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Ecogolf in Costa Rica

In the spring months, the main sport-fishing goal here is Pacific sailfish and the occasional marlin. There's absolutely no reason to kill these magnificent billfish; everyone practices strict catch-and-release. I'd carefully scheduled my trip to occur after the annual arrival of the sailfish from warmer waters to the south, but the fish were apparently using a different calendar. On the same day that I was skunked, the guests on another boat down the coast landed and released an incredible twenty-one "sails."

But that's fishing, and besides, on the way back to the docks, we trolled for a few minutes near the beach, where I "took the stink off the boat," as Art put it, by catching two fat jack crevalle. Both were strong fighters whose destiny was to provide a nice fish stew for Art's neighbors.

Back on shore I met another fishing guide named Craig Ledbetter (Wildlife Sportfishing), who was eager to show me his home course, the new Rancho las Colinas, located just fifteen minutes south of the Meliá course. Along the way we ate lunch at an open-air restaurant named Las Cruces, where I paid six bucks for a fantastic whole fried red snapper with plantains, and gallo pinto, the Costa Rican staple of black beans and rice.

With an old school design (and some clever innovations) by Ron Garl, Las Colinas isn't as lush as Garra de León, but it's every bit as much fun to play. The best holes are ten through sixteen, which form a full circle around a small mountain. The signature hole is thirteen, a par four spanning a creek and leading up a steep hill to a green atop a plateau carved out of solid rock. The stone face in front of the green makes this one of the most difficult approach shots in all of golf.

Because we were playing with Mike Osborne, one of the course's owners, who'd left his home of Las Vegas to take a gamble on Costa Rica, we made a Vegas-size wager: a hundred a hole. If the bet had been for dollars instead of colones--the Costa Rican currency, valued at about one-third of a cent--I'd have won more than a cold after-round drink at a neighborhood dance hall.

The third golf course of my trip was the nation's oldest eighteen-holer, the splendid Cariari Country Club, opened in 1974 on the outskirts of San José. It's a members-only course unless you're staying at the nearby Herradura Hotel or the adjacent Meliá Cariari Conference Center & Golf Resort, where I checked in and teed up within a half hour.

By any country's standards, this is an excellent track. Designed by George Fazio (and built by nephew Tom), the course features long, narrow fairways lined by towering pine trees. I was reminded of Torrey Pines, or Edgewood Tahoe Golf Course, another alpine layout designed by the elder Fazio. At nearly four thousand feet above sea level, the air here is cool and refreshing, far from what you'd expect in Central America. With my foursome playing late in the day, two in the group were shivering by the time we made it to eighteen.

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