Greens With Envy
Want to golf this summer on three of the best-designed, least expensive courses in the world? Swing on down to los cabos, mexico.
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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 he has spent more time working on these two courses than on almost any of his others,” confides Brad Wheatley, the golf pro at both Palmilla and Cabo del Sol—and, in fact, the care is apparent at every turn. On holes five, six, and seven, Nicklaus’ slight modification to nature’s graces conjure a symphony of ocean, sky, and shore. Take the 460-yard par-four fifth, the most difficult hole on the course, which forces you to choose how much canyon to overfly on the tee shot. Though I hit my best drive of the day, my conservative route still left me 220 yards from home. A near-perfect five wood put me just off the green; from there, with the cool ocean breeze on my back, I chipped the ball in for a birdie (a pájaro in the lingo of Mexican golf, I was told).
Big red crabs scurry across the rocks of the tidal pools that surround the sixth green, and there is even an old shipwreck just beyond it. I made a clever par on the long par three with a nearly impossible pin position, then moved on to the shorter par-three seventh, where, inspired by yet more sand and surf, I nearly made a hole in one. Even though I missed the birdie putt, I was one under par on the first three-hole ocean turn, which, with the surf booming like a choir in the background, I could only think of as Hallelujah Corner, a nod to the well-known Amen Corner at Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia, the site of the Masters Tournament.
The course’s closing holes, labeled by Nicklaus “the two best finishing holes in the world,” are also spectacularly situated on the ocean. “Not long ago,” Wheatley told me on the seventeenth tee, “I looked down on the beach from here and saw what looked like a dozen golf balls lying in the sand. I went down to check them out and they turned out to be seventeen sea turtle eggs, which we reburied a little further from the surf. They should be hatching soon.”
Cabo del Sol is the first of three courses to be build on this 2,400-acre tract, which has two miles of coastline. Desert wildlife abound—six Mexican eagles nest and hunt on the site, as do foxes and bobcats, who no doubt grow fat on the abundant rabbit population—and there is a wide array of indigenous plants. “We took extra special care not to disturb any more vegetation than necessary,” says course superintendent Randy Bobbitt, an Austin native. “We moved a lot of plants from the fairways and then replanted them on the perimeter of the course after construction.” The most notable plants—on this course and the others in the area—are the three-hundred-year-old cardon, which are towering multi-limbed cacti similar to Arizona’s saguaros. Also here is the torote, or elephant tree, a think-trunked wonder of the desert that can use water stored in its spongelike trunk to live for two years without precipitation. When rain does come to Los Cabos, the torote’s trunk swells to store the water, shedding layers of paper-thin bark in the process.
Beauty aside, however, there are downsides to this native vegetation. Its presence gives new meaning to the word “hazard.” On one hole, excited by the smell of the ocean and hot on the trail of a good score, I blasted a drive twenty yards into the right rough—and I do mean rough. Momentarily taking leave of my senses, I decided to go after my errant pellet. Carefully following a small path, I took one misstep and felt a sharp prick. Frozen in pain, I looked down to see a four-inch piece of cholla stuck to my sock and leg by dozens of long barbed thorns that hurt a lot more coming out than going in. Take plenty of balls and offer them to the spiny golf gods with humility.
Another thing to consider is the often steep terrain and the long distances from green to tee, which have resulted in a no-walking policy at all the courses in Los Cabos but Campo de Golf. At Palmilla and Cabo del Sol, Wheatley hopes to add forecaddies, one per foursome, at the cost of $5 per golfer—a small price to pay for someone who could probably locate a dozen balls for a mid to high handicapper. Two rounds a day would earn the forecaddies $40, pretty solid wages even by NAFTA standards.
After the glory of Cabo del Sol, I half expected to be let down on my third and final day of golf. And, indeed, when I saw the Melía Cabo Real Beach and Golf Resort from the highway—and a hole that slides by the sprawling Cabo Real hotel complex—I thought about passing it by. But I didn’t, and you shouldn’t either, because it is truly a terrific course—a diamond in the rough, you might say.
The main draw here is design. The original course work was done by Texas architect Joe Finger, but when the Hotel Palmilla announced it was bringing in Nicklaus, Cabo Real decided it needed a bigger name and got one in Robert Trent Jones, Jr. The son of famous designer Robert Trent Jones, who remade Augusta National and adapted its expansive style to courses all over the world, Bob Jones the younger is perhaps on the verge of surpassing his father’s excellent record. His course designs for the Links at Spanish Bay in Pebble Beach, California, and Chateau Whistler Golf Club in Whistler, British Columbia, are among the finest in the world; he has designed many excellent Texas courses too, including Mill Creek Golf and Country Club in Salado—one of his favorites—and Cottonwood Valley at Las Colinas in Irving, where he created a Texas-shaped green with a water hazard in place of the Gulf of Mexico and a bunker representing Oklahoma.
Jones jumped at the chance to do the Cabo Real course. “Mexico has more total seashore than the U.S.,” he says, “and the future of golf there is huge. I had built courses at Ixtapa, Cancún, and Mazatlán, but then didn’t have the potential of Cabo, which has absolutely predictable weather and is great fun. It also has an ideal terrain. Most of what’s there now is provided by Mother Nature: hazards, ocean, and cactus.”
Starting high in the hills, Jones’ back nine dives toward picturesque Chileno Bay, with a brief detour on the par-four eleventh hole, where a green sits in the swayback saddle between craggy peaks. With only sky behind the green, it looks as if any ball hit two feet past the pin will fall off the face of the earth. On the front nine, by contrast, the par-three fourth hole offers nothing but blue water as a backdrop, and the white ball gleams like snow as it sails homeward.
The marvel of the course is that it covers such a wide variety of natural landscape while retaining Jones’ innate understanding of classic course architecture. The undulations of the fairways create wonderful lines and shadings—and like the other courses in the area, the Bermuda grass never needs winter overseeding. The slope of rolling greens will occasionally fool you by not breaking toward the ocean.
Around much of the course, the tee boxes are framed by tall red-top grass, which waves in the breeze almost in time to the movement of the ocean below. Turning at the beach, where a flowering lupine akin to the Texas bluebonnet has been allowed to conquer many of the bordering areas, the course climbs back through a long arroyo toward dramatic mountaintops in the distance. The ninth hole even has a wide double green, which wraps around a large pond like a shawl.
“It’s not a play-it-once golf course,” Jones advised me before I saw the layout. “We want to engage you the first time; then the more you play it, the more you want to play it again.” He was right. I do want to play his course again, and also the Nicklaus courses. I’m already making plans to return to Los Cabos with some of my regular golf buddies, but next time I intend to do things differently. Next time I plan to bring more golf balls.
From May to November, greens fees at Palmilla, Cabo del Sol, and Cabo Real average $80, compared with average winter fees of $112.
For reservations at the Hotel Palmilla or tee times at the Palmilla or Cabo del Sol golf courses, call 800-637-2226.
Cabo Real offers an off-season package with three nights at the hotel, breakfast, and two rounds of golf for $279 per person double occupancy. Call 800-336-3542.