Golf 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 Cond"© 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.
Other notables include the Hilton Cancun Beach and Golf Club and Cancun's elder statesman of golf, Pok-ta-Pok Golf Club. In a trend that defies just about every golf market in the world, 18 new courses are in the permit or construction phases, according to local golf officials, including three Greg Norman credits at the $1.35-billion Playa Mujeres Resort.
"The future for golf (and new courses) for Mexico is virtually unlimited," says von Hagge. "This is due to the magnificent properties still available in abundance and the present ease of the political and environmental permit process."
When To Go
There's never a bad time to travel south of the border, though you'll need to grab a flight to get to the good golf. Even the closest Mexican golf destination, Los Cabos, is a 1,000-mile hike from the States. Aeromexico and Mexicana offer daily round-trip flights from most major cities. Both airlines offer faresaver specials and packaged vacations. Brand loyalists, take heart: More than 25 international airlines have extensive route systems, including Southwest, Delta, American and US Airways.
What To Bring
"Don't bring your slacks and a sport coat," quips Scott Bowles, vice president of new business for Golf Adventures, a tour operator that offers golf packages to Los Cabos. "Cabo has some resorts formal dining, but for the most part it's Jimmy Buffet casual."
On course, shorts and shirt sleeves work year-round. Thirty-six-hole-a-day types doing Mexico in the summer and early fall may want to bring along a change of clothes for afternoon rounds. Only winter mornings in Los Cabos may call for a light pullover or jacket. For a solid selection of gear designed to stand up to all the elements, check out Sun Mountain. The Montana-based outfitter stocks pullovers, vests, short-sleeve jackets and lightweight golf bags that travel well.
As far as clubs go, grab a few sticks to battle the tropical breezes. The majority of resort courses in Mexico are located on or near the ocean, and winds in the range of 15 to 20 knots aren't uncommon. A straw poll of local head pros yielded a proclivity toward utility clubs that produce low, straight shots. A close second was well-tested sand or gap wedges for negotiating waste areas and greenside bunkers.
All major Mexican golf resorts have extensive Websites and most have toll-free reservation numbers. Tracking down official tourism information is a bit trickier than researching domestic destinations. A huge crop of golf and vacation packaging services have popped up on the Internet, looking to take advantage of the country's multimillion dollar golf industry.
Many offer well-researched, accurate information on local conditions and amenities. Others don't. A good place to start your vacation planning is www.visitmexico.com, the country's official tourism Website. For a less "chamber of commerce-like" perspective, check out www.mexicofile.com and www.simmondsmexicotours.com. Both are creations of David Simmonds _â__Ò a cult-like figure who's sampled every course and 19th hole from Tapachula to Mexicali.
Where To Play
|Cabo del Sol
Mexico's most lavish stay and play option is home to the Ocean and Desert Courses, two of Mexico's highest-rated resort tracks. A third course, designed by Tom Doak and Mark Parsinen, is in the works. Bed down at the Fiesta Americana or the Sheraton Hacienda del Mar tucked along the Sea of Cortez.
Cabo Real's El Dorado Course is on the level with the Ocean Course at Cabo del Sol in terms of scenery, design and conditioning. The original Cabo Real Golf Course, a Robert Trent Jones II design, plays a close second fiddle with its three oceanfront holes. Play them both, then relax at one of Cabo Real's seven resort hotels.
Palmilla features twenty-seven holes of Jack Nicklaus-designed golf. The original 18-hole circuit helped put Cabo and Mexico on the international golf map. Nicklaus returned in 1999 to add the Ocean nine, with its 600-feet of elevation change. The boutique-style resort dates back to 1956 and was a favorite haunt of Hemmingway's.
Vista Vallarta is PV's premier multi-course golf resort, with 18-hole gems from Tom Weiskopf and Jack Nicklaus. The two former Ohio State Buckeye greats produced a couple of stunners just 15 minutes from the hotel zone and a stone's throw from "Gringo Gulch" _â__Ò site of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor's torrid affair while filming Night of the Iguana. Stay-and-play packages are available with seven local resort hotels.
|Four Seasons Punta Mita Resort and Golf Club
Bahia de Banderas
The Four Seasons Punta Mita, located 45 minutes north of downtown Puerto Vallarta, is a quaint collection of 140 guest casitas that spill down the coast to the Pacific. Nearby is Jack Nicklaus' Punta Mita Golf Club, a stunning track laid out on a narrow nape of land next to Banderas Bay.
(011-52 -329) 291-6000
|Moon Palace Golf Club
Moon Palace Resort is Cancun's premier stay-and-play property. The resort features a Jack Nicklaus-designed course (his first along the east coast of Mexico) that has been described as a jungle where a golf course broke out.
|Estrella del Mar
Estrella del Mar is a master-planned resort set on 3.5 miles of pristine Pacific Ocean beaches. The centerpiece of the property is a lush Robert Trent Jones II course routed through a series of glistening lakes.
|The Raven Golf Club at Cabo San Lucas
A Roy Dye design built on the site of the old San Lucas Country Club. The recently refurbished track is typically half the price of the big boys, and also affords prime views of El Arco, Land's End.
|The Cozumel Country Club
This circa-2001 Steve Nicklaus design on chic Cozumel is the island's first course _â" and what a course. Coral rock outcroppings and thick strands of red mangroves combine to create a golf experience that may make some forget about Cozumel's world-famous snorkeling and scuba diving.
(011-52-987) 872 9570
|Campo de Golf and Marina de Golf
Two 18-hole offerings from Robert Trent Jones II and Robert von Hagge located at the Palma Real Golf and Tennis Club. Camp de Golf was part of the original planned Ixtapa city that sprung up in the 1970s; Marina de Golf opened in 1994.
|El Tamarindo Golf Club
A David Fleming/Robert Trent Jones II design on the Costa Alegre situated midway between Puerto Vallarta and Manzanillo. El Tamarindo was laid out on oceanfront property and features a number of holes with view corridors to the Pacific Ocean.
A Robert von Hagge redesign outside of Acapulco that is widely considered one of the most scenic plays in Mexico. The Pacific Ocean actually comes into play on the 443-yard par-4 ninth hole and forms the backdrop for the sporty 190-yard par-3 third.
|Isla Navidad Country Club
Isla Navidad Country Club is a pristine Robert von Hagge design considered by many to be Mexico's top course. Threes nines, the Ocean, Lagoon and Mountain, converge along a rocky swath of Pacific Ocean coastline.