When my wife threw Panama into the ring for a potential family holiday, my mind raced through what I knew about that most central of American destinations: the canal and its magnificent Miraflores Locks; the ubiquitous hat (which turns out to be Ecuadorian); that most famous of palindromes.
But what about golf? She knows that as a Wandering Golfer I need a golfing fix wherever we may roam. Panama and golf: perhaps not the most obvious of bedfellows but initial research told me the grand old game has been played here since Club de Golf de Panama was formed in 1918 by American workers involved in the construction of the canal.
Greats of the game including Arnold Palmer, Sam Snead and Roberto di Vicenzo were victorious on the original layout when it was a stop on the PGA Caribbean Tour. Further research led me to the snappily titled Buenaventura Golf and Beach Resort, Panama Autograph Collection and it provided enough of a pull to tempt me off the famed Pan-American Highway and into the heart of the Pacific Riviera.
Buenaventura’s Jack Nicklaus Design course, now rated as Panama’s finest, and accompanying five-star hotel was the perfect stop-off to adequately sate my golfing appetite as I explored a country of incredible diversity. Buoyed by the famed 50-mile canal that bisects the continents of north and south America and links the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, Panama is largely thriving as it continues to emerge from the near decade-long dictatorial rule of Manuel Noriega in the 1980s.
Most of the country’s revenue comes from running the Panama Canal, which handles two-thirds of global freight shipping and was finally put in Panamanian hands on 31 December, 1999. It had been run by the Americans, who finished construction of the waterway in 1914.
The country’s eponymous capital city, perched on the shores of the Pacific Ocean, now resembles a mini-Miami, with dozens of sky-scraping glass-fronted towers housing a mixture of big business and Latin America’s rich and famous, attracted by a stable currency and tax breaks. Away from the metropolis, Panama boasts beautiful beaches and biodiversity to rival neighbours Costa Rica. The Ticos have long held the mantle as tourism titans in this part of the world, but Panama is fast catching up.
Stunning islands, such as those found in the Bocas del Toro province to the west, are complemented by the Chagres National Park in the north and equally vast Darien National Park to the east. And when you need a break from trekking through jungles, scaling mountains and the bustle of the most cosmopolitan city in Central America, Buenaventura provides the perfect antidote.
The family-friendly resort, which is part of a semi-gated community, is around a 90-minute drive from Panama City. It’s just off a section of the haphazard Pan-American Highway that runs for an almost unbroken 30,000km throughout the Americas from Alaska to Argentina.
The welcome at the hotel reception was as warm as the year-round climate; the air-conditioned bedrooms a welcome respite from the mid-afternoon heat. With that in mind, an early tee-time was essential. I expected to see dozens of like-minded folk taking advantage of a slightly cooler morning, particularly with the threat of afternoon rain hanging over us, but even at 08:30 the spacious driving range and undulating putting green were both deserted. It was a Saturday morning and I was playing ‘Millionaire’s golf’.
Buenaventura, which was the first Nicklaus Design to open in Panama, was ready for play in 2012. A decade on and off-course construction continues with new villas being built to complement the dozens lining most fairways. Taking a buggy is actively encouraged and indeed required given the distance between some greens and tees as the holes wind their way through the sprawling community.
It’s a classic parkland layout. The fairways are supremely manicured, the bunkers are superbly positioned, the rolling greens run true and are fun to putt on. Lakes and ponds come into play on at least a dozen holes. The paspalum platinum grass, which is known for its salt, shade and disease tolerance, lends the course a terrific deep green colour, while the ancient Corotu trees that frame many holes offer added jeopardy. It’s all very nice. And that’s perhaps it’s only issue. It’s just nice.
The course is nice. It’s a nice experience. But… you knew there was a but coming… it’s just lacking a bit of character. That little bit of something extra to elevate it above nice: it’s on the precipice of the Pacific, but oceanic views are at a premium. The staff are welcoming and bright, but the clubhouse is already looking a little dated in places. It’s often the small things that matter most.
Those small things have been catered for back at the hotel. Exquisite dining experiences, ranging from Japanese sushi to traditional Panamanian fayre are on offer in restaurants dotted in among the five swimming pools. The Corotu Spa, named in honour of the dominating tree that doubles as a meeting place outside the hotel reception, offers all the luxurious treatments you would expect, while the on-site deli is superbly stocked if you fancy an aperitif on your balcony as the sun sets.
Our two-night stay coincided with the anniversary of the founding of Panama City on 15 August, 1519. To celebrate, an evening of traditional dancing was accompanied by delicious bowlfuls of Panamanian stews, with empanadas, carimanolas and patacones on the side. It was a pleasant end to an all-too brief stay.
So is Panama going to become more of a player in the golf tourism business? Nicklaus Design has a second venture – Santa Maria Luxury Collection Hotel and Golf Resort – in Panama City – which evokes images of playing in Dubai with skyscrapers framing the fairways. There are a handful of other courses spread throughout a country that’s not always easy to travel around, with only one major highway running through the south. But perhaps that is a huge selling point for golf tourism in Panama. Flit between locations to sample the amazing sights this wonderful country has to offer, taking in golf wherever you may find it.
A perfect example would be the five-star Valle Escondido Resort Golf and Spa, which was voted Panama’s best golf hotel in 2021. On the face of it, a seven-hour drive from the capital for a 9-hole golf course that features six par threes is not one that gets the golfing juices flowing. But factor in that the course has sustainability at its heart and was hewn out of the jungle while making minimum environmental impact and it becomes an altogether different proposition.
Similarly, the nearby Lucero Golf Club calls itself ‘the most spectacular course in Panama’ and is set in the tropical highlands of Chiriqui Province. Stay in a luxury treehouse before sampling stunning views of the Pacific Ocean and Volcan Baru and plunging down through the coffee plantations for which the area is famed. These courses may not feature in a world top 100 list but that’s part of the beauty of playing golf in Panama. It’s all part of a much greater experience and I thank my wife for suggesting it.
As she succinctly put it… ‘Flog a man a plan, a canal – Panama golf!’
*For more details on booking a stay at Buenaventura Golf and Beach Resort, Panama Autograph Collection visit Marriott.com
Buenaventura golf scorecard
Buenaventura golf: Frequently asked questions (FAQs)
Is Buenaventura Panama golf’s best course?
In short, yes. For a number of years now, Buenaventura Golf Course has been chosen as the best golf course in Panama by golf magazines and the world golf awards.
When did Buenaventura golf course open?
The Jack Nicklaus designed Buenaventura Golf Course opened in 2012 and will only continue to get better as it matures and as the course develops more character.
What makes Buenaventura golf club special?
Buenaventura Golf Course measures some 7,324 yards from the tips but boasts multiple tee grounds to ensure it is an enjoyable round for all golfers. The Paspalum Platinum grass used here ensures it glows a brilliant dark green colour which adds to the allure. And finally, the setting makes Buenaventura Golf Club a beautiful destination, as it sits right on the Pacific.
What about the Panama City golf courses?
Summit Golf Club, Santa Maria Golf & Country Club and Tucan Country Club & Resort are some of the best Panama City golf courses but there are so many excellent golf courses within reach of Panama City that there is no need to limit yourself to the capital city.
Which is the best of the Panama golf courses?
As we have already said, Buenaventura Golf Course is now widely viewed as the best golf course in Panama and with the incredible hotel and resort that supports it, it’s not only an excellent golf course but perhaps also Panama’s best golf resort.