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Golf in the Wild Kingdom

Players can be expected to see much more than birdies at beautiful Costa Rican courses

June 12, 2003|Pete Thomas | Times Staff Writer

TAMARINDO, Costa Rica — A gallery of green iguanas, on the fairways and cart paths, was more amusing than it was distracting.

But when the great white iguana -- a monstrous lizard with ashen skin and devilish little spikes on his back and chin -- strolled out of the leaves to greet the golfers as they made their way onto the 13th tee, it was too much to bear.

Snap-hook to the left.... Hard slice to the right....

Could T-Rex be far behind?

"We have iguanas so big they look like they want to eat you," Philip Krick Jr., director of golf for Paradisus Playa Conchal Beach & Golf Resort, told one of the golfers after the round. "But really, they're just looking for a handout. This is what we refer to as eco-golf."

And then some.

Garra de Leon, the 18-hole centerpiece of the seaside resort, is one of two championship courses built recently in the Tamarindo area in northwest Costa Rica. At least one other is being built just north of here and together they represent the beginnings of a movement to bring something other than surfers and nature lovers to the region.

Both courses are spectacular on their own merits, featuring verdant fairways amid flowing grasslands and dense forests, affording brilliant views of the Pacific Ocean to match those of the landscape.

Both are high-end on the price scale, with peak-season green fees ranging from $100 to $175.

And both, for now, feature tee boxes that are all but deserted.

"Last year we averaged 16 rounds a day," said Steve Parlee, head pro at nearby Hacienda Pinilla. "We're up to 37 rounds per day this year, which is still nothing when you consider they're averaging 200 a day up in L.A."

But as uncrowded as it may seem when you tee it up anywhere in Costa Rica, a land famous for its flora and fauna, you're never really alone.

Iguanas, some pushing four feet, share the branches with a dizzying array of colorful birds and walk a forest floor teeming with other big lizards, spiders, snakes and scorpions.

More reclusive are saltwater crocodiles and, Parlee says, black panthers and spotted jaguars.

And if you think you're the only one swinging wildly, think again.

On a recent day at Garra de Leon, players counted 15 howler monkeys in one tree-lined area alone.

Not long ago at Los Suenos Marriott Ocean and Golf Resort, the country's newest course in west-central Costa Rica on the beach near Jaco, a monkey ran onto the green and stole a golfer's ball after he had hit the approach shot of his lifetime.

Or so he complained.

Earlier this spring at Pinilla, two golfers accidentally hooked tee shots into the trees at No. 14. They heard grumbling. Curious, one of them set up to purposely launch another ball into the trees.

At least one monkey objected.

"Just as I dropped and got set to hit the four-iron, there was a loud growl about 30 feet away, lower and much louder than the others," said Tim Kawakami, a sportswriter from San Jose. "... After that growl, which sounded like a werewolf or something, I jumped into the cart and we got [out of there.]"

*

Costa Rica, sandwiched between Central American neighbors Nicaragua and Panama, is and probably always will be known more for its eco-tourism than for its golf.

But that's not to say that golf has no history or place here.

The nine-hole Costa Rican Country Club opened outside the capital city of San Jose in 1944 and remained the only course in the country until George Fazio came in the early 1970s and designed a championship-level 18-hole course called Cariari Country Club, also outside San Jose.

The semi-private 6,590-yard, very scenic but tight and difficult layout has long been known as the most beautiful course in Central America. It even played host to PGA Tour-sponsored events in 1979 and 1980, won by Larry Zeigler and Ray Floyd.

Today, however, the Melia resort course is beginning to lose its grip on that distinction. Garra de Leon, which opened in 1997, is now considered by some to be the top course in the country.

Measuring 6,624 yards from the blue tees, it starts with a short, wide par four but leaves a touchy approach shot over a ravine to a narrow green fronted and backed by bunkers.

The second hole is much narrower, longer and far more difficult, requiring a straight drive and a long-iron approach over another ravine, guarding a large, undulating green.

Krick considers 435-yard par-four No. 12 the signature hole, saying it's "the hole that captures the Costa Rican golf experience the best," with an elevated tee box pointed to a long, uphill fairway flanked on both sides by dense jungle.

But all the holes have their own character, if not their own characters (a common sighting at No. 2 is a raccoon-like creature called a pizote).

Hacienda Pinilla, a 6,717-yard Mike Young course that opened in early 2001, was built on a former working cattle ranch, the links-style centerpiece of a planned 5,000-acre hotel and condominium project that features nine holes in the mountains and nine running along the coast.

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