PANAMA CITY, Panama - It didn't matter where I went.
Walking the historic district of the city. Touring the Panama Canal by riverboat. Playing golf at the Santa Maria Golf & Country Club on the outskirts of the city. Lounging by the pool at the Buenaventura Golf & Beach Resort. Sitting down to write this story.
I couldn't escape it. The words and tune haunted me, replaying like a broken record in my mind. "Panama! Panamaw aw aw aw aw! Panama!"
Ah, the immortal words sung by David Lee Roth of Van Halen. They have followed me from my childhood - the song 'Panama' hit the radio in 1984 when I was an impressionable 12 years old - to today as I sit reminiscing about my recent golf trip to Panama. The lyrics are mostly rubbish, but the guitar riffs are catchy, infectious - kind of like Panama the place, actually.
Panama is a country of more than just a famous manmade canal. It's not known as a glamorous or glitzy getaway. Yet its culture mixes the naturally old (rainforests, mountains, beaches) with the manmade new (corporate high rises, luxurious golf resorts) quite well. Despite only eight 18-hole courses, Panama boasts a wonderful history in the game. Americans constructing the canal brought golf to Panama in the 1920s, and within 15 years, golf's greatest players, legends like Sam Snead and Doug Ford, were competing in the Panama Open. Did you know that Arnold Palmer won his second professional tournament at the 1956 Panama Open, outlasting Snead in a playoff? Panama now hopes to attract traveling golfers the way it has professional golfers off and on since 1938.
The April grand opening of The Santa Maria, a Luxury Collection Hotel & Golf Resort might be a breakthrough moment in that pursuit. It gives Panama two fine golf resorts worth experiencing. I spent several days at Buenaventura and Santa Maria sight-seeing and enjoying their Troon Golf-managed Jack Nicklaus designs. To gain a better grasp on the country's golf roots, I spent one afternoon at the private Club de Golf de Panama, host of the Web.com Tour's Panama Championship since 2004. What an education above and beyond what Van Halen could teach me.
My first trip to central/Latin America meant my first flight on Copa Airlines, a cousin to United Airlines. Although the inflight entertainment was limited to a few movies and TV shows, it wasn't an issue. I mostly slept on the overnight, seven-hour flight from San Francisco. I landed at Panama City Tocumen International groggy and passed out again the entire two-hour shuttle ride to Buenaventura, a peaceful beachfront oasis southwest of the city on the Pacific coast. Buenaventura's 118-room hotel was recently updated and joined Marriott International’s Autograph Collection. Award travelers take notice.
My timing was perfect. I arrived on a Sunday after a large wedding and had the resort to myself for several days. I was told that weekends are jammed with families looking to escape the city, hoping to unwind in the five pools or on the beach.
The following day, new head golf professional Heath Henrich and I breezed through the 7,383-yard course only encountering another twosome. It's a nice track with a few watery par 3s and plenty of sloping greens. No. 9, a brute of a par 5, provides the most interesting challenge, where you layup left for the proper angle over the water into the green. Golfers glimpse the ocean from one green - the one glaring flaw in the routing. If that hole could move on or near the beach, suddenly Panama would have the signature golf moment it still lacks.
The Cobra Performance Center, an indoor hitting bay with Gears, a full body optical motion tracking system, is the only club-fitting/learning center of its kind in Latin America.
Besides the usual resort amenities (the Corotu Spa is excellent), Buenaventura offers a surprise I've only ever seen at one other golf resort - a zoo! It's not as refined as the zoo at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort in Pennsylvania, but the wildlife rescue center that debuted last fall has a few exotic critters I've never seen before.
I came away most impressed by the resort's diverse dining scene. Although I couldn't always communicate effectively with the Spanish-speaking staff, I still ate well. Every evening, the El Faro Beach Club transforms into the elegant Asa’o & Pesca’o, a fine dining experience of seafood and steaks. Eating Panama's seafood ceviche with plantains as edible scooping spoons - Oh my goodness. The Tai Kai Sushi and Martini Bar was equally impressive.
The resort is currently building a massive marina that could be a game-changer, bringing more business and potentially more construction of new homes in the surrounding community. I hope it retains its sleepy vibe.
Back in civilization riding through downtown, I had no idea Panama City's skyline was so breathtaking. It seems every major international corporation has a Latin American headquarters here - Caterpillar, Procter & Gamble, 3M, LG, Heineken, etc. - to be strategically located halfway between North and South America.
This corporate boom has development moving east with communities like Santa Maria sprouting up. Like Buenaventura, Santa Maria's course debuted in 2012. The splashy debut of the hotel, also affiliated with Marriott, will help the course reach its potential. A new clubhouse, home to locker rooms and a high-end Ocean Prime restaurant, will be ready by June. A lighted putting green should entertain hotel guests after dark. The front nine is being landscaped to mimic the cleaner look of the back nine.
It's a wide open, flat expanse of fairways, bunkers and greens (which are treacherous). Its character comes from the backdrop of high rises, both the apartment buildings right on the course and the city's skyscrapers several miles off.
The 182-room hotel salutes its Panamanian heritage with native artwork in the lobby and beams made to look like the "square trees" of El Valle de Anton. Complementary foot massages set the mood for any spa treatment booked. The Coffee Shope & Deli off the lobby sells Panama Geisha, the trendy new coffee blend that's more like a tea. Again, the food is top class.
Build in some time to explore the riches of Panama with the canal at the top of the list. We arrived just in time atop the Panama Canal's Miraflores Locks Center viewing deck to watch a massive cruise ship move from lock to lock. We waved as ship passengers waved back. An IMAX theater will be a nice addition to the onsite museum and restaurant once it opens. For a more interactive experience, drive to the nearby town of Gamboa for the Panama Canal Rainforest Boat Adventure on the Chagres River and Gatun Lake. Our riverboat captain weaved our small, covered motorboat through the wakes of massive cargo ships we had just seen in the locks. After spending some time looking for sloths and monkeys in the rainforest along the shore, we anchored on an island for a tasty lunch of sandwiches, chips and beer.
The following morning was spent walking through Casco Viejo, the cobblestone streets of 16th-century Panama City where we stopped for lunch at Tio Navaja, where I devoured the most amazing BBQ brisket plate mixed with plantains, and sampled Panamanian chocolate at the Tropical Chocolate Cafe. It was a nice sendoff for my flight home that afternoon.
Club de Golf de Panama
Now that we've met the modern marvels of Panamanian golf, it's time for a history lesson. It's found in the basement of the clubhouse at the Club de Golf de Panama, where a small room serves as an unofficial Panamanian golf hall of fame. Old trophies, signed letters and pictures of famous golfers who have played in the old Panama Open and current Panama Championship adorn the walls. Before they were major champions, Bubba Watson, Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas all played the course, a shotmaker's paradise with thrilling elevated tee shots and loads of water. In fact, Club President Carlos Sacre Jr. said 24 of the current top 50 players in the world have competed in the Web.com Tour's Panama Championship during their formative years.
Several holes were under construction during my visit, a result of an extensive master plan by Michigan architect Ray Hearn that won a Design Excellence Award in 2017 from the American Society of Golf Course Architects. Several new back tees will keep the course relevant for today's bombers. The biggest impact, according to Club President Carlos Sacre Jr., is new drainage that helps the course remain playable in the wet and wild rainy season May through December.
The club, founded in 1922 and currently on its third course site, also hosted the 2017 Latin America Amateur Championship. Winner Toto Gana of Chile was awarded an invitation to The Masters. Maybe someday that winner will be Panamanian. And maybe someday that somebody plays on the PGA TOUR. I already know what his walkup song should be.