Golfing in Paradise

Mexico's Baja Peninsula Provides Challenging Courses with Incredible Vistas
| By Lorne Rubenstein | From 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.

On the Mountain nine, the par-4 fifth hole is thrilling. It requires a tee shot across an arroyo, or gully, to a fairway dropped like an oasis between deep fallaway zones. The second shot must carry another gully to the green below. I learned from a companion who has played here to aim my tee shot at a rock 245 yards away at the arroyo's edge, and hit a left to right shot that would bound down the fairway.

With its challenging layout and panoramic views, the Palmilla course invites you to linger. But other courses beckon.

Cabo Real, a bold, strong course that plays high into the hills above the ocean and then plunges seaward to the greens below, offers powerful golf, full of difficult shots but always presenting arresting views. The fifth hole at Cabo Real is a wonderful microcosm of the entire course. Standing at the back of the tee at this 454-yard par-4, you look to the east and see the calm waters of the Sea of Cortez. Ahead, over a chasm, is the fairway, turned to the left around bunkers, and beyond it are mountains and a saddle between two hills where Robert Trent Jones Jr. has already plotted another course. To the south and west sprawl vast, rugged lands populated by cacti and other desert vegetation. It could have been the set of a Wild West movie, but this was pure golf-land.

Cabo Real is very demanding, but it is leavened by softer holes down by the sea. The 14th hole is a short par-4 that zooms out to the sea, followed by a par-3 along the shore where the green is perched against the water. The sea and sun conspire to totally relax the golfer.

This is also the case at Nicklaus' Cabo del Sol, where Ray Floyd, Lee Trevino, Dave Stockton and Simon Hobday played a tournament last spring. Floyd had heard about the course and flew in one day for a practice round. Stockton also had come in beforehand, and why not? The golfers would be up against a course that is a true jewel. Right now it's the best course in Los Cabos, which is no slight to the other layouts. It's just that Cabo del Sol is that good.

The first hole sets the tone for this course, a generous fairway inviting a long drive, but with bushes and cacti just off the sharply defined border between fairway and rough.

At the 568-yard par-5 fourth hole, the tee is elevated, always a signal to the golfer to take a hard rip at his drive. The fairway continues downhill to the brink of a drop-off into a modest but troublesome arroyo. Playing the hole, I felt tremendously invigorated, and recalled similar moments at remote courses such as Royal Dornoch in northern Scotland and the New South Wales Golf Club in Sydney, Australia. There was a feeling of getting away from it all, of being in touch with the essence of golf, which I have always felt is simply a game of hitting the ball from Point A to Point B while drinking in the environment.

At the aforementioned 17th hole, I unfortunately chose the wrong club for my first shot and cranked a ball to my right and out to sea. There was an east wind and I could not decide whether a 4- or 5-iron was the right club. Alas, I made the classic golfer's error of hitting too little club, swinging too hard and not catching the ball solidly. Why didn't I remember some advice that golfing legend Sam Snead gave me a few years ago when I played a round with him at the Upper Cascades course in Hot Springs, Virginia? There I had also taken too little club on a par-3 after hesitating over my club selection. The ball went sideways, gone but not forgotten. Snead turned to me and said in his droll drawl, "Son, let me tell you something. If you're standing over the ball thinking you don't have enough club, you don't." Slammin' Sammy was right, but I had neglected his sage advice at Cabo del Sol and would pay the price of a double bogey. But I didn't mind. It seemed churlish to agitate over a bad shot when the scenery was so enchanting.

The final hole was no less captivating. The par-4 of 425 yards plays to a fairway that runs along the cliff edge to a green that is also on the brink of the sea. Still, there is plenty of room to the left of the tee. I found the fairway and then took Snead's advice, choosing lots of club. Swinging a 5-iron, my ball soared across the rocks and sand and settled sweetly on the putting surface. Two putts for par. As a golfing buddy likes to say, "Bee-yoo-tee-full, just bee-yoo-tee-full."

And it was beautiful, from first tee to last green at the courses in Los Cabos. I was golfing in a place so serene it belonged to me alone, and I was completely taken by the sensation of watching my ball soar against the background of sky, sea, desert and mountain, then following its flight landward. How could golf be better than this? This was golf with an eye to the idyllic.

I felt a deep satisfaction when I conquered some of the holes across arroyos, deserts and bits of ocean. I was not upset even when I hit poor shots; Nicklaus and Jones have carved golf holes into a memorable setting here. Time after time I would listen as a desert bird sang, or watch as a lovely lime-colored butterfly fluttered by. This is golf at its generous best, hole after delicious hole, shimmering where the desert and the mountains meet the sea.

Lorne Rubenstein writes a golf column for The Globe and Mail in Toronto.