First Peek at Guacalito de la Isla, Nicaragua

by Adam Lawrence

“Who goes on holiday to get beaten up?” That was the question architect David McLay Kidd asked himself when designing the new Guacalito de la Isla course on the Pacific coast of Nicaragua.

The answer, of course, is very few of us. Sometimes it’s fun to test one’s game against the elements, or against a brutal championship course. More often, however, vacationing golfers want a game that is enjoyable without being overly taxing.

But for Kidd—and his client, Carlos Pellas Chamorro, Nicaragua’s richest man and the developer of the Guacalito community as well as the adjoining Mukul luxury resort—building a simple, unspectacular course was not an option. Golf tourism in the Central American country is in its infancy, and to create buzz, you need drama. And, for a designer who has been criticized in recent years for building extremely difficult courses—the Castle course in St. Andrews, Tetherow in Oregon, and TPC San Francisco Bay come to mind—the need to get the right mix was especially pressing.

Kidd solved his dilemma by returning to the basic principles of golf design, as outlined by Alister MacKenzie almost a century ago. The Guacalito course doesn’t lack challenge—a good score will demand creative shotmaking, especially around the greens—but it isn’t massively long. Only around 6,700 yards from the back tees, it has enough width to be forgiving to golfers straight off the plane, and it isn’t flooded with ball-eating water hazards.

The course has a particularly terrific set of par-three holes. The tiny 6th is only a wedge for most, but getting close to the pin, especially when it’s at the front of the green, requires a shot that pitches in the right spot and has enough roll to take a feeding slope to the hole. The 15th, unique as far as I know in that it blends the classic templates of Redan and Biarritz, also demands a running shot, through the swale in the green and off a side-slope to the back flag. And the 18th, though possibly the flattest green Kidd has ever built, can’t help but be exciting as it is literally on the beach, with Pacific breakers crashing behind it. Overshoot the green and you will be in a true beach bunker.

The Mukul resort—its 37 rooms all with private pools and butler service—is among the nicest places this writer has ever stayed. Cigar fans will appreciate the Nicaraguan smokes, drinkers the Flor de Cana rum, and luxury-lovers who watch pennies will note that, even with rooms starting at $550 per night, Mukul is significantly less costly than comparable resorts a few miles south in Costa Rica. And golfers: If you pull off the shot through the swale on 15 and don’t have a grin on your face, you need more rum.

Adam Lawrence is Editor of Golf Course Architecture (UK).