PLAYA DEL CARMEN, Mexico – Cancun, once the Daytona Beach of family vacations in Mexico, gradually is becoming a refined golf destination.
It helps having beachfront exposure along the Caribbean Sea. And with major travel markets in the U.S. less than a three-hour direct flight away, there’s no shortage of potential resort-goers. What has been lacking until recently is quality golf.
But with a half-dozen courses opening here in the past few years and four more under construction, the coastal stretch along the Yucatan Peninsula south of Cancun finally has courses that meet the expectations of the clientele visiting a new class of upscale, full-service resorts. This past week, the PGA Tour’s Mayakoba Golf Classic set up shop here for its fourth year at Mayakoba’s El Camaleon course. The Greg Norman-designed layout, opened in 2005, is owned by OHL Development and operated by Fairmont Hotels & Resorts.
Mayakoba Resort last fall underscored its emphasis on golf by opening a Jim McLean Golf Academy, complete with JC Video Swing Analysis technology. It is McLean’s second international golf school.
The 148-acre course occupies a fascinating site, one that’s certified as an Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary and incorporates three distinct ecologies. The course is framed by, and interwoven with, carefully protected mangrove jungles and wetlands. There also is beachfront ground on both nines, culminating in short, windswept par 3s that bring the Caribbean coast into play. Golfers also will confront cenotes, naturally occurring underground limestone caves that serve as
hazards on the first two holes. An ingeniously engineered system of man-made lagoons laces the course and provides waterborne transport for hotel guests.
Wind is a constant factor here, usually out of the east. The course normally sets up at par 72 and measures 7,044 yards from the back tees (73.8 rating/137 slope). For the PGA Tour, a relatively short, downwind par 5 (the 16th) is turned into a par 4.
Everyday guests will revel at the playing width of the fairways. Combined with the firm, fast conditions of the impeccably groomed SeaIsle 1 Paspalum turfgrass covering tees, fairways and greens, the result is a compelling modern design in the midst of a precious natural habitat.
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Rater’s notebook: Mayakoba – El Camaleon
1) Ease and intimacy of routing: 8
Course comprises three circuits, all of them returning to the clubhouse: an opening three-hole, counterclockwise loop; six holes arrayed in a figure eight; and a back nine forming a large counterclockwise path. The front and back nines each culminate in a short par 3 that brushes the beach.
2) Quality of shaping: 7
The feature shaping doesn’t try and overpower this low-lying site, except for some overly lacy bunkering on two greens closest to the clubhouse, Nos. 3 and 18. Otherwise, the slopes seem properly “melted in,” nowhere with more restraint than on the Pinehurst-style, domed putting surface at No. 12.
3) Natural setting and overall land plan: 10
Visually intriguing at every turn and yet perfectly embedded in its natural setting, even with significant transitions through several microhabitats.
4) Interest of greens and surrounds: 7
Greens average 6,000 square feet, with mildly elevated surfaces that tip off behind and to the sides into chipping areas that are substantive, not cliches.
5) Variety and memorability of par 3s: 7
Collectively, a compelling if short quartet of par 3s. From the 6,562-yard tees, I had wedges through 7-iron. Limestone cenotes threaten on the second hole. A spectacular lake carved out of limestone edges into the green on the 10th hole. The photogenic 15th plays into a crosswind from off the beach and demands precision.
6) Variety and memorability of par 4s: 9
Excellent diversity across the spectrum, including a wide, nearly drivable par 4 (No. 11); an unbunkered straight hole with good ground movement (No. 12); and a tightly hazarded 17th fairway, with trouble all the way and little margin for error. The only over-the-top hole is the double-dogleg fifth, where the drive and approach are awkward reverse cambers.
7) Variety and memorability of par 5s: 7
How’s this for an opening gambit; the par-5 first hole, seemingly as wide as a football field, with a reachable (and punitive) cenote in the middle of the far end of the driving zone? Resort goers are treated with respect on the par 5s, thanks to plenty of room off the tee and centrally placed hazards in the second-shot landing areas. No shot can be taken for granted.
8) Basic conditioning: 9
Paspalum throughout that is maintained crisply and firmly. Bunkers are kept firm, not fluffy.
9) Landscape and tree management: 7
Wide corridors through the mangroves, though with the wind up, everyday golfers might feel the place plays too tight since wayward drives beyond the immediate rough are irrecoverable.
10) “Walk in the park” test: 8
Totally enjoyable and walkable, even with four somewhat long gaps in the routing, and unusually stimulating as an encounter with the Yucatan ecology.
Overall rating: 8 (not cumulative)
There’s a reason the Golfweek’s Best rating team voted Mayakoba’s El Camaleon the No. 7 layout in all of the Caribbean and Mexico. It’s far and away the most compelling and most relaxing of the 17 Norman-designed courses I’ve played.
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• Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo, Mexico 77710
• Phone: 52-984-206-3000
• Green fees: $105-$240 (including optional cart)