TOLA—One of the world’s top golf-course designers thinks Nicaragua has all the right ingredients to become the next great golf destination, rivaling Hawaii, South Africa and Costa Rica.
The man Golf World Magazine named “the hottest architect in golf” is so sure about Nicaragua’s future that he’s building the first house on the 18-hole golf course that he was hired to develop at Guacalito de la Isla, the $250 million tourism development going up on Nicaragua’s forested southern Pacific coastline in Tola.
“This will be a benchmark for the traveling golfer,” David McLay Kidd told The Nicaragua Dispatch during a recent interview. “There is no way that this won’t rival the best that Costa Rica or Hawaii has to offer.”
By the time the golf course opens next year, Kidd says Nicaragua will already have its pin on the world golf map.
“This will achieve expectations,” the Scottish course architect said. “This is going to be to the same standard of anything I have ever done anywhere else in the world.”
That’s saying something, considering Kidd’s portfolio. Since designing his first course at the age of 27, Kidd has built a dozen of the top courses in the world, from links in Scotland, Ireland and England, to courses in California, Hawaii and South Africa. In addition to his new project in Nicaragua, Kidd is also building courses in Mexico, Portugal, Morocco and on the private Fiji Island of Dietrich Mateschitz, the Austrian billionaire who owns Red Bull.
The biggest plume in Kidd’s golfing cap is the Castle Course at the legendary St. Andrews Links, the birthplace of golf.
Nicaragua, he says, will be on par with everything he’s done so far. The Guacalito course has the latest irrigation systems and “the latest and greatest grasses” imported from the United States.
But the course in Tola will have something the other courses around the world don’t: the Nicaragua encanto factor.
“Golfers who are used to what I have done before maybe are thinking, ‘Nicaragua? What should I expect?’ But they are not going to be disappointed,” he said.
Kidd says he, too, didn’t know what to expect when he first crossed the border from Costa Rica into Nicaragua. He said he was naively worried about “guys with AK-47s and civil war.”
“But then I thought, ‘You dumbass, there is nothing like that here; the place is full of surf bums’.”
“Nobody knows what Nicaragua has to offer,” he says. “People outside of Nicaragua think about its political past, so this development has an amazing opportunity to showcase what Nicaragua has.”
Kidd says he fell in love with Nicaragua after discovering a country that is surprisingly safe and friendly, with fantastic weather, verdant nature, unspoiled views and a cost of living that allows him to live beyond his means. And that’s the experience he’s trying to replicate in his golf course—an 18-hole adventurous romp through nature with a 5-iron, a straw hat and a silly shirt.
“The golf course is coming out spectacularly well,” he says. “It’s a soft, gentle golf course that seamlessly fits into this landscape. We are not trying to be harsh and dominate nature, we are trying to rest easy with her; nothing garish: no big fountains, no waterfalls, just very soft and simple. It should suit the eye.”
The golf course, Kidd says, will not be “Florida fake,” rather Nicaragua real.
“I want something that explores the landscape with golf as the excuse,” Kidd says. “It is a huge joy to do that on such a diverse piece of land, from the 18th green on the other side of the beach to the 16th green on a cliff top. We are really getting to explore this property.”
Only in Nicaragua
Kidd says there are few places left on earth where he could do something like he’s doing in Nicaragua.
“If this were in the U.S., there would already be houses all over the cliffs and foothills and the golf course would be one or two kilometers inland, halfway up a mountain or stuck in a floodplain,” Kidd said. “Anywhere else, this piece of land would already be overdeveloped, and it would have happened 50 years ago.”
Kidd says he was also told specifically to protect all the trees and natural contours of the land, allowing him to be creative and adventurous with the course, while celebrating the length and breadth of Mother Nature’s finest handiwork.
“The mandate that I was given by (project owner) don Carlos (Pellas) is that he loves this property and he wanted to hire someone who would respect and love it as he did,” Kidd says. “He told me, You maintain the giant trees. Do everything you can to minimize the impact on nature in both the design and structure of the course.”
The experience of building the course, he says, is almost Zen-like, rolling and flowing the bends, dips and turns of nature as they come.
Playing the course will also be a uniquely Nicaraguan experience, he says.
“It’s like barefoot golf; it’s not stuffy ankle socks and shorts-to-knees. It’s relaxed, the course is soft and gentle and wide. A good golfer will still have a challenge but a crappy golfer will still have fun,” he said.
A boom for golf & tourism
The Guacalito course will be good for golf and Nicaragua tourism in general, Kidd predicts. A high-end tourism offering will help establish the country as a mainstream tourism destination and bring more money into the country, he said.
“The richest tourists are golfers,” Kidd says. “If you look at the statistics, golfers spend more money to indulge in their sport than any other tourist, bar none.
“How do you get that guy to understand Nicaragua? This golf course is going to help him do that. He is going to play 18 holes here, he is going to see a big boa slide through the grass, the howler monkeys jump through the trees, and he is going to go home with an entirely different image of what Nicaragua is,” he says.
The course will also have a spillover effect on other new and existing courses in the area, including the course at Iguana, the 9-hole course at Milagro del Mar Golf Club and the 18-hole Jack Nicklaus Signature course scheduled to open at the end of 2014 at Seaside Mariana.
“If we can combine two, three, or four golf courses along the coast so golfers can experience a first-class golf tour, starting north and going south, that is going to create an incredible opportunity for the Nicaraguan tourism industry to expand and thrive,” says Roger Keeling, President of TKG, the majority owner of Milagro del Mar Golf Club (formerly Gran Pacifica Golf Club).
Kidd notes that golfers want to play more than one course during a vacation to an exotic land. So the more quality courses there are along the coastline, the better Nicaragua’s chances are of becoming known as a new golf destination.
“Nobody here wants to prevent competition to this course,” Kidd says. “Guacalito needs to have competitors and it needs to have great golf as competitors too. We are not scared of it. I would hope that all my competitors in the golf-design business come to Nicaragua and build great golf courses and I hope that they can do something as good as we have done.”
And there’s no reason that shouldn’t happen, Kidd says.
“This country is astonishing and people are going to figure it out.”