From Cabo to Cancun, golf south of the border is hard to beat

MexicoGolf in Mexico isn’t as storied as it is in Scotland or Ireland. It isn’t as sexy as it is in Hawaii or as dreamy as its Caribbean counterpart. But this much is true: South of the border, the game and all of its resort trappings attract more American and Canadian golfers than any other international golf destination. In 2003, nearly three-quarter-million determined duffers made their way to first tees, from Los Cabos to Cancun.

And these aren’t tee-shirt-and-denim short courses they’re showing up to see and play. Mexico boasts a burgeoning collection of high-end resort tracks designed by the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Robert von Hagge, Robert Trent Jones II and Tom Weiskopf. And with a government committed to promoting tourism via fairways and greens, you can bet your bottom peso there are dozens more on the way.

A trip through Mexico’s golf history is a short ride, beginning in the mid-’70s when the enterprising von Hagge made his way to San Luis Potosi to design nine new holes for the Punta Verde Golf Club. Over the next 20 years, the Houston, Texas-based architect would go on to design or codesign 12 courses in Mexico, opening the door for larger firms to sink their claws into the white-hot market.

One such firm was Nicklaus Design. The Golden Bear’s expansive architectural shop got involved with its first Mexico-based project back in 1992 at Palmilla Resort in San Jose del Cabo in the Baja California Sur. Just two years later, Nicklaus designed the Ocean Course at Cabo del Sol, and the Mexican golf renaissance began in earnest.

Los Cabos quickly became the epicenter of the explosion. In 1999, Corona beer heir Eduardo Sanchez Navarro struck while the iron was hot and hired Nicklaus to build a second course at tiny Cabo Real Resort. The ensuing track, El Dorado, eclipsed the original Rees Jones-designed Cabo Real course and went on to be mentioned in the same breath as the Ocean Course.
While in town, so to speak, Nicklaus added a new nine (Ocean) at Palmilla. In 2001, fellow Ohio State alum Tom Weiskopf arrived to craft the Desert Course amid Cabo del Sol’s craggy mountains and towering saguaro cacti. When the desert dust settled, Los Cabos had firmly cemented itself as a world-class golf destination.

The golf boom in Los Cabos created something of a geographical trickle-down effect that spread to points south and east. The next metro area to take the little white ball and run with it was Puerto Vallarta. Named the world’s friendliest international city by readers of Condé Nast Traveler in 2001, Puerto Vallarta is also the beneficiary of one of the most postcard-ready settings in Mexico. The picturesque ciudad is snuggled against shimmering Banderas Bay with the hulking Sierra Madres Mountains serving as the backdrop.

With its enviable setting, a climate similar to Hawaii and a newfound focus on tourism, it was only a question of time before high-end resort golf made its way to PV. Five courses opened between 1999 and 2003: a seaside Nicklaus design at Four Seasons Resort Punta Mita; the 36-hole Nicklaus/Weiskopf collaboration at Vista Vallarta; the Mayan Palace Golf Club; and most recently, El Tigre at Paradise Village Resort, a sporty von Hagge/Rick Baril creation with three of the toughest finishing holes in all of Mexico.

Taken collectively, the golf inventory of Los Cabos and Puerto Vallarta would merit Mexico a reputation rivaled by only a fistful of international golf destinations. That traditional tourist cities like Acapulco and Cancun have bought into the "Mexico as golfing hotbed concept" is simply the sauce on the enchilada.

Cancun is capitalizing on its reputation as a party town with few rivals and its quasi-Caribbean location to bolster its golf present and future. Looking for a sure sign that the Yucatan Peninsula is taking this golf thing seriously? The opening of a Nicklaus course should eliminate any doubt. The Golf Club at Moon Palace opened just over a year ago, paying compliment to the existing Golf Club at Playacar.


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