mar.

The newly completed multi-million dollar marina at Vista Mar.

The marina, just completed, can service all kinds of boats, from simple sailboats, to mega yachts coming through the Canal to 100-passenger cruise ships. There’s also a heliport at the end of the marina drive, a wide beach area, a fishing village, fishing tours, diving tours and plenty of properties and condos to sell. There’s also a new airport just completed within a few miles of Vista Mar complex.

This area could be the playground for the rich and famous one day. It’s also managed by KemperSports, a professional and classy operation that runs more than 120 courses around the world including Bandon Dunes and Chambers Bay in the Northwest.

Unfortunately, our group did not play the course, limiting our appraisals. But we took a cart tour of the course, designed by J. Michael Poellot and opened in May 2013. No expense was spared as it has a wonderful clubhouse and roomy practice areas.

Lush and tropical Vista Mar course.

Lush and tropical Vista Mar course.

The folks are still working out water issues around the course so some holes look thirsty. Our host said that just allows soft America style play from July through December (rainy season) and links style play January through June.

There is not hotel attached to the property but plenty of stay-and-play condos available. There also are playing packages with other courses in the region.

Buenaventura Golf Club

A second Nicklaus design (to join Santa Maria near Panama City). This is perhaps the longest course in the country, 7,383 yards. Of course, it’s Jack, who believes everyone hits like he hit.

There are four holes 555 yards or longer. The No. 1 handicap hole is No. 2, a 233-yard, par-3. Another Bear for Panama. The reason No. 3 is so difficult, besides the length, is it’s a dogleg right and you must decide how much you want to bite off. In addition, there’s a yawning bunker just in front. Thanks Jack.

We played this one and it’s reasonable. The wind, coming off the ocean, must be factored in. So many holes are lined by the majestic corotu trees with their huge umbrella-like span.

The par-5, 558-yard 12th, the No. 2 handicap hole, forces you to make another choice, how much you want to bite off a dogleg with a long water hazard on the left. If you go straight, you’ll have to avoid a series of four bunkers. He’s got you either way.

J.W. Marriott, the beach.

J.W. Marriott, the beach.

A stately corotu tree fans out behind a Buenaventura green.

A stately corotu tree fans out behind a Buenaventura green.

The par-5, 584-yard 16th hole is just ridiculous, at least that was my score. It’s a dogleg right but your drive needs to stay straight or left to avoid the long water (again) hazard on the right. As you continue down the right side there is so much sand and waste area you’ll be looking for the tide to come in. It’s an eternal hole. I never finished it, in the pocket.

Lavish J.W. Marriott resort near Buenaventura.

Lavish J.W. Marriott resort near Buenaventura.

The best feature about the course is what it’s connected to, the J.W. Marriott. The moment you step into the open-air lobby, you know it’s special. The long pool area leads to cabanas and the wide stretch of beach to the surf. You’ll want to stay here. We didn’t, but we wanted to. The rates are reasonable for playing the course, $135 as a guest ($250 non-guest). Worth it.

Mantarraya Golf Club

This course, Mantarraya, is also connected to a hotel that’s quite a bit different than the J.W. It’s the Royal Decameron Resort. It’s not the romantic kind, but rowdy kind. This is a family fun center, with a giant slide, water sports, beach sports, children’s plays, grown-up plays, a discotheque, live and loud music, surfing, fishing, diving, parasailing and kayaking.

Sunset at the family-friendly Royal Decameron resort, near Mantarrya.

Sunset at the family-friendly Royal Decameron resort, near Mantarrya.

The 7,091-yard course is a short walk (take the hotel van) from the hotel. You’ll find a modest practice facility but an impressive layout, by Randall Thompson.

From the first hole, the elevation is surprising. We started on the back and No. 10 was a challenging, 533-yard, par-5 with a huge tree near the end of your drives. You need to take one side or the other.

The No. 11 hole, a par-3, 191-yarder is typical. All four of the par-3s are at least 190 yards, including No. 14 at 232 yards.

As we worked our way back to the front nine, the first hole is average length, 416 yards, but there is another giant tree in the middle of the fairway. It comes into play on your second shot and again you have to take one side or the other. You can’t shoot through it. It’s 90 percent wood.

A watch tower, for whatever reason, keeps track of play at Mantarrya.

A watch tower, for whatever reason, keeps track of play at Mantarrya.

The most impossible tee shot, perhaps in the country, was the par-5, 532-yard fourth hole. There’s a sizable slope on your left as you look down the fairway. If you hit over it, you’re in the middle of the third fairway with a grove of trees in your way to the green. If you hit on it, the bounce may take your ball across the narrow fairway to a water hazard. And if you hit right, as I did, you’re in the water hazard.

Your second shot must dance around another water hazard sticking out along the right side. The green sits high on a hill and if you are too close on your approach, you have no idea where the pin is. You can’t see it. More diabolical than expected.

When you are finished, slip down the giant slide.

Sheraton Bijao

Not sure about this one at all. We tried to work out a tour but the folks in charge didn’t think that 20 international golf writers and tour managers would do them much good. They didn’t allow us on the course. So go figure – yourself.

However, the only reason worth mentioning this nine-hole layout is the wonderfully photographic eighth hole (we believe) that can be seen from the street. It’s pictured at the top of the story. It’s one of those thrilling, dramatic holes that you want to play just to see how you can do. We’ll never know.

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Bob Sherwin

Bob grew up in Cleveland, an underdog city with perennial underdog teams, and that gave him an appreciation and an affinity for the grinders in golf, guys such as Rocco Mediate, Jhonattan Vegas and star-crossed John Daly. This is the 46th year for Bob as a sportswriter, the first 34 working for newspapers throughout the west, Tucson (Daily Star), San Francisco (Examiner) and Seattle (Times), and the past 10 years as a freelancer. He has covered just about every sport, including golf tournaments, Tucson Open, Bing Crosby/AT&T Pro-Am, the 1998 PGA Championship, the 2010 U.S. Senior Open, the 2010 U.S. Amateur the 2015 U.S. Open and the annual Champions Tour Boeing Classic. He also writes articles for golf magazines. For most of his 20 years at the Seattle Times his primary beat was the Mariners. He then picked up Washington men's basketball in the winter. He also was the beat writer for the Sonics, including 1996 when they played the Bulls for the NBA title. After a lifetime hacking on public courses, he finally gave in and joined a country club in 2011, the Members Club of Aldarra near Seattle. Despite (or perhaps because) of his 14 handicap, he won the 'Super Senior'' (65 and older) championship in 2017. He has a pair of aces – 37 years apart – and in 2009 came agonizingly close to his ultimate golf goal of scoring in the 70s when he finished with an even 80. He lives in Seattle, and spends part of his winters in Marco Island, Fla.

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