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Author: Subject: The finest golf destination in the world

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[*] posted on 3-22-2003 at 11:00 PM
The finest golf destination in the world

By Joel Zuckerman
Fairway Forum

Consider the golf growth curve in Los Cabos, Mexico, on the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula. Palmilla was the first true resort course in the area, and the original 18 of this 27-hole Jack Nicklaus design debuted just over a decade ago, in 1992.

But a scant eight years later, Golf Digest declared that Los Cabos was already among the world's 15 finest golf destinations. (For comparison, Hilton Head was ranked 10th, but truthfully, there's no comparison.)

Since that "best of" list appeared, several other world-class courses have sprouted in this mesmerizing landscape, an unforgettable confluence of desert, mountain and sea.

Should the magazine choose to update the list someday, it's a forgone conclusion that Los Cabos would easily crack the top 10, but I'd personally place it in a much loftier position. As far as this vagabond golfer is concerned, it's the finest destination in the world, and I'll spend the next three weeks explaining why.

Much as he was through most of the major championships of the '60s, '70s and '80s, once again Jack Nicklaus has emerged as leader of the pack, this time as the area's foremost architect.

Besides the 27-hole complex at Palmilla, the Golden Bear struck gold once again at El Dorado, and most famously at Cabo Del Sol's Ocean Course, currently ranked 93rd in the worldwide top 100 courses by GOLF Magazine.

In addition to this august trio, Jack's old foil Tom Weiskopf has chimed in with the Cabo Del Sol Desert Course, Robert Trent Jones Jr. produced Cabo Real, and Tom Fazio's presence is felt at Querencia, the area's only private venue that for the moment allows some limited outside play.

There are at least a half dozen other projects in various stages of development as well.

Los Cabos is about sun, fun, fishing, water sports, honeymoons, margaritas and lazy days at the beach, but golf has arrived in a major fashion as well.

How quickly has Los Cabos ascended into the golf pantheon? Brad Wheatley is all of 40 years old, and the "grand old man" of golf in the area.

The native Texan came to the area to open Palmilla in 1991, and then moved to Cabo Del Sol a few years later.

"We had dirt roads here until about three years ago," offers Wheatley, referring to the golf development he's been affiliated with for a decade. "The buildings, hotels, hustle and bustle are now part of Cabo Del Sol, and they weren't previously."

Unfortunately, it's an inevitability of modern life. How far must one travel to find a place that's not commercialized, or truly unspoiled? Apparently farther than the tip of the Baja, 1,000 miles south of the U.S. border.

Rampant development aside, the area is top notch because of a variety of physical factors that have nothing to do with greens, tees and fairways. The climate is perfection, with 350 days of sunshine and temperatures in the mid-80s. Only in late summer does the heat factor become discomforting. It rains briefly, maybe four or five times a year, in early autumn.

Other than that it's a tropical paradise, with the Sea of Cortez sparkling to the east, the Sierra de Laguna Mountains looming to the west, and the mighty Pacific Ocean meeting the sea at peninsula's end, due south. There are few spots on the planet that can match this region for sheer physical wonder.

While many of the hotels and resorts are of recent vintage, Palmilla is the grand dame of Los Cabos. It opened in 1956 with 15 rooms, the province of Hollywood hotshots who literally wanted to get away from it all and troll for the monster marlins and other sport fish lurking in the temperate waters.

Several expansions later the room count has increased by 100, but Palmilla is still an intimate, charming and friendly place. Perched by the Sea of Cortez, there are million-dollar views from many of the rooms, a lovely negative-edge swimming pool, an open-air bar and superb restaurant on site.

Much like the Pacific on the Monterey Peninsula, the water in the Sea of Cortez is a visual and aural treat only. Here it's not the temperature, as it is in northern California, but the dangerous rock outcroppings, violent surf and brutal undertow that preclude ocean bathing.

More gentle surf is found just minutes from the hotel on Palmilla Beach. It matters little, though, as the thundering waves exploding sea spray over the jagged boulders at the shore is incredible in itself. There's no need to even dip so much as a toe into the water.

To be continued ...


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[*] posted on 3-22-2003 at 11:02 PM
'The most expensive golf destination in the world'

By Joel Zuckerman
Fairway Forum

The best course on the Baja Peninsula is undoubtedly the Ocean Course at Cabo Del Sol.

It's a kinder, gentler Jack Nicklaus on display through the opening holes, but the tricky par 5 4th offers a change in tone. It's downhill twice, then an approach over a combination arroyo and rock garden to a deceptive green guarded by a massive bunker.

No time to catch your breath, as the next hole is arguably the toughest on the course. This is a tumbling par 4 toward the ocean, a putting surface framed by palms just steps from the beach. It's downhill, but into the prevailing breeze off the Sea of Cortez.

At 450 yards from the penultimate tees, 95 percent of the resort guests won't be making footprints in the sand. At least not until after their third shot, anyway.

The Ocean Course is a Technicolor carnival featuring bright blue sky, cerulean sea and shimmering green grass. Oceanside holes get the attention and the glamour shots in the travel magazines.

But the reason the course has been a fixture among the world's top 100 since it debuted in '94 goes beyond the back-to-back beachside par 3s that follow the gargantuan 5th, or the ending trio, hard by the ocean that the designer himself has referred to as "the greatest three finishing holes in the world."

Holes 8 through 11 are a quartet of lovely and strategic inland par 4s. Its desert wash and native vegetation that are the dominant features, no water involved.

Palmilla is the original Nicklaus design in Los Cabos, and the first world-class course that appeared in this marvelous landscape. It's been superseded by other dazzlers since it debuted 11 years ago, and management is striving mightily to maintain, perhaps improve its place in the pecking order.

"The average visitor plays three rounds of golf in Los Cabos," explains club manager Ray Metz. "Their first choice is almost always the Ocean Course and the second is usually El Dorado. The third round is predicated on the location of the hotel property. Since we're farther north than many of the newer hotels we need to up the ante in conditioning, service, accessibility and price parameters to lure players for that third round."

Palmilla has made great strides in all categories since being taken over by the Troon Golf management team in June 2002. It's slowly reclaiming its status as one of the area's premiere destinations.

The first 18 holes are the Arroyo and Mountain nines, and the third piece of the puzzle is the Ocean nine, which dates from 1999.

The opening holes are the softest in all of Cabo, typical resort fare, with none of the fear factor present at the other venues in town.

The 5th is where the fun begins, a short par 3 with a vertical rock wall left of the green. A pulled tee shot will hurtle to an arroyo, never to be seen again.

It's the start of a great series of golf holes, the "wow" feature firmly in place, as tees, fairways and greens are framed by sheer rock faces down to arroyos on the valley floor.

The best hole of the 27, arguably the most dramatic in all of the Baja, is the 5th on the Mountain nine. It's a 400-yard dogleg par 4 which requires two pulse-pounding arroyo crossings, both off the tee and to the green.

The more you risk on the tee shot the closer the approach. But a mis-hit will find the desert floor, anchored by impenetrable vegetation, some 80 feet below the fairway.

The newer Ocean nine has wider, flatter desert wash. The arroyo angles into play here more obtrusively, although balls that find the desert are easily playable, which is certainly not the case on the original 18.

Although there's only one true ocean hole on this addition there are a pair of lovely par 3s. Too bad the nine ends with a couple of awkward holes, a short par 4 and short par 5, that seem shoehorned into what little terrain must have been available.

There are two things to remember about Los Cabos in general. It's expensive, and it's pricey. Just the sunscreen bill alone is daunting.

"I think it's the most expensive golf destination in the world," claims Brad Wheatley, the director of golf at Cabo Del Sol.

"It's more than Pebble Beach, Hawaii or anywhere else. It goes beyond golf, to the food, hotels, taxis, the whole thing. All six of our major courses have an average daily rate approaching $250 in high season."

It's prohibitively costly, no doubt. But after all, can you truly put a price on paradise?

To be continued next week ...

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