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A True Costa Rica Escape at Hacienda Pinilla Golf Course

By John Eckberg,

TAMARINDO, Costa Rica -- Somewhere in the world a more remote and scenic golf course probably beckons players, but until that course is found on that semi-deserted isle or spit of peninsula, Hacidena Pinilla holds the title.

For now, this course in the arid Nicoya Peninsula in the Guanacaste of Costa Rica and about a half-hour's drive from the fishing and tourist village of Tamarindo, exists in its own world. It is tucked into 2,500 undeveloped acres - about four square miles,that for now, are about as far from the cares of any real world as a golfer can get.

Surrounded by those hundreds of acres of undeveloped Costa Rican grassland and forest, Hacienda Pinilla remains a golf course that is as yet undiscovered by the international golfing community despite having two seasons of play since opening in 2000.

Designed by Mike Young, builder of many tracks throughout the southern United States, the course has two distinct sides. The ocean nine has three holes with great ocean views, the waves dying with a whimper or crashing, depending upon the wind, onto a shore not more than a half-wedge from the pin.

Other holes on this half of the course show extreme concern for the environment with broad waste areas left untouched for wildlife with plenty of the dramatic and spreading Matapalo trees, trees that look like they are right out of Lord of the Rings because of the way spreading vines work their way up into the tree's branches.

The holes on the ranch side of this 7,500 yard par 72 course are also brushed by ocean breezes - gentle at times, but for weeks on end, they can also be fierce with a tsunami bite that has 60 mph of power. And everywhere are those exceedingly swift and strange green parrots.

The strange call of howler monkeys haunts the ranch nine where there are wide-open views of a rich landscape. How can there not be monkeys calling through the morning? A recent inventory for habitat purposes revealed 30 colonies of them, so expect to see some climbing or howling through the trees on or near the course.

While the rich emerald tones of the course is in distinct contrast with the burnt brown hills from April through June, at other times of the year, the course and surrounding land is a lush and vibrant green because it rains at least once a day.

Bunkers have steep cut sides, like a walled sand bunker in Scotland, and the fairways are thick with turf that slow the roll in the lush season and bring a big roll in the dry season.

"It is the most beautiful golf course in Costa Rica and even Central America," says Steve Parlee, PGA golf professional. "We have Tif Eagle greens, and we can cut the greens very, very close and they roll really, really true."

True and fast. The bunkers have steep sides and the Scottish angular flair of some will cast a shadow across the green and bring a sharp contrast to holes. "We wanted to give the golfer a shadow," said architect Michael Young of Watkinsville, GA. "And we didn't want to always be buying new sand every year so we put in heavy duty drainage in the floor."

The most important quality of this course is never seen by the golfer. Because it is in Costa Rica, the course was designed and constructed with enough drainage to shed a huge volume of water. "And I wanted it to fit the land," Young said.

For instance, from Oct. 31 to Nov. 2 last year, some 33 inches of rain fell. "We can get that in a day, too," Young said. Awesome storms do not matter. Within one day after that November deluge last year, golfers were playing. A day later, carts were rolling.

Many golf course designers and builders will talk about how a parcel of land was meant to have a golf course built on it - how natural knolls were just waiting to become greens, creeks were but a few rocks away from becoming a stunning waterfall and long loping creek valleys were only in hibernation until scraped into fairways and bunkers.

It's almost always true at most new courses but it is definitely true at Hacienda Pinilla, says course superintendent Jay Miller. He helped build four courses throughout Florida before coming here in the late 1990s to oversee development and maintenance of the course and he knows about golf course construction that is minimalist and construction that is not.

This course is assuredly minimalist. Half the fairways were lush when the crew stripped and hand-sprigged the turf to the other holes. Finish sculpting, when it occurred at all, happened near the greens because the rest of the course flows natural and true.

Atlanta developer and owner Pat Pattillo conceived of the course here in the late 1990s and there are hopes that it will lure hotels and other tourism initives over the next 30 years - with an appeal to European, Canadian and South and North American golfers and travelers.

Golf is not the only reason Miller came south and is not the reason most travel to Tamarindo. Surfing is always an allure. Swells off-shore from the near Playa Avellana can hit 18 feet and stretch away in a pipeline. Locals call it Little Hawaii for a reason. Miller has a house near that beach - even a dog who surfs.

And judging by the toughness of some holes, the improbable nature of surfing must be on the mind of many golfers who come here thinking they can man-handle this course with long irons.

Parlee cautions that wind comes into play in the early months of the year. "If the wind is in your face on the first hole, then the next six holes will be downwind," he says. "The course will play easier if you are standing on that first tee and the wind is in your face."

Expect big wind in January, February and March.

Though a round here tops out at $105 during the high season, there are ways around that steep fee for golfers who plan ahead. Arrange your visit to coincide with a local tournament by the Costa Rican Golf Association. That entry fee will bring two rounds: a practice round and the tournament play and the greens fees are slightly discounted.

During the low season, prices range from $30 to $80 per round, depending upon the month and time of day that the round is played. You need a program to keep track of that. There are plenty of places to stay in Tamarindo but the pain-free way to do it is to stay at Cala Luna, a small luxury hotel that offers accommodations that range from three-bedroom villas with full kitchens and private kidney-shaped pools to suites.

A package between the elegant hotel and course brings transportation to and from the course. Enjoy the sunset ocean view from the nearby beach after the round or take a short walk to the hamlet of Tamarindo for fine international dining at affordable prices. The hotel, too, offers dining and the patio/entry is candlelit nightly. For more information: http://www.calaluna.com/costarica/index.htm

Surrounding commercial and real estate development is sure to come to Hacienda Pinilla in the years ahead. But that development is likely to be tempered with an appreciation for what has already transpired here.

It is still a wild place. Young says he saw a family of big cats a few years back and that they still sometimes prowl. It is extremely rare, but you might see a black panthers here: both in the middle of the day, as well as in the evening.

"It's beautiful here," says Parlee. "We don't ever want to interfere with that."


Conditions: 4
Scenery: 5
Layout: 3.5
Par 3's: 4
Par 4's: 4
Par 5's: 3
Service: 4
Practice Facilities: 4
Club House/Pro Shop: 3.5
Pace of Play: 4
Value: 4.5
Overall Rating: 4

John Eckberg has been a life-long bogey golfer, whose addiction to the sport began with nine-iron pitches to and from neighbor Frank Haines's back yard and on the golf courses in and around Akron, Ohio. His fondest golf memories date to his teenaged-years when he and his brother would annually sneak into PGA events at Firestone Country Club, then spend the day eluding marshals as part of the army that trailed Arnold Palmer.

Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Pics are deceiving

    Ian Murray wrote on: Jan 15, 2013

    Boring parkland style layout where views of the Ocean are precious few. Very wide fairways ('resort' golf my 'guide' rationalized) where the green complexes have a penal sameness to them--bunkers protecting the front of an elevated green with few other options. The mostly flat geography surrounding the course has an industrial feel amid a decaying condo development with perhaps 30 residents (likely sub pime mortage broker refugees hit hard by the economic meltdown in the U.S or worse.) Not worth the green fees they charge.


      • RE: Pics are deceiving

        Mark wrote on: Jan 29, 2013

        Planning a family trip to CR and I am in charge of the golfing arrangements. Is Reserva Conchal a better pick?