SINCE OUR EARLIEST ANCESTORS CRAWLED out of the primordial ooze to whack one-celled amoebas up and down the shore, some of the most enjoyable summer vacations have been built around seaside golf. It’s not hard to see why. There are the spectacular views and the sweet smell of the salty spray and—for a few blessed hours—all the nuisances of modern life are replaced by one of man’s oldest games in something akin to its original form. The only trouble is, today’s ever-growing golfing hordes have descended like locusts on the world’s best seaside courses, making it nearly impossible to play. The greens fee at famed Pebble Beach, for instance, is now a staggering $245, and when the occasional tee time does open up at Scotland’s hallowed St. Andrews, it is immediately snapped up by a pack of Easterners whose yen for the game can scarcely be weighed in pounds.
Fortunately, there are some fine new alternatives to the crowded favorites—and they’re not too far away. At the tip of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula, on the twenty-mile coastal strip between San José del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas know as Los Cabos, are five courses with 72 holes of fun in the sun, including three courses of championship caliber: one designed by renowned course architect Robert Trent Jones, Jr., and two by the Golden Bear himself, golf legend Jack Nicklaus. Best of all, summer is considered off-season in Los Cabos, so hotel rates and greens fees are substantially cheaper than in the winter, when snowbirds from the U.S. and Canada swoop down by the thousands.
It was shortly after the normally reserved Nicklaus called his Cabo del Sol course “the best piece of golf property on earth” that I decided to check things out for myself. After flying nonstop on Continental Air Lines’ daily flight from Houston to Los Cabos, I took the shuttle to the Cliffside Hotel Finisterra in Cabo San Lucas. The ocean and the famous arch at Land’s End are as beautiful as when I first visited seven years ago, but the laid-back marlin-fishing village has grown into a round-the-clock party town and an emerging golf mecca. Although the area’s first nine-hole course, Campo de Golf Fonatur, opened in 1987, the game really arrived in 1992, when the classy Hotel Palmilla—once a remote fishing resort for Hollywood stars and other well-to-do types—debuted the stunning Nicklaus-designed Palmilla Golf Club.
With the early morning sun glistening off the Sea of Cortés, I arrived by cab at the Palmilla, which is secluded on a rocky point among a small forest of tall, lush palm trees, and was greeted at the course by a platoon of attentive pro-shop assistants. The foundation of golf at Los Cabos is the breathtaking natural beauty of the area, and as you play Palmilla’s first holes, up a long arroyo away from the clubhouse, you are bombarded with an array of sensory pleasures: the mountains framing the background, the constant call of mourning doves in the chaparral, the sights and smells of the desert plant life blooming in tiny colors. On almost every hole, your gaze is drawn to magnificent vistas of the deep blue sea outlined against fair ways of velvety green.
At the Palmilla there is never any doubt about where to hit the ball: You must hit it to the green grass, not into the thorny jungle on either side. Happily, in the forgiving spirit of resort golf, the fairways are wide and the distances are well marked on just about every manmade surface on the course. A word of warning, though: On the first hole, my ball stopped next to a sprinkler head with two distance numbers on it. I chose my club assuming that the smaller number was to the front of the green and the larger was to the center or the back. Wrong. My well-hit shot came up short in a deep sand trap, and I was lucky to make bogie. It was not until the next hole that I discovered that the larger distance was the yards to the middle of the green and the smaller was the meters to the same spot. Metric golf—an idea well before its time. Somehow I don’t think the American TV audience is quite ready for Johnny Miller to whisper that Tom Watson has missed another of those pesky sixty centimeter putts.
The Palmilla course is divided into an Arroyo nine and a Mountain nine (ultimately, an Ocean nine will also be opened). The Mountain nine is the more striking of the two. The par-five fourth is a sucker hole, and yours truly was the sucker. Using one of his longtime design trademarks, Nicklaus offers too distinct tee shots: the long way, down a wide and safe fairway, and the short way, with a long carry over a gigantic sand bunker. I ruined an otherwise good score by taking the risky route without success, then knocking my second shot into the water by the green. In retrospect, I realized that the hole is relatively easy if you play the conservative route. Nicklaus had tricked me into a major mistake.
I recovered nicely onto the next hole, which is simply one of the most lovely par fours in all of golf. The tee shot crosses a deep arroyo to a slender fairway, and the second shot doglegs to the right and crosses the arroyo again to a green nestled so neatly in its desert surroundings that it seems all Nicklaus did was scatter a little grass seed here and there.
If I was impressed by Palmilla, what I saw on my second day of golf blew me away. Nicklaus’ other signature course in Los Cabos, the jaw-dropping, eye-boggling Cabo del Sol, has seven holes perched along the shore of Bahía de Ballenas (“Bay of Whales”), and the rest wind through arroyos cut deep into the ancient rocks of the Sierra de San Lázaro mountains, which form the tip of the Baja Peninsula. “Nicklaus’ people say