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Golf Takes Its Place Amid Nature’s Splendor in Costa Rica

Golfvaca January 8, 2014

Costa Rica offers visitors a fascinating vacation destination where they can experience nature in its most pristine state, enjoy adventure activities in a natural environment not available back home or just relax on one of the many beaches. However, golfers haven’t been overlooked as several outstanding golf resorts have set up operations here in the past 15 years, providing quality golf courses that rival those back home along with superior places to hang their hats at night. The International Association of Golf Tour Operators recognized this, awarding Costa Rica its Golf Destination of the Year Award 2014 for Latin America and the Caribbean at its annual trade show in Spain in the fall of 2013.

The country offers two international airport, one near the capitol city of San Jose in the Central Valley, and the other on the Northwest Pacific Coast in the Guanacaste region. Ideally, you arrange your itinerary to land in one and depart from the other in order to experience the amazing variety of activities that Costa Rica has to offer.

Starting with flight to the Daniel Oduber Quiros International Airport in Liberia. Gives golfers the opportunities to play three of the best golf courses in the country within an hour’s drive.

Los Suenos Marriott Ocean and Golf Resort

Los Suenos Marriott Ocean and Golf Resort

Without a doubt, the Arnold Palmer design at the Four Seasons Costa Rica at Peninsula Papagayo is the No. 1 course in Costa Rica. It sits atop one of the highest plateaus at Peninsula Papagayo, overlooking Bahia Culebra, and provides spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean on 14 of the 18 holes. Natural elevation changes create unforgettable holes, including a nice mix of long par 4s with short tricky ones.  Perhaps the most dramatic hole has to be par 4 No. 6 with a 200-foot drop to a valley-shaped fairway, definitely the signature hole. The course plays 6,788 yards from the championship tees, but is accessible to golfers of all levels with four other tees, including the forward tees at only 4,880 yards. The course used to be open to hotel guests only, but new director of golf Randoll Viquez, now says it is open to others. The fees are a little pricey at $230, but as someone who has played many of the top 100 in the world, I guarantee it will be worth it. It’s not a course you can walk, but there are some interesting rides through the rainforest to the next tee that will be worth it.

About 40 minutes south is the Reserva Conchal Golf Club at the all-inclusive Westin Golf Resort & Spa. The Robert Trent Jones Jr. design is one of my all-time favorites since I played it more than 500 times in the three years spent there as the director of golf. A few years back, the course was reduced to a par 71 when some property next to the ocean was used for a beach club and spa, resulting in the loss of the par 4 16th and the old tee box on the par 3 17th. A new par 3 was added, now the 15th, and a new routing for the last six holes resulted. You now play to the 17th green from new elevated tees on another side of the water. “It’s even better now,” added Landy Blank of Costa Rica Golf Adventures. I agree it’s more challenging as my first shot didn’t make it over the water on a return visit recently. I did hit the green on my second try from the whites and caught the bunker on a third try from the Blues. The 18th is one of the best risk/reward finishing holes I’ve ever played. Water comes into play down the entire left side. After a good drive from the whites, I took the risk with a 3-wood from 200 yards to get to the back of the green and just missed an eagle putt from 12 feet. There’s “mucho agua” to avoid in other places on the course, too, and a lot more elevation changes than you might expect, including a 100-foot drop from the 12th tee to a narrow fairway with woods and out of bounds on the left and a lateral hazard on the right. Director of golf Carlos Rojas points to the par-5 No.4 with views of the ocean as the signature hole. Fees range around $150 for 18 holes and lower for 9 holes or with twilight rates.

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. Director of golf Jason Bauer notes 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. 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. The Westin is only a short drive away.

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 green 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 also as the greens are guarded by well-placed bunkers, waiting to catch errant shots. Even 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 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,” added Blank.

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. 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. 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 Nicoya Peninsula, the Los Delfines Golf & Country Club is a good 9-hole test that you might want to play.

To get the most out of a vacation to Costa Rica that includes golf, the Blanks are your best sources, operating from their home office near the Cariari C.C. Throwing caution to the wind after a visit 18 years ago, the Blanks sold their restaurant in Charleston, SC and moved down there. Costa Rica Golf Adventures can put together customized packages that offer you the best deals on lodging and golf along with other side trips for rafting, fishing or visits to the Arenal Volcano. The Blanks also operate the golf shop at the Costa Rica C.C. and stay current on what’s happening on the golf scene through all their many local contacts.

One word of warning about going to Costa Rica, deserving of its title as “The Happiest Country in the World.” It’s nice to experience “Pura Vida” or the pure life. The locals, or Ticos, are some of the friendliest people you will ever meet and most of them working in the resorts speak English. “Once you visit Costa Rica, you’ll go back again and again,” added Blank.

IAGTO awards Costa Rica Golf Destination of the Year 2014

Costa Rica has made a name as a natural paradise in recent years and has become a world leader in sustainable tourism. The small country in Central America achieved another important milestone, receiving the 2014 Golf Destination of the Year Award for Latin America & Caribbean from the prestigious International Association of Golf Tour Operators (IAGTO).

IAGTO is the organization of global commerce for the industry of the golf tourism. Founded in 1997, members of IAGTO includes 2,122 credited golf tour operators, resorts, hotels,  national tourism organizations, media  and businesses in 95 countries. Operating in 62 countries, these golf tour operators control more than 85% of the golf packages sold annually around the world.

With a total of six championship courses in addition to some very fine 9-hole layouts, Costa Rica is considered to be a small, but indeed an exclusive insider tip for golfers. Due to all the exciting non-golf activities available in Costa Rica, this is just the right amount of good golf to create a memorable golf experience. The environments surrounding the courses put you in touch with Mother Nature at her finest. True to the country’s strategy of always acting in a most sustainable, social and eco-friendly way, all these courses are recognized by Audubon International (www.auduboninternational.org) for their environmental friendly efforts.

Some of the game’s top architects have their names on the courses, including the La Iguana Golf Course at the Los Suenos Marriott Beach & Golf Club, designed by Ted Robinson; the Reserva Conchal Golf Club at the Westin Golf Resort & Spa, designed by Robert Trent Jones II; the Four Seasons, designed by Arnold Palmer; and the Cariari Country Club, designed by George Fazio and built by his nephew Tom Fazio.

But Costa Rica not only scores with its golf courses but also with its excellent hospitality and gastronomy. The exclusive hotel selection ranges from the cherished and smaller luxurious resorts like The Springs Resort to prestigious and international luxury hotel groups such as Marriott Hotels, The Starwood member Westin Golf Resort & Spa Conchal and The Four Seasons Peninsula Papagayo Resort.

“Costa Rica has grown tremendously as a destination since I started golf tour here in 1996,” said Landy Blank, owner of Costa Rica Golf Adventures. “The combination of new golf courses, year-round climate and the natural beauty of Costa Rica makes it perfect for golfers seeking a new adventure.”

Costa Ricans are the happiest people on the planet according to the “Happy Planet Index,” measuring the experienced well-being of its population, life expectancy and the ecological footprint of 151 countries in the world. That makes them very likeable and pleasant hosts, an important reason more to come over and experience an unforgettable golf holiday in Costa Rica.

For more information:
Landy Blank, owner Costa Rica Golf Adventures, landy2255@gmail.com, Tel: 1-215-554-2129, 1-888-672-2057 / +506-2293-9785  www.golfcr.com

By James McAfee

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