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Hats off to Panama: Go for the Canal and stay for the golf

Michael CunninghamBy Michael Cunningham,
Bijao Golf Club
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In Santa Clara, Bijao Golf Club features a scenic nine-hole course designed by Ron Garl. (Michael Cunningham/TravelGolf)

My friends and I have been searching for a golf destination that would guarantee warm weather and a variety of quality courses as our once favorite sun destinations have had us wearing heavy sweaters over the past few years.

In its 2012 list of the 45 places to go, The New York Times ranked Panama no. 1. We had to check it out.

The southernmost country in Central America, Panama separates Costa Rica to the west and Colombia to the south.

The weather is always warm -- high 70s to 90s -- and with the prevailing ocean breeze is seldom feels uncomfortable.

A very affordable country, Panama has a great deal to offer with hundreds of "escape" islands, jungles and mountains, exotic wildlife, native culture and a modern cosmopolitan city.

The $5 billion expansion of the famous Panama Canal is creating an economic boom throughout the capital of Panama City, which will include a new underground subway, modernization of the city's Tocumen International Airport and revitalization of the historic Casco Viejo.

Two hours west of the capital in Rio Hato, another international airport is close to completion. That will allow visitors quick access to miles of beautiful beaches, world-class surfing, kite boarding and sports fishing.

Golf is quickly becoming a part of this growth as resorts and real estate developments attract the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Tom Fazio, Ron Garl and J. Michael Poellot to create world-class golf facilities.

The game was first introduced to the country when Americans building the Canal opened the first course in 1930. Under the guidance of the Panama Golf Association (APAGOLF), golf in the country has shown positive growth thanks in part to the lure of prestigious events such as the BMW Golf Cup, the world's largest international amateur tournament, and the Panama Claro Championship, a regular stop on the Web.com Tour.

The domestic and international draw of the game is evident in the Rio Hato district:

Vista Mar Golf and Beach Resort

Vista Mar Golf and Beach Resort features a 7,273-yard, 18-hole championship course designed by Poellot, which will become one of the country's finest golf centers. Managed by the U.S.-based KemperSports Group, it is being designed as a full-service teaching academy.

Individuality and challenge describe every hole, as the award-winning Poellot has created a layout that features numerous elevation changes, spectacular bunkering and immaculate greens. With the perennial sea breeze a player must play strategically to enjoy success.

Buenaventura Golf Club

Located a half-hour west is Buenaventura Golf Club, which opened in 2012 under the management of Troon Golf. The superb Nicklaus Design has incorporated the contours of the terrain in the construction of this signature layout. With lush wide fairways, strategically placed bunkering and dramatic water hazards, it is a pleasure to play. An esthetically pleasing course, it can be a bear when the winds are gusting. The course is associated with the luxury community of Buenaventura and the striking JW Marriott Panama Golf and Beach Resort.

Bijao Golf Club

Situated in Santa Clara is the Bijao Golf Club, a 3,439-yard, nine-hole Garl layout that presents undulating terrain, elevated tee shots, and rise and fall putting surfaces. Situated among the beautiful beachside homes and grand towers of the Bijao Resort Community, it is also home to the all-inclusive Sheraton Bijao Beach Resort.

Coronado Golf Course

The coastal city of Coronado is an established real estate development and home to the Fazio-designed Coronado Golf Course. The landscape of lush trees, rolling fairways and strategically placed water hazards can be a challenge when the winds are blowing from the Pacific Ocean. At 7,116 yards the course has teeth, but the four sets of tee boxes offers plenty of options. The course is undergoing conditioning upgrades to get back to the standards of Fazio's original plan. The property also features a nine-hole, par-3 course and a driving range.

Royal Decameron Golf and Beach Resort

Royal Decameron is an all-inclusive vacation destination and popular with North Americans. The hotel and residential development is located on Farallon Beach and is the home for the popular Mantarraya Golf Course. A 7,098-yard, 18-hole Randall Thompson design located between Buenaventura and Bijao, it is a pleasure to play as the large fairways, lush greens and ocean vistas create a memorable day no matter what you score.

Getting there

The best way to plan your Panama golf getaway is to work with a local golf planning company such as Golf in Panama (golfinpanama.com) and PTY (ptygolf.com). Most major U.S. air carriers and Panama's national airline, COPA provide regular flight schedules from many North American cities.

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Buenaventura Golf CoursePanama Canal

Michael Cunningham lives in Vancouver, British Columbia. He has an extensive background in sports and media marketing, and is a former host for the syndicated GolfRadio show, which focused on the business of the game and unique travel destinations. Michael was editor and senior writer of two books: Spectacular Golf of Western Canada and Spectacular Golf Ontario. His work has appeared in Fairway Living Magazine, the Globe and Mail, National Post, Wineries Refined Magazine, Canadian Traveller, Ontario Golf Traveller and more.

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