Los Cabos, Mexico – If you take a detour on your way to the sixth hole here at Club Campestre, turn left and head about 75 yards up a paved road to the top of the hill, you’ll see construction crews hard at work in the distance. Since November, they’ve been in a dead sprint to complete a 653,400-square-foot convention center.
“Here,” said transplanted Californian Greg Smith, who is a marshal at Campestre, “they work seven days a week.”
They have to. Come June, the G-20 Summit – the annual gathering of political and finance leaders – arrives in Los Cabos, and with it some 7,000 aides, business executives, media, protesters and various hangers-on. Los Cabos always has loved a party, but it has never seen anything like this.
Longtime visitors to Los Cabos – the region of Baja California Sur that includes the southernmost town of Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo 22 miles northeast on Highway 1 – can recall a time not that long ago when they landed on a dirt runway, with no greater plans than to fish all day and drink all night. That’s still a popular itinerary among a certain set. But it speaks volumes about the maturation of this region that when Mexico wants to put its best face forward to the world, it turns to Los Cabos.
With that has come millions of dollars in government investment – for the convention center, roads and promotion – to help bolster a region slowly emerging not just from recession, but from the misperception that it has been affected by the country’s drug war.
There are signs that the Los Cabos real estate and tourism markets are starting to rebound. That’s most evident at Diamante, the newest addition to the golf landscape here.
Diamante is, at present, the only Cabo course on the cooler Pacific side of the peninsula, and also the only one that could be fairly characterized as a links. The golf course, a Davis Love III design, sits on a windswept, 1,500-acre site that is so exposed that it was difficult to grass the 16th and 17th holes.
As luck would have it, I happened to catch Diamante on one of those sun-splashed afternoons that you get only about 350 times per year in Los Cabos.
Diamante almost became a statistic in the 2008 financial panic after Lehman Brothers, which had backed the project, imploded. Fortunately, the course has been up and running since October 2009, and now operates as a private club, but with a fractional component to allow outsiders to sample the goods.
Which they would be well advised to do. If Steve Jobs had designed a golf course, it probably would look something like Diamante. Throughout the experience – and golf at Diamante feels less like a round than an experience – there is that “think different” mentality in the attention to detail and rethinking of standard operations.
Rather than an uninterrupted rope line on the range, foursomes gather in one of four secluded, rocky alcoves to prep with their choice of Titleist, Callaway and Srixon tour balls. Before teeing off, they can grab a bite at the slider bar on the range. A boardwalk-style cart path reinforces the course’s low-impact theme. The comfort stations on the front and back sides satisfy any culinary desire that might surface while playing.
Diamante is the kind of place where, if time allows on a lazy afternoon, you’ll feel inspired to try shots unique to links play – say, throw a chip up on the hill behind the fourth green and watch the ball trickle back to the flag.
The routing fuels the drama as the back nine moves toward the sea – so close, said our forecaddie Eduardo, that from the 17th tee you sometimes can hear the whales that make a spectacle of themselves just off shore.
The back side will get even better this year with the construction of a new par-5 12th that will play directly toward the ocean, and a new, short par-4 13th. These holes will replace a pair of indifferent inland holes.
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Los Cabos is bracketed on the East Cape by Puerto Los Cabos, the 2,000-acre development just east of San Jose del Cabo. It’s less than 30 miles from Diamante, but the weather and vibe is markedly different.
Eddie Papczun, who founded memorabilia company Golf Links to the Past, bought at Puerto Los Cabos “when it was dirt roads and no beach club and you had to have some vision or be drunk.” He liked the quiet setting, and was comforted by the deep pockets of Eduardo Sánchez-Navarro, president of developer Grupo Questro. “Going forward, this is the place where people are going to want to be,” Papczun said. He’s so confident that last year he bought a second lot, with the idea of building a larger home.
Papczun, like many, draws a dichotomy between Cabo San Lucas, which caters heavily to young tourists and cruise ships, and the area around San Jose del Cabo, where private communities such as Puerto Los Cabos and Querencia are located.
“Over here you can go into San Jose del Cabo, the art district opens up at night, and it’s a true Mexican town experience,” Papczun said.
That night, a Thursday, was particularly festive, as visitors filled the town square, where artists displayed their work. Two blocks away, on Calle Álvaro Obregón, pedestrians milling through the streets came upon a bizarre street theater – what appeared to be a macabre wedding march. Just around the corner, the Baja Brewing Co. had everything a tired, hungry American could want on a mid-December night: a Baja Blond Cream Ale, excellent thin-crust pizza and an NFL game on TV.
Puerto Los Cabos, which sits on three miles of beachfront just east of town, is distinguished by the marina that visitors fly over when landing in Cabo. It is home to one course – the first nine holes by Greg Norman, the back nine by Jack Nicklaus – with plans for each architect to build an additional nine holes. That likely won’t happen until at least 2014, when 800 hotel rooms are scheduled to come on line, according to Sánchez-Navarro.
It’s immediately evident how severe the golf course site is on the uphill opening hole, which would require a mule to scale if carts weren’t available. There are several blind shots – even a semi-blind downhill tee shot on No. 9 – and while the fairways tend to be generous, they’re not necessarily forgiving.
“Is there a flat lie out here?” Kevin, a playing partner from Washington state, asked at one point.
The nature of the terrain, however, creates some memorable golf shots. The sixth tee more than 100 feet above the green, with the Sea of Cortez as backdrop. And the seaside green settings on 14 and 15 are among the prettiest in the area.
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There has been much talk in recent years about Nicklaus’ penchant for difficult greens, and that’s evident in some of his work here. Club Campestre, another Grupo Questro property, is one of the best layouts in the region, though the greens at times seem overcooked.
The fourth is a three-tiered green, the fifth two tiers with a false front.
On 10, a three-tiered green, Smith knew he was in a hopeless position despite sitting pin-high. “Look at this,” he said as his putt made a sharp right turn before settling on the bottom tier. “What can I do?”
By contrast, Cabo del Sol’s Ocean Course, just down Highway 1, is an old-school Nicklaus design, and certainly one of his best. It has topped the must-play list here since opening in 1994.
There no doubt are better experiences than being first off the tee at the Ocean Course on a calm Sunday morning, with streaks of sunlight shooting through the cloud cover. But it’s not a long list.
Much of the Ocean’s reputation hinges on the dramatic closing stretch: the great, all-carry, par-3 17th, and the dogleg-left 18th along the coast. Local lore has it that Nicklaus originally planned to route the 18th hole up the hill toward the clubhouse before Arizona developer Lyle Anderson prevailed upon him
to create a seaside finish.
But it’s the new, pint-sized par 3 on the front – the tiny, Redan seventh that plays across the beach – that might leave the most lasting impression. It’s just 132 yards, but the wind makes it difficult to pull a club.
Not that anyone will be in a hurry to do so. Its surf-side location makes it the quintessential Cabo golf hole, and one where you’ll no doubt be inclined to linger.
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IF YOU GO
• WHERE TO STAY
Sheraton Hacienda del Mar: This seaside hotel is conveniently located across the street from Cabo del Sol’s 36 holes. sheraton.com/haciendadelmar; 800-325-3535
Dreams Los Cabos: Located roughly halfway between Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo, this all-inclusive hotel is a good option if you want to lock in prices. dreamsresorts.com/drelc; 52-624-145-7600
• GOLF COURSES
Cabo del Sol: cabodelsol.com; 877-703-4394
Cabo San Lucas CC: cabosanlucas countryclub.com; 011-52-624-143-4654
Diamante: diamantecabosanlucas.com; 866-901-1456
Palmilla: palmilla.oneandonlyresorts.com; 800-637-2226
Querencia: loscabosquerencia.com; 888-236-2229
Questro Golf: (includes Puerto Los Cabos, Cabo Real and Club Campestre), questrogolf.com; 877-795-8727