Mexican evolution: Los Cabos

No. 17 at Cabo del Sol's Ocean Course.

No. 17 at Cabo del Sol's Ocean Course.

San Jose del Cabo, Mexico – “Are you writing a story about Los Cabos?”

The earnest young man had gotten wind that a lowly journalist was passing through. He eyed me intently as I navigated past a roomful of timeshare traffickers at SJD Los Cabos International Airport on my way to the rental-car shuttle. I nodded.

“Make sure to tell people it’s the safest place in Mexico,” he said. Wagging his finger for emphasis, he reiterated, “You tell them that.”

The young man needn’t have worried about that. I had arrived at a time when most of the stories about Mexico in the American media concerned drug violence along the border, but that issue is foreign to residents and tourists here. My biggest concern was finding enough time to canvass a good cross-section of the golf courses that line Highway 1 in Los Cabos, the area along the southern tip of Baja California Sur bookended by the towns of San Jose del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas.

It quickly became apparent that would be an impossible task. Los Cabos used to be known as “Marlin Alley,” a reference to its world-class sportfishing, but it has developed the critical mass of courses that make it a favorite of golf tourists, particularly those from the western half of the United States.

“It was a place to come down to and fish and drink margaritas,” says Brad Wheatley, Nicklaus Design’s point person in Cabo, who used to fly down from Southern California to fish with friends 20 years ago. “I kept looking at the coastline between Cabo San Lucas and San José and thinking, ‘When is this going to happen? When it does, I want to be a part of it.’ ”

Then Don Koll, a visionary California developer, ignited the golf boom here in the late 1980s. Two of his early properties, 27-hole Palmilla Golf Club and 36-hole Cabo del Sol, have been must-plays ever since. (During his 18 years living in Los Cabos, Wheatley worked at both properties before joining Nicklaus Design.)

Now, eight Los Cabos courses are ranked among the top 50 on the list of Golfweek’s Best Caribbean & Mexico Courses, and that number is certain to grow as more projects are green-lighted or completed. That group of courses is led, at No. 4, by Cabo del Sol’s Ocean Course, perhaps the best illustration of the area’s unique topography.

The steep, desert hills along the southern coast crash precipitously into the Sea of Cortez, and the juxtaposition of mountainous and seaside terrains creates the dramatic long views for which Los Cabos is known. (It also encourages big-game fish to migrate close to the coastline – a good thing – but makes swimming a risky proposition at most Los Cabos beaches.) At the Ocean Course, you get the killer seaside par 3s that photographers live to shoot. But you also get holes such as the par-4 fifth and par-5 16th, which start in the hills but finish along the ocean.

The Ocean’s accolades tend to obscure the fact that its sister course, Tom Weiskopf Desert (No. 16 on Golfweek’s list), is nearly its equal. Though it may lack the Ocean’s vistas, it’s endowed with some wonderfully entertaining holes, including the drivable par-4 seventh, and a collection of brutish par 3s.

Much the same could be said of Querencia, a residential property that is home to a 2000 Tom Fazio design that ranks No. 5 on the Golfweek’s Best list. With its steep, rugged terrain and severe greens, Querencia at times feels like a mountainous Colorado layout, albeit with the ocean evident just across the highway. Players who have the opportunity to tee it up at Querencia will face putts that would make members of Augusta National blush. A second course is planned at Querencia on gentler terrain; that project is on hold, but architect Gil Hanse already has signed on to design it.

In recent years, golf development in Los Cabos has begun to move beyond the corridor between San Jose and Cabo San Lucas. On the west side of Cabo San Lucas, on a bluff high above the point where the Sea of Cortez meets the Pacific Ocean, the dunes that rise abruptly from the sea are marked with sticks indicating where golf holes will be built. It’s clear even to the untrained eye that some of the seaside holes will be among the most photogenic in all of golf. The project – Quivira, an 1,850-acre master-planned community where two Jack Nicklaus designs are planned – is stalled for the moment as Mexican timeshare tycoon Ernesto Coppel, the project’s developer, waits out the economic downturn. But even in what Wheatley calls “the land of Nicklaus” – a reference to the prevalence of the Golden Bear’s designs in Los Cabos – Quivira seems likely to attract an inordinate amount of attention when it gets off the ground. The site is that good.

Less than a mile farther up the coast, there’s a completed Davis Love III links design at Diamante del Mar that looks as if it has been lifted straight from the Scottish coastline. It’s another project with financial issues; Los Cabos developers are dealing with the same economic realities as everyone else. But that will be straightened out eventually.

“I really wish Quivira and Diamante would get open just for the buzz they’re going to create,” said Greg Tallman, director of golf at Cabo del Sol.

Other projects are moving forward. Last year brought the opening of 18 holes – nine by Nicklaus, nine by Greg Norman – of a planned 36 holes at Puerto Los Cabos in San Jose. Nearby, there’s yet another recent Nicklaus project, Club Campestre.

For all that Los Cabos has to offer golf tourists and second-home buyers, there’s still the sense of untapped potential. The economic downturn has slowed the expansion of golf properties here, but there’s more to come.

“Fifteen or 20 years from now,” Tallman said, “this place is going to be unbelievable.”

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