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Hooked on Cabo

Cabo San Lucas, Mexico

By: Turk Pipkin

Appeared in January/February 2006 LINKS

A spirited long weekend of golf and fishing in this booming resort destination at the tip of the Baja Peninsula

It’s been 20 years since my first visit to Cabo San Lucas, then a laid-back fishing destination at the end of a thousand miles of bad road. Grimy after five days of fishing, camping and driving south from Los Angeles, I checked into the Palmilla Hotel, which had what I considered the ultimate luxury: oceanfront rooms with no phones or televisions. I was in heaven, and the world could not find me.

The only golf at the time was a recently completed nine-hole track in San Jose del Cabo, an historic, sleepy village just east of Cabo San Lucas at the tip of the Baja Peninsula. (Together, the towns—and the region at large—are known as “Los Cabos,” or simply “Cabo.”) If you’d tried to convince anyone then that Los Cabos would soon become one of the hottest golf destinations in North America, they’d have suggested you get out of the Baja sun and lay off the cactus juice for a few days.

Whether it was the fishing (arguably the best in the world) or Palmilla’s frozen margaritas (definitely the best in the world), I was clearly hooked on Cabo, as my nearly two dozen subsequent trips to the area confirm.

Though fishing originally put Cabo on the map, it is golf that has colored that map green—and I’m talking about the color of money as much as the area’s lush fairways, which now number 144. That’s eight courses if you’re doing the math, including my three favorite Jack Nicklaus tracks: Palmilla Golf Club, Cabo del Sol’s Ocean Course and Eldorado Golf Course. Thanks to the constant procession of visitors—and to the development of paspalum grasses that survive on salt water—southern Baja’s course count may double in a few years.

How hot is Cabo golf? Despite green fees of $295 at Cabo del Sol’s Ocean Course, you generally have to book in advance to ensure a slot. That’s a far cry from the mid-’90s, when the course was so empty that I often carried a two-piece casting rod in my golf bag and stopped at the jaw-dropping par-3 sixth to fish from Shipwreck Beach.

Wondering where it will all end, I made an investigative return visit. I was greeted at the airport by my fishing buddy and fellow Texan Brad Wheatley. Having spent 15 years as the director of golf first at Palmilla then at Cabo del Sol, Brad is so tightly bound with local goings-on that he is known as “Mr. Cabo.” Brad has a habit of beating me by way too many strokes on the Ocean Course, despite a job that often keeps him from teeing it up for months at a time. One of the reasons I put up with this abuse is that he happens to be the best fisherman I know, and is constantly teaching me something new when we’re on the water.

According to our custom, Brad and I headed straight to Zipper’s on the Beach, a surfer hangout run by a genial giant named Big Tony. Sipping our cold Micheladas—a local concoction of Pacifico beer and lime juice served on ice—Brad and I laid out an imprecise schedule of golf, fishing, cocktails, great restaurants and a bit of nightlife. If that sounds like fun, then you know why yours truly and a whole lot of people like me return to Cabo again and again. And again.I was not surprised to learn there are big changes underway in the Cabo golf scene, but didn’t expect the immediate result to be fewer, not additional, places to play. Eldorado is temporarily closed for renovations that will result in an even better track; the bad news is that the club is going private when it re-opens. To make matters worse, the lush, Tom Fazio-designed Querencia is now strictly members-only, with even the nearby five-star hotels no longer allowed access for their guests.

But plenty of great golf is still available, including Cabo Real and the Desert Course at Cabo del Sol. Of course, most golfers want to play one or both of the courses that likely will stand forever among Nicklaus’ crowning architectural glories: Palmilla and the Ocean Course at Cabo del Sol.

There’s no better way to start a Cabo golf trip than an early-morning round at Palmilla, comprised of the Ocean, Arroyo and Mountain nines. My group was first off the tee on Ocean, and by the time the sun climbed above the horizon across the Sea of Cortez, we were already hitting our drives toward the beach on the beautiful par-4 third.

Soothed by the sound of the surf as we hit our approach shots, I marveled at the long shadows of palm trees stretching toward us and realized that I had once again been blessed by a magic Cabo moment. There have been so many—that sea turtle on the beach at Cabo del Sol’s par-3 17th, the gray whale that breeched off Palmilla point, the 600-pound black marlin that batted my trolled lures into the air like a kid with a new ball. Keep your eyes and your heart open, and Baja will always find a way to touch you.

On this day, the wonder was eventually replaced by a nagging question: How could one place be so beautiful while one’s swing could be so ugly? Which brings up an important piece of advice for playing Cabo’s desert-lined courses: Bring plenty of balls. I can assure you from experience with a wicked cactus called the “Jumping Cholla” that you do not want to brave Baja’s flowering thorn jungle in search of your sideways shots.

However, you don’t have to venture into the desert to learn that this surprisingly fertile environment, which appears from a greater distance to be a desolate brown expanse, is filled with stunning birds and flowers in more varieties than you can count.

At Palmilla, Nicklaus expertly routed three nines through this uniquely beautiful landscape with his longtime trademarks such as double fairways, forced carries and risk-reward opportunities that can make you a hero or a zero—all with ocean views at every turn.

Finishing our round well before noon, my foursome headed down the hill for lunch at the recently renamed One&Only Palmilla, Baja’s premier resort destination. As the competition has improved—check out the posh, Auberge-operated Esperanza, for example—Palmilla has upped the ante by adding more comfort and service.

Built just above the waves on a rocky point, Palmilla offers stunning views from every elegant oceanfront suite, as well as thoughtful little touches like iPod loaners while you sit by the pool.Palmilla’s restaurants include C, with food by famed Chicago chef Charlie Trotter; a romantic Mexican restaurant named Agua; and the poolside Breeze, where we enjoyed shrimp tacos and talked about the old days when Palmilla’s Friday Night Mexican buffet started with free tequila and ended with fireworks over the ocean.

When it’s time to go out on the town, Cabo’s number-one restaurant is Nik San, a tiny spot in the heart of downtown where owner Angel Carbajal serves fresh sushi, much of it caught on the restaurant’s own boats the same day.

Though Nik San is generally crowded, the frenzied mob we encountered was like nothing we had ever seen. The explanation? Paris Hilton was having dinner inside. Deciding to pass, Brad and I made a quick round of the local nightclubs, staying one step ahead of the mass of partyers who progress nightly from The Office to Sammy Hagar’s rock-n-roll heaven, Cabo Wabo. Around midnight, everyone migrates to Squid Roe, an open-air mosh pit of tequila-fueled get-down.

Remembering from long experience that fish rarely bite the line of an angler with a steaming hangover, we called it an early night. The next morning we drove north out of Cabo to fish a couple of spots farther up the coast (see sidebar, page 98), and to check out the sites of several courses either under construction or in the works.

Projected to open in 2006, San Jose’s Campestre course, a Nicklaus design but without the prestigious Signature designation, is targeting the middle-tier golfer. Next to open likely will be Puerto Los Cabos, a mega-sized development at San Jose’s Playita Beach, which will have a new luxury marina and oceanside courses by both Nicklaus and Greg Norman. The first nine holes of each course will comprise a composite, presumably temporary, 18.

The boom also stretches north along the Sea of Cortez, where Tom Doak has broken ground on a course at Bahia de los Sueños. In the 300-year-old city of La Paz, Arthur Hills is building Paraiso del Mar. With courses also planned along the Pacific side, the Cabo golf experience will have evolved into a Southern Baja tour in a few years, with visiting golfers playing their favorite selections on a stunning semicircle around the peninsula’s tip.

After a successful fishing expedition that covered much of that ground, Brad and I motored back to Cabo del Sol for our annual Cabo shootout grudge match the next day. I’ve never won—which is why I carry a grudge—but I figured that having caught the biggest fish, perhaps I was due to teach Mr. Cabo a thing or two on the links.

It will come as no surprise to anyone who’s seen me play that I failed miserably. It wasn’t because I played poorly—I even squeezed out a par on the par-4 16th, a great hole made even better by the recent lowering of the fairway to offer a better view from the elevated tee of the fairway, green and ocean beyond. But my par did not match Brad’s birdie, his sixth of the round on the way to shooting a smooth 31 for the nine. No wonder they call him Mr. Cabo.

On my next visit to tequila town, I’m thinking about driving again from L.A., arriving as a middle-aged beach bum climbing out of a dirty pickup at the five-star Palmilla. If I ask nicely, do you think they’d disconnect the phone and the television? I’d be in heaven, and the world would not find me.

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