Despite a surplus of top pros and an enviable collection of courses, South America rarely gets its due as a golf port of call. But Gil Hanse’s gorgeous new Olympics course should ignite worldwide interest. Those eager to sample the wild and refined South American links experience should start with these superb destinations.
With the third largest population in South America (roughly 42 million people), Argentina surges with cultural diversity and energy. The arts are huge here—Tango, anyone?—and so is the golfing life.
Unquestionably, the leader in South American golf is Argentina. It has produced the best golfers and the best courses. From current PGA Tour winners Fábian Gómez and Emiliano Grillo to legends Roberto De Vicenzo, Angel Cabrera and Eduardo Romero, Argentina’s golf legacy is secure. Its courses, however, are less well known. Set among the famous ranches in the center of the country is Córdoba Golf Club in Villa Allende, where Cabrera and Romero honed their skills. A classic parkland layout that dates to 1922, Cordoba isn’t a destination course itself, although it’s certainly a compelling draw for a handsome region.
A handful of other desirable tracks dot Argentina’s remarkably varied locales, from Mendoza Country Club in the Andes foothills; Llao Llao Resort, amid Patagonia’s lakes and mountains; and much-revered Mar del Plata, on the South Atlantic coast. Still, the must-visit destination is Buenos Aires. Alister MacKenzie, who crafted Augusta National and Cypress Point, among others, left his imprint here in 1931, creating the Red and Blue courses for the Jockey Club in San Isidro. Neither course is imbued with significant topographic interest, although Red gets the clear nod thanks to Dr. MacKenzie’s beguiling, heavily mounded green surrounds. Arnold Palmer and Sam Snead captured the World Cup of Golf (then known as the Canada Cup) here in 1962, while native son De Vicenzo snagged the individual crown, a feat he repeated in 1970 when the Australian duo of Bruce Devlin and David Graham took the team title.
MacKenzie disciple Luther Koontz carved out the highest-rated classic course in Buenos Aires: the 27-hole Olivos Country Club. Its tree-framed White and Red nines form the championship test, a 10-time host to the Argentine Open, where winners include Tom Weiskopf and Craig Stadler.
Among the recent developments, Buenos Aires Golf Club is the most intriguing. One of the country’s most prestigious clubs sports a 27-hole, 1994 Robert von Hagge design, replete with modern touches (from numerous lakes to extravagant shaping). Tiger Woods and David Duval teamed to beat local favorites Cabrera and Romero here at the 2000 World Cup. A few miles to the northwest lies Pilar, a 23-year-old spread that splashes many hazards across its 7,221 yards. Pilar hosted the 2015 Latin America Amateur Championship, a new annual event whose winner earns a Masters berth.
Argentina’s Top 3 Sights to See
• Buenos Aires: Argentina’s capital city is awash in European architecture, gourmet dining and exciting nightlife.
• Mendoza: Home to the nation’s most acclaimed wineries, its location on the east side of the Andes affords a dizzying array of outdoor scenery and activities.
• Mar del Plata: Argentina’s best and liveliest beaches can be found four and a half hours to the south of Buenos Aires.
Most estimates put Brazil’s total course count at only 130. (Metropolitan Phoenix alone boasts more than 200.) But for two weeks this August, the Portuguese-speaking nation will become the epicenter of the golf world. Few professional players have emerged from Brazil, although winners of the country’s national championship, which dates to 1945, include Hall-of-Famers Sam Snead, Billy Casper, Gary Player, Hale Irwin and Raymond Floyd. Clearly, the Gil Hanse–designed, Australian Sandbelt–influenced Olympics course at Reserva de Marapendi, in Rio de Janeiro’s upscale Barra da Tijuca district, will spark greater golf awareness in Brazil and far beyond. For now, Rio and São Paolo remain the primary pockets of golf. Noteworthy in Rio are two Golden Age designs from Canadian Stanley Thompson (of Banff Springs, Jasper and Capilano fame). The par-69 Gávea blends beach, mountain and jungle, while the lushly landscaped Itanhangá Golf Club is hemmed in by the rocky Pedra da Gávea mountain and Tijuca National Park. No fewer than 86 species of trees grace this arresting course.
For pure thrills (and a workout for your camera), head to the state of Bahia, on Brazil’s northeast coast, some 750 miles northeast of Rio. You’ll find the country’s best layout, Comandatuba’s Ocean course, and the country’s most spectacular track, Terravista. Both resort courses are the work of Dan Blankenship, a former Perry Dye associate. In classic Dye fashion, there’s an emphasis at Comandatuba on visual theatrics. Vast, brilliant-white waste areas frame fairways, while holes are laced with lagoons and mangrove swamps. Terravista offers a more pedestrian front nine before fireworks explode on the back, culminating in some of the world’s most remarkable cliff-top holes.
Brazil’s Top 3 Sights to See
• Cristo Redentor (“Christ the Redeemer”): This iconic, 124-foot Art Deco statue towers over Rio from the 2,300-foot peak of Corcovado Mountain.
• Iguazu Falls: One of the world’s modern natural wonders encompasses 275 different waterfalls on the Iguazu River along the Argentina/Brazil border, accessible via the city of Foz do Iguaçu.
• Rio Carnival: Dating to 1723, this five-day party draws millions from around the world into the streets of Rio for a pre-Lent festival like no other. It takes place each year in late February and early March. In 2017, the fun begins on February 24.
When Colombian golfer Marisa Baena captured hearts and fans in 1996 by winning the NCAA title and earning a runner-up in the U.S. Women’s Amateur, she put her country on the golf map. A decade later, Colombia became an “it” place thanks to Camilo Villegas, who’s so well-known for his Spider-Man pose on the greens that it’s easy to forget he’s a four-time college All-American and four-time PGA Tour winner. Today, Colombia emerges as a solid if still sleepy golf destination. Its 60 or so courses embrace a variety of settings, reflecting its location on the continent, amid seacoasts, mountains and flatlands.
El Rincón de Cajicá, 15 miles north of Bogotá, in the center of the country, is regarded as Colombia’s premier tournament track: a Robert Trent Jones, Sr. design along the Bogotá River that dates to the early 1960s. The undulating, pine- and eucalyptus-lined layout, which played high-altitude (8,200 feet) host to the 1980 World Cup of Golf, is best known for its watery seventh, a par 3 the editors of GOLF have cited as one of the 500 greatest holes in the world.
The new breed of Colombia courses is best represented by the TPC Cartagena at Karibana. This 2013 Nicklaus Design layout was the first TPC-branded course in South America and has proven to be an able host the past two years to the Web.com Tour. Six lakes affect play on the front nine, which is ringed by a national forest; the back nine serves up handsome panoramas of the Caribbean and of the walled Old City of historic Cartegena. Golf packages with the Sofitel Legend Santa Clara Cartagena and the Holiday Inn Cartagena Morros have transformed coastal Colombia into an intriguing, enticing destination.
Colombia’s Top 3 Sights to See
• Cartagena: The Old City, with its twisting cobblestone streets and classic architecture, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1984.
• Bogotá: Colombia’s capital features modern, big-city temptations mixed with historic and cultural enticements, such as Bolivar Square, the Botero Museum, dedicated to Colombian artist Fernando Botero, and the Gold Museum.
• Zona Cafetera: An ultimate pilgrimage for java lovers, the region is noted for three destinations—Manizales, Armenia and Pereira, which make up the “Coffee Triangle,” where plantation tours and gallons of Joe are available.
There’s relatively little golf history in Uruguay, which makes recommendations a bit challenging. Still, consider: Its beaches and culture are first-rate; Fay Crocker, an 11-time winner on the LPGA tour, is a native Uruguayan; and one of history’s greatest course architects, Alister MacKenzie, found his way here in 1930, so there are some Golden Age roots. MacKenzie’s legacy survives at the Golf Club del Uruguay, in the capital city of Montevideo. While not exactly on a par with the good doctor’s best work, rolling terrain and lovely bay views make it worth the journey. Uruguay’s finest modern layout is the Carmelo Resort & Spa, a Hyatt Hotel located in the southwestern part of the country. Formerly a Four Seasons property, the Carmelo course is a 2001 design from Kelly Blake Moran and Randy Thompson that features lakes, sprawling bunkers and a riverside setting near the Argentina border.
Uruguay’s Top 3 Sights to See
• Punta del Este: “The St. Tropez of South America,” some call it. Others prefer “The Hamptons of South America.” By any name, this upscale resort area offers superb beaches, shopping, cafes, clubs and a yacht harbor.
• Montevideo: From historic spots such as Plaza Independencia to modern attractions like Rambla de Montevideo— and a 13.5-mile waterfront promenade that features beaches, shopping and dining—Uruguay’s capital city is a must to explore.
• Colonia del Sacramento: Across the Rio de la Plata from Buenos Aires, this UNESCO World Heritage Site was founded by the Portugese in 1680. Churches, museums and centuries-old architecture are among the prime draws.