ANTIGUA, Guatemala - Part of the plan all along was to get a big name golf course architect to draw traveling golfers into Guatemala. So when the investors in La Reunion Resort were looking for someone to carve out a course on the side of the Fuego volcano, it was a short list.
They wound up going with Pete Dye and son Perry, which pretty much meant the golf course here would not only be beautiful and imaginative, but fairly challenging as well.
Perry Dye said he and his father are "very proud" of Fuego Maya Golf Course at La Reunion and believe it will be recognized as one of the great courses of the world.
"This magical, majestic setting has allowed us to create a spectacular layout that golfers of all ages and abilities will enjoy for years to come," Dye said. "This is a very special place, and we cannot wait to share it with the world."
Golfers who play Fuego Maya (Mayan Fire in Spanish) will need to have some level of ability. Pete Dye's reputation, of course, precedes him, and even at age 83 he still believes golf courses should test the very best players. The course is fair but difficult. It rewards great shots and in some cases penalizes mediocre shots.
While many will tell you that golf is a game of misses, this is one course that will often make you pay dearly for them. At 7,302 yards, it's all you can handle, and it's every bit as hard as Pete Dye's feared PGA West Stadium Course as far as I can tell.
Fortunately, there are four sets of tees, as short as 5,578 yards, so if you're not a near scratch player, stay away from the tips if you want to shoot a respectable score. Even if you hit in plenty far, the difficulty of the approach shots requires a great deal of accuracy as well, and coming in with a fairway wood or hybrid instead of mid-iron or short-iron makes a huge difference.
Difficulty aside, every hole on this course is stunning. From the practice green to the first tee, there's the Fuego volcano highly visible from every corner and three other volcanoes surrounding the resort. On a clear day, you can even see the Pacific Ocean some 50 miles away.
The front nine, while no pushover, is easier than the back. The fifth hole, a 460-yard dogleg right, is the No. 1 handicap hole with an uphill approach shot to a difficult green. The seventh, a 507-yard par 4 that plays downhill from the tee, then uphill to a well-guarded green, may be even harder. There has even been some talk that it should be a par 5. The previous hole, a 531-yard par 5 that plays downhill, may actually be easier.
By the time you get to the 10th, a 427-yard par 4 that works around a canyon to an uphill green, the course really starts to get interesting.
The problem here starts off the tee, trying to figure out how much canyon on the right to bite off to find the fairway. But if you bail too far left, you can hit it off the golf course.
Even when you find the fairway, the green presents a small target playing straight uphill to about two extra clubs. And it has a false front. Balls that find the front part of the green roll down to one spot, where there's a large collection of divots.
The rest of the golf course features an array of blind shots, water hazards and elevation changes.
The 13th is a 563-yard par 5 with a lake in front of the green that presents a tough tee shot and an even tougher lay-up with water right and thick rough left. The 16th is a 682-yard par 5 that plays all downhill, much shorter than the yardage but with plenty of obstacles.
The 159-yard 17th may be the course's signature hole, with a pond in front and waterfall on the right separating it from the 16th green. The elongated 17th green also has a backboard, inviting long shots that rebound back toward the center of the green.
The finishing hole, a 491-yard par 4, plays downhill to a narrow green, protected by two bunkers, one of them a pot bunker, on the left and a cliff to the right.
Practice facilities are also good here, with Fuego Maya serving as one of the most spectacular backdrops you'll find on any range. A large practice green sits behind the clubhouse.
Fuego Maya Golf Course at La Reunion: The verdict
Fuego Maya is immaculate. The maintenance crew alone is double what it is at most high-end courses in the United States, partially because the 7,300-yard par-72 course isn't easy to maintain being on the side of a volcano, and also because labor is cheap and there are plenty of people looking for work here.
Secondly, the natural topography of the land is breathtaking, with four volcanoes and mountains surrounding this 1,384-acre resort. Every hole has a great view, and no two holes are alike. They are all memorable the first time through, which is a measure of a great golf course.
Some may say Fuego Maya is too difficult for a resort course, but given that it's built on the side of a volcano, I'm not sure how much easier the course could have been. Some of the bunkers actually save shots that might otherwise be lost, while other bunkers do a good job of framing the holes.
My guess is that there will be some tweaking in the years to come, particularly on No. 10. Former U.S. Open champion Ken Venturi reportedly toured the course while on vacation and suggested the 10th fairway be reshaped.
Plans call for another golf course nearby, although a timetable hasn't been set yet. It would be on a flatter piece of land and probably be a little more resort friendly than Fuego Maya.
The amenities here are also exceptional. Food at the clubhouse's Italian-Argentinean fusion restaurant is terrific. Locker-room facilities, with spa facilities, are top notch. And there are 26 luxury casitas, with another 44 planned. They all offer great views, personal pools, Jacuzzis and indoor and outdoor showers. A larger hotel, which was part of the original vision, is on hold for right now as developers wait out the current economic crisis.