When the United States withdrew from the Panama Canal Zone in 1999, it left behind more than the canal. There was a radar station, rows of barracks at Fort Clayton and, in the middle of the rain forest, an abandoned golf course.
The Panamanians knew what to do with the canal; it took them a while to figure out the rest. The radar station became a lodge for bird-watchers. The barracks are being converted to an industrial park. And the course has been devoted to another novel concept here: public play.
Located twenty minutes outside Panama City, Summit Golf Club was built by the U.S. military in the 1930s, abandoned in 1990—and plagued throughout by drainage problems. "It can rain so hard here you can't see your hand in front of your face," said head pro German Calle.
When Panamanian businessman Ramesh Mirpuri hired American architect Jeffrey Myers in 1997 to redesign the 6,626-yard par-seventy-two course, which the jungle had begun to encroach on, Myers had to find a way to keep it playable year-round. During the five-million-dollar reconstruction, four thousand tons of sand were dredged from the Pacific, hauled to the site and spread on the greens and fairways. A network of ditches and drainage lakes was dug. One lake was completed just before a downpour. It filled up within an hour.
Fortunately, I was playing in the dry season, which lasts from December to May. My playing partner was the canal administrator, Alberto Alemán Zubieta.
Alberto is a stocky, solidly built man in his early fifties, casual but dignified, from a distinguished Panamanian family. He learned his golf as a boy at the private Club de Golf Panama—a nearby course still in existence—and polished it on the campus course at Texas A&M, where he got his engineering degrees. His lowest handicap was three; now it's nine. "Running the canal has been very bad for my game," he said. "It's been going downhill."
That was not the only thing going downhill on this day. The first hole on the course, a 450-yard par four, descends so abruptly from the tee that the fairway below looks like a landing strip for very capable hang gliders. It's guarded by shoulder-high elephant grass on the left and white stakes on the right. Alberto hooked his first tee shot into the thick stuff and gave no thought to looking for it. The breeze and a tentative swing pushed mine out of bounds.
On the second, a tight 420-yard par four back up the hill, Alberto hooked his approach into the rain forest. It hit something and bounced back onto the fairway.
"How often does that happen?" I asked. "It depends," he said with a smile. "If you are in good graces with the monkeys, it might bounce back."
There were indeed howler monkeys in the jungle—we could hear them, although we didn't see any this day. The local birds were more visible. One with a foot-long, bifurcated tail bobbed across a fairway looking for bugs. Locals call it tijereta, a play on the Spanish word for scissors.
But not just the birdies have special names here. Indeed, golf in Panama has a dialect all its own. A scramble is a "Mexican best ball." Panamanians play a version of the par-three greenie, but on par fours, and call it a "Schaeffer." No one is quite sure why.
After the challenge of the two openers, the course settled into rolling terrain that Myers covered with solid if unspectacular holes. Its conditioning was more than acceptable, halfway between a muni and a decent resort. As we played, Alberto talked about golf in Panama in the old days, before the United States left. The sport had been accessible only to Panamanians rich enough, for example, to belong to the Club de Golf Panama. The U.S. Army kept Summit and a few other courses for Americans; as a youth, Alberto even pretended to be a looper in order to play in Summit's caddie tournaments. But with Summit and another former military course now open to the public, times are changing. "A lot of people are playing the game," he said. "Too many sometimes."
Soon the most difficult thing about golf in the rain forest may not be draining the course—but squeezing out a tee time.