Tiger Woods is ankle deep in dirt, trudging through a heap of soil at his new design for the Diamante resort in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. There’s no grass yet, only the occasional clatter of a bulldozer or scraper rearranging the earth into shapes that are vaguely recognizable as tee boxes, bunkers and greens. Woods pivots around. Noticing a bunker edge he wants altered, he huddles with Diamante domo Ken Jowdy and Woods’s design associates Beau Welling and Shane Robichaud. They point fingers and consult plans. Heads nod. Welling jots down some notes. Woods, clearly reveling in the collaborative process, flashes a wide grin. “I love this, being out in the field,” he says. “Much more so than being stuck in an office, drawing up plans.”
Woods rarely lets down his guard, at least not in public. But on this sun-splashed morning on the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula, he’s a veritable chatterbox, energized by the fact that one of his visions for a course is at long last becoming a reality. El Cardonal -- the second layout at Diamante, joining Davis Love III’s Dunes course (No. 52 in our World Top 100) -- will be Woods’s “Hello, World” design moment, a christening that hasn’t come easily. Tiger Woods Design’s first three commissions -- in the Dubai desert (2006), in the mountains of North Carolina (2007) and on another oceanside site further north on the Baja Peninsula (2008) -- have all been called off or delayed, victims of a lousy economy.
Which means that seven long years after Woods joined the design game, basic questions still linger about Tiger the architect: What is his aesthetic? Does he have a talent for the craft? Will his courses be playable for all levels of golfers? El Cardonal, which is slated to open next summer, will begin to answer those questions.
We’re gonna walk a few holes, if that’s okay,” Woods says. He’s dressed casually -- jeans, shades, a white Nike cap turned backward -- and there are no signs of the stoic, tight-lipped Woods known for staring down reporters at press conferences. “Gum?” he says, extending a minty offering to his guest.
The landscape is still raw. Four of the holes have been shaped; the rest have been staked. (Grassing will have begun around the time you read this.) We begin at the second hole, a 205-yard par 3 with a spacious green. Woods explains the logic behind building greens to fit intended types of approach shots, contrasting the second green to the smaller putting surface at the next hole, a short par 4.
On the third hole, the design discussion begins in earnest. The 360-yard par 4 is drivable under the right conditions. The intent, Woods says, is for the hole to yield shot values similar to those at Riviera’s storied par-4 10th, which maxes out at 315 yards. When asked how he decides when to go for the green on a drivable par 4, Woods says the determining factor is the lay of the land around the green. In other words, if he doesn’t get home, what are his chances of still making birdie versus taking the safer route and laying up in the fairway? The third green is a compact 4,400 square feet -- not quite Pebble Beach tiny, but still cozy. Woods points out that his team built a ramp left of and behind the green, so that “if you blade one, you still have a backstop.”
The last time I talked courses with Woods, in 2009, he favored a Pinehurst design approach. That hasn’t changed. “I don’t want people to lose a dozen balls when they play our course,” he says. “Pinehurst is a great example of a course that’s tough for us but playable for everybody else. It gets players thinking, with options around the greens. We want lots of variety.”
El Cardonal, though, seems more like Riviera, evoking the style of George Thomas, who designed L.A.’s “Big 3” of Riviera, Bel-Air and Los Angeles Country Club’s North course. “I call the design style ‘Old California,’ in look and strategy,” Woods says. “We’ve got big, bold bunkers, but we’ve built in ways that you can avoid them. I want to give opportunities to have several ways into the greens.”
Woods has also been influenced by the Australian Sandbelt–style of architecture. “I have been lucky enough to play Royal Melbourne and Kingston Heath many times,” he says. “The bunkers are spectacular. The firm and fast conditions create so many shot options, particularly around the greens. Players need to think their way around the course and be able to play different types of shots to score well.”
That philosophy is evident at El Cardonal’s 484-yard, uphill par-4 fourth, which “might be the toughest hole on the course,” Woods says. Team Tiger is building a bunker short and right of the ideal landing area to tip off players that the best play is to the left, toward a bunker 300 yards out.
“I like the bunkers to be visible, so we’re flashing the faces up,” Woods says. Also on the left at the fourth he’s designed an alley of fairway that will provide the best angle into the green. It’s a challenging but realistic option, unlike the one at, say, Carnoustie’s par-5 sixth, which Woods calls, “ridiculous. It’s like 10 yards wide. Only Hogan could hit it.”
Strategy, fairness, visibility, fun. Woods has the basics covered at El Cardonal, with a refreshing lack of ego. There’s no sign that he intends to stamp “Tiger was here” on his first course. When asked whether he tries to achieve variety through his plans or through what the property will naturally yield, Woods says he blends both. “I think that’s critical,” he says. “Again, we’re after variety. Look at holes 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5. Every one of them plays differently.”
With our tour winding down and a pair of Suburbans waiting for Woods and his associates, Tiger expounds on the bookends for his layout. “I’ve started off El Cardonal with a slightly downhill par 5 measuring just over 550 yards,” he says. “The idea was to ease the golfer into the round. The 18th is just the opposite. I like strong finishing holes where par is a good score. With the downhill par-4 18th measuring just over 500 yards, it will be a true test. And with the Pacific Ocean as the backdrop, it should be a memorable conclusion.”
Back at the Dunes course’s hacienda-style clubhouse, we grab a quick lunch in the courtyard atrium. Woods orders a salad but eats only half of it. He also digs into a pizza shared by the table. “Just one piece,” he says -- more than once.
“Did you ever play persimmon woods?” I ask him.
“Oh yeah, I grew up on them,” he says. “Don’t forget, I’ve been playing for, like, 30 years. Davis [Love III] was still using one in our playoff in Las Vegas in ’96.” Woods won that duel, claiming his first of 79 (and counting) PGA Tour victories.
That, as it happens, was also around the time Woods last paid for a round of golf. “Let’s see, ’96 or ’97,” he says, grinning. “Navy Golf Course [in Cypress, Calif.] -- it was either after my third U.S. Amateur win or my Masters win in 1997. Fifteen bucks, I think it was. I was back home for a visit. They told me that I was no longer of age to be a dependent of my dad. They said I could still play, but I’d have to pay.”
The conversation veers back to course design, and what elements Woods believes a course must possess to be truly great. “Great golf courses are the result of variety, strategy, a distinctive environment and the ability to make golfers think and make choices,” he says. The world’s greatest course? “St. Andrews,” Woods says. “There are so many different ways to play it, to get the ball onto the green.”
Not once this day did Woods speak of building a “great” course at Diamante. He spoke instead of making El Cardonal walkable and playable, with variety and strategy. He pointed out contours that would aid, not frustrate, golfers. He stressed enjoyment for all grades of players.
Only time will tell whether he will deliver on that vision. But if the answers are in the dirt, Woods is off to a promising start.
WANT TO PLAY TIGER'S TRACK?
Cardonal is private, and it won't open until 2014. However, tee times for prospective property buyers are available. If you rent a house, golf villa, beach estate or two-bedroom condo unit at Diamante, you can also play the course. Green fees are expected to be $275, in line with the Dunes course. For more information, visit diamantecabosanlucas.com or call 866-901-1456.
This article originally appeared in the September issue of Golf Magazine, available free to subscribers in tablet form at Golf.com/allaccess.