Golf in Mexico

The old joke about Mexico is that people would head south of the border with a T-shirt and a $100 bill and not change either one in a week. All that has changed with the infusion of world-class golf in several key regions. More than 700,000 U.S. and Canadian golfers are expected to tee it up in Mexico this year. No overseas destination is close. Over $6 billion is currently committed to golf resort and real estate developments from Los Cabos to Cancun.

Los Cabos

Ocean Course Par-three 17th on Cabo del Sol's Ocean Course.
John & Jeanine Henebry

Mexico's premier model for high-end golf is found at the tip of Baja California Sur in Los Cabos ("The Capes"), the designated name for a 20-mile coastal corridor bookended by San Jose del Cabo (a quaint colonial town) and Cabo San Lucas (a party-hearty Margaritaville). As a destination, Los Cabos, located 1,000 miles south of San Diego, has enough first-rate layouts and deluxe hotel rooms to put it on an equal footing with Hawaii, Scottsdale, or Palm Springs. Once a rustic, sleepy hideaway at land's end favored by retired pirates and fishermen in search of trophy marlin, Los Cabos, in the span of 10 years, has reinvented itself as a golf getaway.

Palmilla Resort , now home to 27 holes of Jack Nicklaus-designed golf, is the facility that set the stage for growth in Los Cabos. In a box-shaped canyon backdropped by stark brown peaks in the Sierra de la Laguna range, Nicklaus created a core 18 in 1992 (the Mountain and Arroyo nines) on terrain that would have given Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid pause for thought.

Palmilla was the first course in the hemisphere to combine ocean, mountain, and desert scenery -- imagine Tucson with the Sea of Cortez at its feet. It was this powerful combination that sparked the imagination of traveling golfers (and future developers). Nicklaus routed holes around long waste bunkers, irrigation ponds, and deep, boulder-strewn arroyos, with five sets of tees providing admirable versatility. Slim landing pods beckon from spiny vegetation on this target-style gem, and several holes call for do-or-die forced carries, but Palmilla overall exhibits excellent playability.

The Ocean nine, added in 1999, features a 600-foot elevation change from the first tee to the sixth green, carrying players from the mountains to the sea. Palmilla's tile-roofed clubhouse, offering panoramic views of cactus forests, deep arroyos, and the distant sea, is magnificent. www.palmillaresort.com

While Palmilla was instantly the best resort course in Mexico the day it opened, Cabo del Sol , a second Nicklaus project 10 miles away, is the course that put Los Cabos on the international golf map. Debuted in 1994, the Ocean Course at Cabo del Sol is a thrilling test of golf currently ranked 93rd on GOLF Magazine's list of the "Top 100 Courses in the World." It's a seaside masterpiece worth crossing a continent to play.

Intent on producing the "Pebble Beach of the Baja," Nicklaus routed big-time holes across gently sloping land creased by shallow arroyos and backdropped by rugged mountains. Giant cardon cacti and granite rock outcrops frame several greens. Like Pebble, the look is natural, unforced -- earthworks were kept to a minimum. From the tips at 7,037 yards, there are several death-or-glory shots to be played across Bahia de las Ballenas (Whale Bay), though staggered tees put most of the danger out of harm's way.

Desert Course Ocean, desert, and mountain views are in full force at Cabo del Sol. Russell Kirk/Golflinks

In 2001, Cabo del Sol's Desert Course , a Tom Weiskopf design routed in mountain foothills high above the Ocean Course, opened to immediate acclaim. And while the 7,053-yard, par-72 layout lacks a hole on the ocean, all 18 serve up a view of the sea. Shoehorning holes into rugged desert terrain crisscrossed by arroyos and staked out by twisted terote and palo blanco trees, Weiskopf produced a masterful design calling for a few semi-blind drives and approach shots that have kept players coming back for more.

The Ocean and Desert courses are served by a new colonial-style clubhouse accented by open-air verandahs and landscaped terraces. www.cabodelsol.com.mx

The combination of Palmilla and Cabo del Sol would be reason enough to visit Los Cabos, but there's more. Eduardo Sanchez-Navarro, heir to the Corona beer fortune, has developed Cabo Real , a resort begun in the late 1980s with three miles of beachfront as its centerpiece. In addition to the Robert Trent Jones Jr.-designed Cabo Real Golf Club , a Jekyll-and-Hyde design with holes chiselled into the mountains balanced by flatter holes routed along the shore, the beer baron contracted Nicklaus to build a course to rival the region's reigning kingpin, Cabo del Sol. Opened in 1999, El Dorado Golf Course , with six oceanside holes, is every bit the equal of the Ocean Course. This 7,050-yard, par-72 spread is a multi-theme course that occupies a pair of valleys divided by a giant hill of rock, with holes transitioning from giant arroyos, cardon cacti, and decomposed granite to dune-like formations. The finish -- the par-three 17th calls for a brave shot to a green backdropped by crashing waves, the par-four 18th skirts the seashore -- is unforgettable. www.caboreal.com

The only course in Los Cabos with a view of El Arco, the famous rock formations that mark land's end, is The Raven at Cabo San Lucas Country Club . A semi-private course laid out by Roy Dye in 1994, this sturdy layout, the region's longest, compares favorably to a Scottsdale-area course, with fairways paved through the desert. 888-328-8501

Puerto Vallarta

Located on the Pacific coast of Mexico on the same latitude as Hawaii, Puerto Vallarta is a multi-faceted destination known for its cobblestone streets, fine restaurants, and perfect weather. Until recently, golf was not a major part of the local tourism equation, but with five courses opened in the past three years, Puerto Vallarta is beginning to rival Los Cabos as a golf destination.

The region's most significant new development is Vista Vallarta, a 36-hole complex opened in 2001 that has given the area instant credibility as a golf destination. ClubCorp, the American golf development firm, hired Jack Nicklaus and Tom Weiskopf to build a pair of courses on an upcountry site 15 minutes from the hotel zone. Each sought to out-do the other at Vista Vallarta, and each, in his own way, succeeded. Visitors are the beneficiaries, for this beautiful complex is already ranked among the finest 36-hole facilities in Latin America.

Nicklaus Course The par-four 16th on Vista Vallarta's Nicklaus Course is a strategic gem. John & Jeanine Henebry

The Nicklaus Course , host to the 2002 World Golf Championships-EMC World Cup last December, is routed across heaving land nearly 500 feet above sea level. Several of the holes push up against the foothills of the Sierra Madre, the rugged spine of mountains that dominates Mexico's interior. Giant ficas trees, tall palms, and sloping hillsides frame the fairways, with arroyos and creeks in play throughout.

Stretching from 5,251 to 7,057 yards (par 72), the Nicklaus Course gives players plenty to think about on the greens, which have more contours than a deep-fried taco. The holes themselves are well-strategized from each set of tees. Even the longer holes call for careful positioning, not brute strength. For example, central bunkers were deployed to force players to choose a left or right path off the tee at several par fours. Straightforward holes are offset by quirky, one-of-a-kind gems where Nicklaus left well enough alone.

On the lower west end of the complex, Tom Weiskopf was handed a rugged, densely vegetated parcel marked by rock-strewn arroyos and meandering creeks. Lauding the site for its lush beauty, Weiskopf retained many specimen trees in his routing, positioning holes on long ridges above vegetation-choked ravines. The short, sporty front nine of this 7,153-yard, par-72 layout is marked by two memorable par fives, notably the 534-yard eighth, which plays from an elevated tee over a watery arroyo to a broad fairway, the target a lone palm at the base of a hill. The brawnier back nine on the Weiskopf Course opens with the longest par five at the facility, but its standout hole is the spectacular 15th. This hole plays anywhere from 124 to 181 yards and calls for a trans-arroyo tee shot to a deep, bi-level green set above a tawny, exposed bluff and staked out by bunkers large and small. There is no fairway -- an all-or-nothing shot must be played.

Vista Vallarta packages are marketed by area hotels, notably the CasaMagna Marriott Resort. www.foremexico.com

Opened last March in Nuevo Vallarta, a burgeoning resort area located north of the city, is El Tigre Golf Course , a Robert von Hagge-Rick Baril creation laid out beside Paradise Village Resort , a 490-suite property that offers a fine beach. A well-groomed test stretching to 7,239 yards (par 72), this relatively flat course, swept by breezes, has 42 acres of lakes on site as well as a meandering creek and dozens of well-placed bunkers. The final three holes at El Tigre, named for a caged Bengal tiger behind the 17th tee, are among the toughest in Mexico. The 18th is a bruiser -- 621 yards from the tips, into the teeth of the wind, water up the left side. www.paradisemexico.com

Punta Mita 3a Punta Mita's hole 3a. Aidan Bradley

At the head of Banderas Bay, 45 minutes north of Puerto Vallarta, is Four Seasons Resort Punta Mita, which occupies nearly 1,500 acres on a spear-shaped peninsula set between the Pacific and the Sierra Madre foothills. Opened in 1999, the resort has quickly become one of Mexico's most idyllic getaways.

Two miles from the elegant property, its 140 guest rooms housed in low-rise, tile-roofed casitas terraced up the side of a hill overlooking the sea, is the resort's Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course. Routed in all directions across a narrow neck of land, Punta Mita ("Tip of the Arrow")

Punta Mita 3b Punta Mita's optional hole 3b. John & Jeanine Henebry
has portions of five holes set along the Pacific, with an additional three holes skirting Banderas Bay. Sadly, its optional par-three hole, No. 3B, which played to a natural island green in the sea, was torn up by a hurricane last fall but should be back in play soon. The core 18 is not only intact, it remains the best-conditioned resort course in Mexico. Landscaped with 1,800 palms and framed throughout by dune-like mounds and vast waste bunkers, Punta Mita, ranging from 5,037 to 7,014 yards, is one of the most cleverly plotted layouts Nicklaus has ever built. Forward tees put the holes well within reach of free-swinging holidaymakers. www.fourseasons.com

Yucatan Peninsula

Cancun is a household name among Mexican destinations, especially for those seeking an island-style sun 'n surf holiday -- Quintana Roo, the state in which Cancun is located, is the only place in Mexico with a Caribbean shoreline. The sun-drenched region took a major step forward last November with the debut of The Golf Club at Moon Palace , a Jack Nicklaus signature course that should raise Cancun's golf profile significantly. Created to harmonize with the site's lush vegetation, the 7,165-yard, par-72 design is flanked by dense jungle, a series of natural wetlands, and strategically placed bunkers.

Among the signature holes is the sixth, a short "driveable" par four; the 17th, a devilish little par three that plays to an island green; and the grand par-four 18th, a 446-yarder that calls for a carry over water from the tee. All-inclusive golf packages are available at Moon Palace, a giant 2,031-room property.

Palace Resorts also offers The Golf Club at Playacar , a 7,202-yard, par-72 layout by Robert von Hagge opened in 1994. With a slope rating of 148 from the tips, this broad-shouldered course, routed around nearly 200 Mayan ruins, offers one of the stiffest tests of golf in Mexico. Laid out on a limestone plateau, the golf course weaves around sinkholes used by the ancient Mayans to collect rainwater. Guests of Palace Hotels in the area have access to Playacar. www.palaceresorts.com

The Cancun area's most intriguing venue is the Nicklaus Design Group's course on Cozumel, a rocky little island east of the Yucatan Peninsula. Cozumel is known primarily for its superb scuba diving, but the sports focus on the island changed in 2001 when Cozumel Country Club , the island's first course, made its debut. Chiselled from coral rock, the layout is hemmed in by red mangroves, expansive wetlands, and shallow coral canyons. www.cozumelcountryclub.com.mx

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