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Golfing in Paradise

Mexico's Baja Peninsula Provides Challenging Courses with Incredible Vistas
Lorne Rubenstein
From the Print Edition:
Tom Selleck, Winter 95/96

If golf is a game that at its best celebrates sport in a natural environment, then the Jack Nicklaus-designed Cabo del Sol course at the southernmost end of Baja California is a most dramatic expression of its possibilities.

You can play golf elsewhere in Baja and still be unprepared for Cabo del Sol. Standing on the tee of the par-3, 173-yard 17th hole, you look out at a landscape of desert, ocean and mountain. The tee is set on a precipice with the sea to the right, sand and scrubland and jagged rock ahead and below at water's edge, and mountains framing the sleek setting. Nicklaus, a winner of 20 major championships and a designer of more than 100 courses from Indonesia to Ireland, from Florida to France, knows that golf should please the eye while testing the swing. He could not have found a better place to do so than at Cabo del Sol--Cape of the Sun--which opened in May 1994 and which is being hailed as the Pebble Beach of Baja.

Finding a course where ocean, desert and mountain meet is a rarity and the very reason why Baja will quickly become a mecca for golfers. In addition to Cabo del Sol, there is another Nicklaus-designed course (the Palmilla Golf Club) at the Palmilla Resort, 18 holes at Cabo Real designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr., Campo de Golf Los Cabos--a public nine-holer with ocean views from most holes--and nine holes that the late Roy Dye designed as part of a planned 36-hole community called the Cabo San Lucas club. More courses are planned. Baja is hot for golf.

For now, however, golf is still relatively quiet in Baja, something of a secret even for ardent followers of the royal and ancient tradition of seeking out memorable courses. Golfers think more of Ixtapa, Acapulco, Mazatlán and Puerto Vallarta when contemplating a trip to Mexico. Taking nothing away from these places, the courses in Baja feel undiscovered, simply because they are so uncrowded. This will change as golfers learn that the weather there is ideal from September through May, with temperatures in the 80s, no humidity and clear blue skies day after day. This is a golfer's paradise; surfers and fishermen have been coming to Baja for decades, and now golfers will follow.

Baja is an 850-mile peninsula that stretches south and east of California. The word Baja means "lower," for Lower California. The long pinkie of land is bound on the west by the Pacific Ocean and on the east by the Sea of Cortez (also known as the Gulf of California). The courses are located on a 20-mile stretch that runs east to west, from the peaceful town of San Jose del Cabo to Cabo San Lucas, a bustling tourist town at the tip of the peninsula.

Here is the Finisterra ("Land's End") hotel, where sea and ocean meet at a juncture of breathtaking beauty, and where the action of wind and water on land have formed and continue to form striking rock formations. The postcards from here often feature El Arco, the rock arch at the point of confluence of the Pacific and the Sea of Cortez. One evening my wife and I took in El Arco as we had a drink at Da Giorgio's restaurant; we watched the dazzling sunset from the outdoor bar right at the edge of the sea--a spot the locals tout as the best restaurant view between Baja and Alaska. I kept wondering: How long has this dream of a golf destination been here?

Not long at all, as it turns out, although fishermen have been favoring the Los Cabos area--the Capes--for years. The area's reputation for marlin, tuna and snapper is well-deserved, and it once attracted the likes of John Wayne and Bing Crosby. The potential for golf was always there, but some impetus was needed in the form of a developer with a vision.

The prime mover has been Donald Koll, a Newport Beach, California-based nongolfer who used to visit Los Cabos as a youngster with his family. In 1984 he purchased the Hotel Palmilla--long popular with fishermen--and refurbished it to become an elegant, opulent hideaway for visitors, be they actors, honeymooners or travelers in search of fine accommodations in a dreamlike setting. The Palmilla is set along a stretch of seaside above the Sea of Cortez and offers a serenity that prepares one quite nicely for the Nicklaus courses. Indeed, Koll's company owns both Cabo del Sol and the Palmilla Resort course. And Koll plans another 36 holes at Cabo del Sol, where he has 1,800 acres at his developing disposal.

Just up a hill and across the road from the Hotel Palmilla are the Arroyo and Mountain nines. It becomes quickly apparent that Nicklaus has designed an eminently user-friendly, but still challenging, series of holes, most of which incorporate sea views and all of which play across transition areas of desert sand and vegetation. The sixth hole on the Arroyo nine is fabulous. A par-4 of 460 yards from the back tee, the hole moves right to left. The idea is to aim at a certain cactus at the end of the fairway. But this hole is not about challenge only; down the fairway, when you turn the corner, a wide view of the sea presents itself, with mountains in the foreground. This is golf in Cabo, full of sudden eye-popping views.

The holes on the Arroyo nine are spectacular. Consider the eighth, which must be one of the strongest par-3s anywhere. Nicklaus was always known to be a long hitter who favored a high left to right shot. It is also true that he has been criticized for building courses that favor such a shot, but that was not the case here. This 243-yard hole is all carry, but there is an area right off the green where one can play safely and then pitch up to the putting surface. Still, it's more fun to try to hit a right to left shot that comes in from the safe side and finds the green. After all, this is holiday golf, not competitive golf. Why not accept the challenge? Trust your swing and fire away.

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