On course in Los Cabos
How Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus made the Baja Peninsula one of the best places to play golf
Lured by the legendary sport fishing, Hollywood stars such as Bing Crosby and John Wayne put Los Cabos on the tourist map in the 1950s. While fishing still draws avid anglers to what’s called “Marlin Alley,” Los Cabos has also become one of the world’s top golf destinations where the desert meets the Sea of Cortez.
Home to four of the top five courses in Mexico according to Golf Digest's current “Planet Golf” rankings, Los Cabos raised the stakes last year when the two best-known figures in the sport, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods, unveiled their newest designs just a few kilometres apart from each other.
Jack Nicklaus officially opened his epic layout, Quivira (quiviragolfclub.com) in Cabo San Lucas, last December, arguably his most daring design to date. It has the fewest bunkers and the smallest green. The front nine is par-34; the back nine is par-38 — another departure from the norm.
Quivira, Jack’s sixth course in Los Cabos, is Nicklaus Design’s 23rd in Mexico. Golf Magazine named him “architect of the year” for 2015.
Nicklaus recalls his early days in Los Cabos: “We used to come here in the ’60s with a tee shirt, swimming suit, a pair of sandals and 20 bucks, and stay for a week. Then all of a sudden we started doing golf down here and it just exploded — the real estate values, the golf courses and the developments. When we came in ’86 to do Palmilla, there was nothing here. My friends say I’m the guy who ruined Cabo. But what we really did was introduce the game of golf to Cabo.”
Quivira boasts more oceanfront exposure than any other course in Los Cabos. All 18 fairways feature views of the Pacific. From December to March you’ll likely spot whales leaping in the wild blue yonder. The layout with four tee placements, ranging from 7139 to 4326 yards, starts at sea level, scales cliffs more than 275 feet above the surf, spans canyons and arroyos, meanders through dunes and desert, and returns to the sea at the finish.
There isn’t a weak hole at Quivira; many are spectacular. For example, the 10-minute drive to the fifth traces a switchback route up the side of a mountain. The fairway, slanted below a dune on the right, traces the edge of sheer granite cliffs to the left as it tumbles downhill to a transition zone before dropping to a rock-walled, cliff-hanging green 106 feet below the tee.
When asked to predict how Quivira will impact his legacy, Nicklaus says, “I think some people will say it’s the most spectacular and best golf course they have ever seen and others will say, ‘You have got to be kidding.’ I don’t think there will be a lot of middle ground.” If you look at the game of golf as having a fun experience, and playing in an exciting and beautiful place, you will absolutely love it. From start to finish, I’d say Quivira has as much pace, variety and spectacular beauty as any course I’ve ever designed.”
To play Quivira you must be a resident or guest of one of four Pueblo Bonito Oceanfront Resorts and Spas (pueblobonito.com) in Los Cabos: the adults-only Pueblo Bonito Pacifica; the family-friendly Pueblo Bonito Sunset Beach (both share property with Quivira); Pueblo Bonito Rosé; or Pueblo Bonito Los Cabos (the latter two are located on El Médano beach). Stay-and-play packages are available.
A golf day at Quivira Golf Club starts with a complimentary shuttle to the club. Warm up on the range. Perhaps you’d like to relax your swing with a Bloody Maria? Snacks, such as tuna sliders and fish tacos, and drinks are included in your green fee. After the fourth hole, golfers maneuver their carts to the first comfort station, perched 200 feet above the ocean where they can help themselves to more refreshments. The Oasis halfway house offers inventive takes on classic Baja cuisine and has a tequila bar. Players may indulge again at the 16th.
Tiger’s El Cardonal
Arguably the hottest news in golf course architecture was the December 2014 opening of El Cardonal at Diamante (diamantecabosanlucas.com) in Los Cabos. Why? Because it’s the very first track in the world to be designed by Tiger Woods.
Just six miles from Cabo San Lucas’ city centre, Diamante is a master-planned luxury community with two 18-hole courses: the Dunes by Davis Love III (opened in 2008) and now El Cardonal by Woods. El Cardonal takes its name from the cactus that thrives in this region; it was also the name of the cattle ranch upon which this property was developed.
Tiger’s design career has had a tumultuous start. His first three commissions — in the Dubai desert (2006), in the mountains of Asheville, North Carolina (2007) and on Mexico’s Baja Coast (2008) — were all either postponed or abandoned because of the economy. El Cardonal also had a stormy start due to damage in September 2014 from Hurricane Odile.
While the neighbouring Dunes course is reminiscent of seaside links in Ireland or Scotland, El Cardonal has the feeling of old-style California courses like Riviera and Bel-Air, the types of tracks that Tiger played while growing up. Tiger, who owns a home at Diamante, just off the driving range, was given an interior parcel of land set well back from the Dunes Course, which is routed in towering sand dunes above the Pacific. Scenery-wise, Tiger’s track will never compete with the Dunes, though it offers an ocean view from every hole. What the 7363-yard, par-72 course presents is a superb strategic test.
The front nine, routed on the lower, flatter portion of the property, plays to and from the sea along fairways framed by rolling, manmade dunes. One of the best holes is the short par-four third, which skirts a pond and brings a menacing central bunker into play off the tee. You have to make a choice: lay up short of the bunker on the tee shot; carry the bunker to set up a short approach from a good angle; or boldly try to carry a second bunker and drive the green. It invites fun risk/reward options. The back nine is on higher ground with more interesting contours than the front. Tiger and his team have brilliantly incorporated cactus-studded arroyos into the layout.
According to Diamante’s owner Ken Jowdy, Tiger’s goal was to create different ways to negotiate each hole. “He [Woods] focused more on the people he plays with on Wednesdays [amateurs] than on the weekend.”
Many players-turned-designers have been criticized for being too hands-off, but that wasn’t the case with Woods, assures Jowdy. “Tiger’s level of passion for this design has been evident since day one…. He’s made multiple visits and spent many hours in the field.” Woods even got involved in the quality of the grains of sand used in the bunkers and, because he has a house here, he also had input on the kind of exercise equipment installed in the gym.
Want to play Tiger's track?
While the course measures almost 7400 daunting yards from the tips, Woods is adamant that his design will reflect a “playable-for-all” philosophy, inspired by North Carolina’s Pinehurst No. 2 and the Old Course at St. Andrews.
“I don’t want people to lose a dozen balls when they play our course,” Woods comments. “Pinehurst is a great example of a course that’s tough for us [pros], but playable for everybody else. It gets players thinking, with options around the greens. We want lots of variety. The Old Course at St. Andrews, Scotland is the world’s greatest course. There are so many different ways to play it, to get the ball on the green.”
The El Cardonal track will not only be hard-pressed to stack up against Pinehurst and St. Andrews, it will have to be good just to match Diamante’s existing Dunes course, which is ranked Number 52 in GOLF Magazine’s Top 100 Courses in the World. Golf at Diamante does share some similarities with the classic links courses in Scotland and Ireland. But here, the weather is warmer. The sand is whiter. And the sea is bluer. “I’ve started off El Cardonal with a slightly downhill par-five measuring just over 550 yards,” Tiger says. “The idea was to ease the golfer into the round. The 18th is just the opposite. I like strong finishing holes where par is a good score. With the downhill par-four 18th measuring just over 500 yards, it will be a true test. And with the Pacific Ocean as the backdrop, it should be a memorable conclusion.”
El Cardonal is private, however, tee times for prospective property buyers are available. If you rent a house, golf villa, beach estate or two-bedroom condo unit at Diamante, you can also play the course. Green fees are approximately US$275, comparable to Dunes course rates.
At both El Cardonal and the Dunes courses, golfers are in for the royal treatment: your caddy will take you to a private hitting station at the driving range, complete with sunscreen and lawn chairs, and there are several comfort stations on the courses that provide cocktails and a full range of snacks, including bean and tortilla soup, tamales and more.
For more info on travel to the region, go to Los Cabos Tourism website (visitloscabos.travel).
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