(Golfweek) “This place is nonstop,” Oliver Riding said, pointing to the seat of our golf cart where his phone beeped and chirped constantly during our round at Santa Maria Hotel and Golf Resort. “Listen to this thing. I know what each (beep) means, so I know the important ones.”
There were a lot of important ones that morning, including an email from a group interested in bringing a major international tournament to this resort on the bustling east side of Panama City. Riding, the resort’s golf general manager, multitasked effortlessly, firing off texts and emails, returning calls and entertaining visiting writers while still managing to play a tidy round on the Santa Maria layout, a product of Jack Nicklaus’ design shop.
Santa Maria is a microcosm of Panama, which is buzzing with activity and optimism.
Panama’s economy has been one of the world’s strongest in recent years, and that is reflected in our surroundings. A decade ago the neighboring Costa del Este suburb was little more than scattered warehouses, mangrove and jungle. Troy Vincent, who oversaw design and construction of Santa Maria and its sister course, Buenaventura, said when he first arrived onsite at Santa Maria, the landscape reminded him of TPC Sawgrass before Pete Dye recreated it with bulldozers and an unlimited budget.
“It was entirely in wetlands area,” Vincent said. “That entire site was built up many, many meters.”
The course at Santa Maria Hotel & Golf Resort (courtesy of Santa Maria)
Now, soaring condo towers, retail destinations and office buildings line broad boulevards in a master-planned community along the Pacific. As Riding gave me a tour of this pop-up city – passing the regional headquarters for leading consumer brands such as Nestle, Samsung and Adidas – he compared it to a mini-Dubai. It creates a stunning backdrop around the urban oasis that is Santa Maria.
“When my daughters came here, they said, ‘Dad, this is like playing golf in Central Park,’” Riding recalled as we studied the sleek condominium towers and corporate offices that frame the approach to the par-5 10th.
More than a canal
Ask anyone who has never visited Panama to tell you what they know about the country, and most likely the first thing they’ll mention is the Panama Canal, the 50-mile waterway that connects the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean. The canal might be the only thing that person knows about Panama, other than some hazy memory of the spirited 1970s debate that preceded the decision to transfer control of the waterway from the U.S. to Panama, or the 1989 U.S. invasion that led to the removal of Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega.
The Panama Canal (courtesy of VisitPanama.com)
The canal was a technological marvel when it opened in 1914, and it remains so. It is mesmerizing to watch massive container ships gradually levitated, like some sort of magic trick, as they pass through the locks, allowing them to navigate Gatun Lake, 85 feet above sea level, on their way from the Gulf of Panama to the Caribbean Sea.
Panama has become an isthmus of stability in a turbulent region. Thanks in large part to the canal, including a recent expansion to accommodate the passage of even larger container ships, Panama has one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. The World Bank reported that Panama’s average annual growth rate over the past five years is 5.6 percent.
For adventurous Americans, Panama ticks off a lot of boxes. Panama’s currency is the dollar, which lends stability to the growing economy and heightens the country’s appeal to U.S. tourists. Panama is easy to reach, with direct flights from many major U.S. airports to Panama City. Visitors arriving from the southeastern United States, or even the northeast, could pick up their bags at Tocumen International Airport, be on the first tee at Santa Maria in less than an hour, play 18 holes and, if they’re feeling ambitious, still have time to catch a $12 Uber into Panama City for dinner.
El Faro Beach Club pool at Buenaventura (courtesy of Buenaventura Golf & Beach Resort)
Panama also presents visitors with options. While Panama City’s nearly 2 million residents live in and among sleek high-rises that line the Gulf, one of the most popular nighttime destinations is Panama City’s “old town,” Casco Viejo, whose streets are lined with bustling restaurants, bars and boutique hotels.
The Santa Maria and Buenaventura resorts are managed by Marriott, and Troon Golf oversees the golf operations, so guests unfamiliar with Panama will arrive safe in the knowledge they’ll be well-cared-for during their stays. It’s just a question of what they desire from their Panamanian experience. Are you interested in golf, creature comforts and cultural immersion in a dynamic city that this year celebrated its 500th anniversary? Or would you prefer a remote, laid-back, beachside escape? Given the proximity of Santa Maria and Buenaventura, there’s no reason you can’t have both.
Two styles at play
Vincent initially began working on Santa Maria and Buenaventura a decade ago while serving as a senior design associate for Nicklaus Design. By the time construction began, Vincent had hung out his own shingle, but the Nicklaus team asked him to shepherd the courses to completion.
The Buenaventura Golf & Beach Resort course (courtesy of Buenaventura Golf & Beach Resort)
While Santa Maria, much like Sawgrass, was entirely manufactured, Buenaventura “is a much more natural setting,” Vincent said. Much of the infrastructure already was in place when Vincent began working on Buenaventura in 2009. The residential component and water features already were built, and the existing horse stables were neatly transformed into a stylish clubhouse that wraps around a small plaza in an indoor-outdoor architectural motif popular throughout Latin America.
With everything in place, Vincent didn’t try to overthink the Buenaventura design. His goal was to create a fun resort course that would lay lightly on the land, as if it had been built decades earlier. That goal was reinforced by the ancient and massive corotú trees that help define the resort’s landscape, most notably two that frame the approach on the 16th hole.
“My goal was to make Buenaventura feel like an older golf course than Santa Maria,” Vincent said. “The landforms are very simple, the greens are simpler, and with the waste areas by the tees, we were trying to eliminate forced carries because it’s a resort course. It seems to fit naturally on the site. That’s what I was going for.”
That’s evident from the start. Alfonso Castiñeira, the director of golf, took a moment on the third tee to urge our group to savor the graceful manner in which the dogleg-left third and par-5 fourth flow along the northeastern edge of the routing. Only about 100 yards from the fourth green, work is nearing completion on a new marina providing access to the Pacific Ocean.
The front nine closes with a clever risk-reward par 5 that makes good use of the pond that frames the right side of the hole and front of the green.
Santa Maria Golf Course (courtesy of Santa Maria Golf Course)
At Santa Maria, Vincent created a course that is very different from Buenaventura, yet probably more in keeping with the Nicklaus brand.
“Santa Maria is a more challenging golf course because we have a lot more contours in the greens,” Vincent said. “It’s more of a second-shot golf course. I wanted to bring the short game back. I think that’s something we’ve lost in the game of golf. A lot of the contours are built, and you might be faced with chipping off of a fairway cut versus rough. So it’s a more challenging golf course.”
Riding had told me as much beforehand, and it didn’t take long to see what he meant.
“There’s a lot happening on that green,” I said to him as we walked off No. 1.
The vibrancy of Panama City was underscored as we took the tunnel under the busy Pan American Highway to the par-5 second, which runs parallel to the highway.
On the short par-3 fifth, Riding took a moment to orient our group to the surrounding skyline. “Look at Google Earth. There was nothing here in 2010,” he said.
The short, dogleg-right sixth is the classic local-knowledge hole – not that golfers are known for being fast learners.
During a recent tournament, Riding said, “I put the tee here (on the white tee box) the final day and it had the highest scoring average of all four days because guys kept doing dumb stuff.”
The par-4 ninth is the quintessential Nicklaus hole, with water lining the right side and a green that is far more welcoming to left-to-right approaches. There’s talk of flipping Santa Maria’s nines, which would create a more theatrical finish in front of the hotel.
A deluxe room at Santa Maria (courtesy of The Santa Maria Hotel & Golf Resort)
The back nine brings players closer to the high-end real estate, along with some crafty design work. Riding, for example, calls the 14th – with a semi-Biarritz green, bunkers front left and a swale right – “one of the hardest par 3s I’ve ever played.”
That reflects the quality of golf found at Santa Maria and Buenaventura, though Panama probably never will have the density of destination-quality golf found elsewhere in Latin America, such as the Dominican Republic or Mexico’s Los Cabos region. It offers a different, and in some ways richer, experience to travelers exploring the Caribbean region.
I left Panama with the sense that the country is a fascinating Central American secret just waiting to be unraveled by adventurous tourists looking for something more fulfilling than 36 daily holes of trophy golf. In the post-Noriega era, Panama has in many ways emerged as a model for this beleaguered region – a largely peaceful, prosperous, dynamic country. Whether visitors want to lose themselves in Panama City, take a boat tour of the canal or simply hide away on a remote beach, they’ll find a country that has a rich history and a promising future.