CARTAGENA, Colombia -- Amid much fanfare, Karibana Beach and Golf Resort became TPC Cartagena. There was a golf tournament, a chorus, ample food and drink, a press conference and pretty Colombian girls just to add to the scenery. And that was just the beginning.
Later that night, TPC Cartagena threw quite the shindig at the resort with more food and drink, entertainment from one of Colombia's hottest bands -- Pargo Project -- and more tall, sleek models to hand out a seemingly endless supply awards and prizes, each winner announced with trumpet fanfare on the big screens on stage.
This was a big deal. It really was.
After all, it's not every day that a Colombian golf course joins the TPC Network. In fact, golf in Colombia is pretty rare, Camilo Villegas notwithstanding. And this is the first time the TPC Network has ventured into South America and only the second time in Latin America. With the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, welcoming back golf for the first time in more than 100 years, the timing seemed right to reach into South America.
Only golf course for miles
TPC Cartagena, the 33rd in the TPC Network, includes an elaborate clubhouse, locker rooms, beach club, restaurant, tennis courts, luxury condominiums and a two-year-old, Jack Nicklaus-designed championship golf course. TPC officials found that the golf course, with very little changes, was already good enough to host a Web.com Tour event, so in May, the inaugural Karibana Championship will be played there. Construction also will begin soon on a luxury hotel that will be managed by Hilton. Scheduled to open in 2016, the hotel will include a 1,000-person convention center, meeting rooms, spa and rooftop pool.
TPC Cartagena is the only golf course to speak of for hundreds of miles in Colombia, which hasn't exactly caught the golf bug yet with just a handful of golf courses around the country. (There is, however, another Web.com Tour event in Colombia. In February, Alex Cjeka won the Pacific Rubiales Colombia Championship in Bogota.) PGA Tour officials see a largely untapped market, one that could gain momentum after the 2016 Olympics.
"The PGA Tour has viewed South America as an important part of a larger picture," said Jim Triola, COO of golf course properties for the TPC Network. "Post-Rio, I think there will be a revolution, hopefully over time. I think it will expand in two years. It may not be at an explosive pace. It will probably take a little time."
For now, though, this is the only game in town. And while the resort and the PGA Tour are hoping golf takes off in South America, they are also banking on the tourist trade both regionally and from the United States. Triola is probably like a lot of Americans; before he came to Cartagena the first time, he had no idea of what to expect, although a viewing of the movie "Romancing the Stone" might give you a feel for the place.
It's very unlike Colombia's capital city of Bogota to the south. Cartagena, located on the northern coast, is warm and humid year-round, quite a bit warmer than Bogota to the south. With a population of nearly a million, it's a mix of modern and traditional. It's an old city surrounded by an ancient wall that you can walk on, overlooking the Caribbean Sea. The people are friendly and welcoming. It has a charm all its own.
TPC Cartagena: A golf course with a view
As for the golf course, it takes advantage of the setting to the north of the city. Much of the back nine has views of the ocean, with the last three holes laid out along the beach. There's water on more than half the holes, and with its tropical setting, TPC Cartagena is the only paspalum course in Colombia.
For the recreational player, it's more than fair. Wide fairways and four sets of tees ensure that decent tee shots set up opportunities to hit greens. Play it from the tips, at nearly 7,100 yards, and the course could play like a bear, especially if it's windy.
TPC Cartagena has a nice variety of holes. The front nine is set around six man-made lakes and a tropical forest; the back nine is exposed to the sea. The par 3s all differ greatly with the shortest, the 17th, as one of the trickiest with a difficult green and potentially tough pin placements. The 15th is a short par 4, drivable for most players if they use the proper tees, but carries great risk with water down the right side and long.
I played this golf course twice and found it just as interesting the second time around as the first. More impressive is that I remembered all the holes after the first go-round.
Alone, however, it's unlikely to attract visitors from the United States, although it's only two and a half hours from Miami by air.
Though my trip was short, we did manage an excursion or two into the old city, and it was just what you might expect -- magnificent old churches, nightclubs, restaurants, an old market and festivals. We drank coconut water prepared by machete, bought local jewelry from a street vendor, drank beer in the street and watched a parade of locals, who sang, danced and performed in celebration of a national holiday.
On my last night, we had dinner at Erre, the rooftop restaurant at Hotel las Americas in Cartagena. The appetizers included some of the best steak and tuna tar-tar I've ever experienced, as well as butterfish. I could have stopped there, but the catch of the day -- red snapper prepared with coconut and cilantro sauce and an array of delectable deserts -- made this a most memorable dining experience.
I was also introduced to the drink of Colombia, a shot of auguardiente, which means "firewater" or something like than in Spanish. Aguardiente is an anise-flavored liqueur derived from sugarcane. Ours were served much like tequila shots, with lime and salt, and as much as I like tequila, this might be even better. Until my trip to Colombia, I had never heard of auguardiente, but after last weekend, I think I'll be asking for it at my local liquor store, just to share with friends.