The Mantarraya course is set within the Royal Decameron Beach Resort, between the recently modernised Scarlett Martinez International airport and the Rio Farallón, where the river empties into the Pacific Ocean. The beautiful white-sand beach of Playa Blanca lies immediately to the south of the property.
The 18-hole layout at Mantarraya was designed by Randy Thompson, an American architect with many years of experience working in Central and South America, and it first opened for play in 2000 as a 9-hole course, with the second nine following a year later.
There can be arguments over which golf course is the best in Panama but many regard this layout as the best value track in the country – and little do golfers realise, as they drive along the rather flat road into the resort for the first time, that there’s acres of rolling terrain to be explored just yards from the entrance.
Fairways weave around several lakes and between pockets of real estate and the outward half feels the tighter of the two nines, though the inward half seems a little longer as most holes are played into the prevailing wind. Huge specimen trees on the 1st and 10th fairways are particularly pleasing natural features at the start of both nines.Toughest hole on the card is the 465-yard 16th, which is also the signature hole at Mantarraya. Golfers face two carries across water, the first with the tee shot and the second for the uphill approach to a raised green – mercifully, there’s only a few sand hazards to be found on this otherwise demanding hole.
Based on layout and current conditions, I would say Mantarraya GC would be my favourite in all of Panama. I was pleasantly surprised at how difficult this resort course was. Even though the fairways are relatively wide with subtle rolls, there are 14 holes where water will be come into play. Their average size greens have slight undulations but are extremely fast so pace of putting is extremely important. The course starts off with an intimidating narrow tee shot having out of bounds on the left and villas on the right. To boot there is a big indigenous canopied tree in the middle of the fairway that you will need to avoid to have any chance at this green (as I found out). The 2nd hole is my favorite, a downhill par 3 with water short right, trees on the left and bunkers guarding the front left and back. #4 is an uphill dogleg left par 5 with a blind tee shot and a pond on the left protecting your next two fairway shots. The par 4, 16th has to be considered their signature hole. At 444 yards, this dogleg right forces you to carry your drive over water yet still avoid the fairway bunkers. A well struck ball is needed to have any chance at this green. After my trip to Panama, I polled the golf travel writers and tour operators who accompanied me and 7 of the 10 ranked Mantarraya as their favourite course. As one of my associates said the Royal Decameron Golf & Beach Resort “is probably the least expensive golf destination you will find in all of the Caribbean right now” and only steps from a new international airport. You can read more of Dave Finn's golf travel articles at www.golftravelandleisure.com