By: Bill Huffman
Appeared in November/December 2002 LINKS
Twenty years ago, when Eduardo Sanchez Navarro—whose family still rules the Corona Beer empire—purchased the 3,000-acre plot of pristine beachfront and rugged desert/mountain landscape along the southeasternmost seaboard of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula, there were fewer than 400 hotel rooms and nary a golf course in sight in Los Cabos (The Capes).
Fast forward to today.
At this writing, more than 7,500 guest rooms dot the landscape of the region now referred to simply as “Cabo.” Most of those rooms, be warned, rent for a princely sum. Visiting golfers have their choice from among seven world-class layouts, three of which were designed by Jack Nicklaus: the Ocean Course at Cabo del Sol, Palmilla (a 27-hole facility) and El Dorado. Cabo del Sol’s Desert Course (Tom Weiskopf), Cabo Real (Robert Trent Jones II), Cabo San Lucas Country Club (Pete Dye) and the Tom Fazio-designed Querencia, the only private club in the area, complete the Cabo golf scene. But not for long: At least three more “supercourses” are currently in some form of development.
Brad Wheatley—a transplanted Texan who moved to Los Cabos in 1991 to
become the director of golf at Palmilla —has witnessed the boom that’s made Cabo the stronghold of Mexican golf. According to Wheatley, what started out as a small, barely noticeable entree into the game has more recently turned into a roar that’s hard to ignore.
“It took a while for our guests, and the golf world in general, to fully understand just how good Cabo golf really is,” notes Wheatley, now the director of golf at Cabo del Sol. “But once they got here and recovered from the shock of discovering world-class golf in Mexico, well, we had ’em hooked just like those big, blue marlins that swim in these waters.”
The biggest catch in Cabo remains the Ocean Course at Cabo del Sol, where the Golden Bear left his undeniable paw print, as well as what he calls “possibly the best three finishing holes in golf.” A strong statement, especially when there are at least four other holes on this masterpiece that warrant signature status.
“The reaction I hear most often from guests is, ‘Cabo del Sol is the prettiest course I’ve ever played,’” says Wheatley of the Ocean 18, which debuted in May 1994. “That comment, and, ‘I liked it better than Pebble Beach.’”
Tom Weiskopf, who designed the second 18—the Desert Course—at Cabo del Sol, understands why first-time players tend to be a bit breathless in their assessment of the Ocean.
“How can you compete with that setting?” asks Weiskopf, whose layout opened in early 2002 on higher terrain. “Six or seven holes right there on the Sea of Cortez? That’s pretty hard to beat, even though I really like the way my course turned out, too. It’s just not as spectacular as Jack’s, and that’s a fact.”
Despite the kudos and superlatives—the Ocean Course hosted Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf in ’96 and the PGA of America’s Senior Slam in ’95 and ’98, and is Mexico’s only golf course to regularly crack the various top-courses-of-the-world rankings—Nicklaus remains humble about his role.
“Simply the best piece of golf property I’ve ever seen,” is the way he sums up the 7,103-yard layout, one of more than 230 courses he’s designed worldwide. “I think what I’m most proud of is that the front nine turned out almost as terrific as the back. And when you look at the closing stretch, particularly that stunning tee shot at the 17th, that certainly wasn’t a given.”
The Ocean Course’s roller-coaster experience begins with a brief swing through the foothills and high desert before plunging full-speed toward the beach, where the fifth through eighth holes are draped along patches of turquoise- and navy-colored surf. Visitors will never forget the sixth and seventh—back-to-back par-3s that provide a stiff test at 190 and 207 yards, respectively, into the ever-present ocean breeze.
Just offshore from the sixth green lies an interesting sight: wreckage of an old Japanese fishing boat. According to local lore, the ship’s demise was no accident. Mexican fisherman had discovered a transmitting device floating in the waters nearby. They believed it had been planted by the stealthy Japanese, who planned to come back later that night and poach these fish-rich waters. As the story goes, the Japanese boat returned full-steam toward the signal—which the Mexican fishermen had moved onto a rocky crag—and smashed head-on into what turned out to be its final resting place.
A similar fate potentially awaits golfers on the Ocean’s treacherous back nine. Several holes are so visually intimidating that you’ll think twice—perhaps three times—about club selection, especially at the all-or-nothing 13th, which plays 213 yards over an arroyo to a small green guarded by bunkers left and rugged desert landscape short, long and to the right. On the short par-4 14th, a razor-thin fairway awaits your tee shot. Take a breather on No. 15, a downhill par-5 that tumbles toward the ocean and serves as the perfect prelude for that aforementioned once-in-a-lifetime finish. And while the par-4 16th and 18th holes are to-die-for seaside beauties played in the salty air with a pounding surf accompaniment, it’s the 178-yard 17th that will blow you away—literally, on some days.
The mid- to long-iron shot at Nicklaus’ most well-known par-3 is played from a clifftop tee box and lands (one hopes) on a pulpit-shaped green surrounded by huge black-and-white boulders. In between lie 150 yards of beach and surging surf. There are precious few settings in golf to rival this one. Regardless of the consequences, it is the shot of the day—Kodak or otherwise.
“We think the 17th is worth the price of admission alone,” deadpans Wheatley, a subtle reference to the hefty $225-plus green fee at Cabo del Sol. “Sure, I realize we’re a little on the expensive side, especially when you think of the relatively low costs associated with Mexico in general. But at the same time, the Ocean Course is so unique, it’s a must-play for anyone who visits here and loves the game.”
And it’s getting better all the time: With the help of Mark Parsinen (co-designer of Cabo del Sol’s next course), Nicklaus is currently enhancing the Ocean Course. Mounding behind the fifth green is being removed and the 16th green is being lowered—two projects intended to provide even more inspiring views of the Sea of Cortez without compromising Nicklaus’ vision. In addition, a gorgeous open-air clubhouse is set to open by the end of the year. The 25,000-square-foot clubhouse is designed in old-world Mexican style, and will offer an additional 14,000 square feet of exterior and terrace space.
Combining classic design elements and an all-world setting, the facility will be a perfect complement to Nicklaus’ Ocean Course—the crown jewel of golf in ever-growing Los Cabos.