TOLA Nicaragua s Pacific coastline has all the natural ingredients needed for a golf boom: there are large swaths of unused land that have been cleared by generations of cattle raising, abundant supplies of fresh water and rain, year-round sun and tropical weather, and stunning ocean views.
But man-made conditions namely Nicaragua s history of political turmoil and instability have made golf development difficult. Other deterrents have been the lack of road and hotel infrastructure along the coast, and the fact that there has never been a critical mass of high-end tourists to support the golf industry here.
Yet as the wave of real estate development continues up the Pacific shoreline, developers are betting on the old Field of Dreams adage: if you built it, they will come. The first golf course on the Pacific is already open to the public, two more courses are under construction and four more are in the planning phase.
Within the next decade, if all goes according to plans, Nicaragua could become an emerging Latin American golf destination, attracting a higher-end tourism market.
Hacienda Iguana Golf & Beach Club, in Tola, is the pioneer in Nicaragua s golf push. The high-end condominium and residential development took the bold first step in constructing a challenging, well-manicured and pleasantly landscaped 9-hole course shaped to the natural contours of the coast. The course, which opened in 2004, is one of Nicaragua s best-kept sporting secrets, despite being affordable and fun.
Designed by championship amateur golfer Neal Oldenburg, the course features some tricky holes, such as a tough up-hill green on hole 4, a large fairway tree that swats down your drive on hole 3, and a water trap on hole 8 that is home to Omar the caiman (posing a hazard to your ball and your hand if you reach in looking for it).
The highlight of the course is the spectacular 470-yard par-5 on the 5th hole. The blue tee box is located on the top of a steep hill more than 90 feet above the fairway, offering a fantastic panoramic view of the fairways, trees and condos below, with the ocean in the distance.
The fairway is so far below, it s tough to see where the ball lands. So you might want to take a mulligan, or four.
Though the course is underused, it s well maintained. The fairways are kept green even during the heart of the dry season, and the greens are as nice as those anywhere.
The downside to the course is that it is unforgiving along the fringe and eats a lot of balls.
The next Pacific golf course scheduled to open is at Montecristo, a Mike Youngdesigned course in southern León. This member s-only course plans to open its first 9 holes before the end of the year, and will eventually be 18 holes.
An hour west of Managua, Gran Pacifica is well advanced on the first 9 of its 27-hole course. The front 9 will be ready for play by December, with the next 18 built in 2010.
At nearby Seaside Mariana, company chairman Kevin Fleming reports they are on schedule to break ground in 2010 on Central America s first Jack Nicklaus design signature golf course. The course, which is scheduled to open in May 2012, will be the first PGA course in Nicaragua. As a member of the Prestige Collection, the course will also be endorsed by the PGAs of Europe.
A fifth coastal golf course is being planned for Guacalito, the Tola development owned by Nicaraguan tycoon Carlos Pellas, and a sixth course in San Juan del Sur.
With nine holes down, and 99 more coming, it might not be too long before people start uttering the once-unthinkable combination of words Nicaragua and golf destination in the same sentence.
To play Iguana, call (506) 855-7906. Green fees are $50 for non-members. Carts and rental clubs are available.