Pure paradise: Argentina

Birthplace of the tango, a boisterous cosmopolitan capital that never sleeps, steely-eyed gauchos roaming an endless pampas, superb beef and massive glaciers — all this you already knew about Argentina.

The surprise is the southernmost country in the Americas has more than 300 golf courses, a veritable smorgasbord for discerning golfers.

A diamond-shaped land with widely diverse climates, Argentina stretches more than 2,000 miles from northern, lush jungles to the roaring melt of the Perito Moreno Glacier Southern Ice Field, where each of the country’s 23 provinces has something unique to offer.

Meander meadowland fairways under a canopy of multi-colored butterflies near the imposing Horseshoe Falls of Iguazu. Take dead aim at Antarctica. Soar like the Andean condor beneath Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the Americas. Whatever the choice, one of the world’s most exotic destinations is just an overnight flight away and it doesn’t hurt that the strong dollar-to-peso exchange rate makes the experience wallet-friendly.

The graceful Latin-American compliment, “my house, your house,” is the welcome one would expect from a nation where manners derive from European culture and pastimes such as soccer, cricket, rugby and golf were introduced in the 19th century by the British. To which Argentines add their own Latin joy de vivre, where almost every day concludes with rich wine and steak barbecue dinners.

Golf is played all year in the sub-tropical pampas zone, stretching 500 miles north, south and west of Buenos Aires. Just remember that winters in the far south are mostly for skiing, so for visitors who might want to play the southernmost golf course in the world, Ushuaia Golf Club in Tierra del Fuego, be sure to choose summertime, which is November through March.

Visitors flying into Buenos Aires gasp as they glide across the silvery River Plate Delta, awed by a vast metropolis fanning out over 40 square miles. Golfers smile, aware that many of these large green suburban areas are golf courses, easily accessible within half an hour’s drive from the city center. There are at least 70 courses within easy reach of the capital, including a dozen of Argentina’s finest.

The national flagship is the Jockey Club, San Isidro, located in the city’s northern outskirts. Designed by Alister Mackenzie and completed in 1930, this two-course complex is still as challenging and drop-dead gorgeous as Mackenzie’s other more famous masterpiece, Augusta National in Georgia.

Mackenzie magically transformed a fl at piece of property into two tantalizing puzzles, the Red Course that has been host to many national championships, and the Blue, a shorter but devilishly deceptive test of ball control. Ample fairways and plateau-style greens hallmark the Red, where each hole offers a variety of shot-making solutions. The conclusion, a scenic par-3 with a narrow, angular green and a nearly-drivable finishing hole with a deep valley of sin reminiscent of St. Andrews Old Course, completes a round where first reaction is an instant desire to play it again.

Fifteen minutes north is Olivos Golf Club, a plush parkland designed by Luther H. Koontz, Mackenzie’s right-hand man during construction of the Jockey Club. Home of the Argentine Masters and host to more than 20 Argentine Opens, Olivos scores 10 points on golf’s Richter scale. With large fl owing greens that confuse and delight, the 27-hole complex fully deserves its top-100 world ranking. The par-5 15th, one signature hole among many, has a sweeping downhill approach across a lake that remains entrancingly vivid long after the day is done.

Two courses close to the city that are highly recommended are the Buenos Aires Golf Club, site of the 2010 World Amateur Team Championships (together with Olivos GC) and the Jack Nicklaus Nordelta Golf Club, constructed in 2007 on the edge of the River Plate estuary. Both layouts challenge every player’s limit, where accuracy is at a high premium.

Smart pre-planning will maximize golf opportunities throughout “the interior” — as Buenos Aires residents refer to the rest of their country. The metropolitan airport, 10 minutes from downtown, is the central hub for domestic flights. Trips to the Patagonian south, the western Andes wine-growing area of Mendoza and north to the Iguazu Falls take between one and two hours by plane. Plenty of early morning flights permit visitors to squeeze golf and local sightseeing into a series of excursions.

Argentina has few links courses, but the Mar Del Plata Golf Club (240 miles south of the capital) is an unforgettable experience. Perched on a long sliver of sandy coastline overlooking the harbor in this classic South Atlantic beach-vacation city, by modern standards the holes seem short, but when breezes blow off the ocean it is easy to recall this 110-year-old design came directly from Scotland. Gravity-defying cantilever greens add to the challenge. Complete the test in your handicap and be mighty proud — because not many will. Head a few miles south for scenic Miramar Golf Club, an interesting links layout with numerous holes edging the ocean, then ease north to Cariló Golf Club and enjoy an impeccable pineland course.

A visit to Argentina is not complete without including Patagonia. The southern Alps-style towns of Bariloche and Junin de los Andes not only offer international-level wintertime skiing, but two wonderful and entirely diverse mountain-golf experiences.

The Llao Llao Hotel and Resort, south Bariloche, may be the closest you will come to playing golf inside a picture postcard. Undulating bright green fairways wind around the majestic aquamarine Lake Nahuel Huapi, with lofty snow-capped mountains as a stunning backdrop. Anticipate taking as many photographs as swings. Eighty miles north, in Junin de los Andes, the Nicklaus-designed Chapelco Resort course also offers splendid vistas and a critical examination of skills.

The fifth largest wine producer in the world, it is often said the best of each year’s production never leaves the country. Most top-end viticulture is in west Argentina’s Mendoza Province, near the Chilean border. Two excellent courses, the Andino Golf Club (Mendoza city) and Club de Campo Mendoza in nearby Guaymallen are recommended. Imagine, morning golf in the Andes, wine tasting afternoons and steak barbecue evenings in cool mountain air. A perfect day.