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Down Mexico Way

Mexico's Pacific Coast Offers Duffers a Swing at Paradise
Jeff Williams
From the Print Edition:
Bo Derek, Jul/Aug 00

At first light there is the chirp of birds, the whisper of wind and the crash of waves. The waves. Always the waves.   The hum of outboard motors, pushing fishermen across the bay, competes with, and soon complements, the natural symphony.   A fresh sea breeze, filtered through the palms, is the most gentle of wake-up calls, like a kitten walking across the bedclothes. There is the urge to rise. At first it is repelled. It is easy to embrace the elements in a comfortable bed, to inhale them, to fill the lungs and gorge the imagination with the sweet smells.  

Then you remember why you came in the first place. You remember that not so far from this bed is the golf course. You remember that it sits freshly cut and exquisitely preened. You remember that you came here to chase your ball down fantasy fairways. You remember, most of all, that golf is sometimes much more than a recreational challenge or a social gathering. You remember that it can be an escape from everything that is regular and routine in your life. Rise and shine.  

There is golf, good golf, up and down the Pacific Coast of Mexico. This Mexican Riviera, defined by throbbing Acapulco to the south and bustling Puerto Vallarta to the north, was a destination for golfers long before Mexico's Baja became an exclusive and expensive outpost of American country clubs. It was to Acapulco, especially, that golfers would come to play the courses at the resorts south of town like the Acapulco Princess and the Fairmont Pierre Marques. Bob Hope in his prime would come to Acapulco to play the once oh-so-private (now the sort-of-private) Tres Vidas Golf Club. He even had his own locker there.  

Hope found escape in golf, a way of stepping off stage by stepping onto a tee. Just north of Manzanillo and a few hours south of Puerto Vallarta is a place where golf is the ultimate escape, a place that is little known and immensely desirable, a place to step off the stage of life. There are two places, actually, two resorts that share a summit of casual luxury by camping out on opposite sides of the peak. Isla Navidad, curled around a bay across from the precious seaside town of Barre de Navidad, and El Tamarindo, curled around a private Pacific cove a few miles to the north, provide extraordinary golf, extraordinary accommodations and an extraordinary level of escape.  

Just how different are they? Isla Navidad is a classic resort with the beautiful Grand Bay Hotel and 27-holes of artful and thoughtful golf by Robert von Hagge. El Tamarindo couldn't be more different in execution while being similar in world-class style. Tamarindo is extracted from rain forest with guests staying at 29 one- and two-bedroom casitas along the Pacific cove, and the golf course tumbles through the forest landscape all the way down to the ocean.  

Golf at Isla Navidad begins at its enormous clubhouse, 60,000 square feet of comfort and class. Its huge circular bar area, with a domed brick ceiling in the style of the Catalan region of Spain, is a beckoning 19th hole.  

Von Hagge, blessed with a large budget provided by resort developer Don Antonio Leano Alvarez del Castillo, has fashioned 27 prodigious golf holes. The course at Isla Navidad is no less grand in concept than the hotel, the clubhouse and the resort's marina where multimillion-dollar boats rest from the rigors of the Pacific.  

Though much of the oceanfront property at Isla Navidad is scheduled for home development, von Hagge was able to reach the sea with several holes on the Ocean and Mountain nines, and he was also able to bring water into play extensively on his Lagoon nine. In between he moved around scads of earth, forming ridgelines between many holes that give you the feeling of privacy. Von Hagge doesn't call these ridges, or dunes or even mounds. His term is "vertical expression." More about that later.  

You first touch the sea--in a sublimely subtle fashion--when you play the par-3 third hole on the Ocean nine (generally the front nine in tournament play). You don't see much of the ocean from the green, though you can certainly hear the waves crashing on the beach. The cart path to the left of the third takes you up and over a mound, and right into the maw of a breaking wave. It might be one of the few courses on earth where a golf-cart ride is exhilarating, however briefly.   Von Hagge loves the Mountain nine (usually the back nine in tournaments), and with good reason. A lovely stretch of holes starts at the par-4 12th and extends through the par-3 15th. The green for the 14th and tee for the 15th sit at the edge of the beach, providing a fascinating tableau of sea, sand, mountain and manicured grass.  

The Lagoon nine can be every bit as interesting. The second hole on the Lagoon is a par 3 of 231 yards from the back tee. It's as intimidating a one-shotter as you will find, or want to find, anywhere. The green juts out so far into Navidad Lagoon that you think it's about to set sail. There is a small bailout area to the right, with the emphasis on "small." There is also a series of cape holes, par 4s where the fairways and greens bend around water. Be sure to bring an extra sleeve of balls if you play the Lagoon nine (an extra dozen if the wind is up).  


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