Exploring golf on Mexico’s Riviera Maya
It’s a modern-day play on a rich Yucatán tradition: A society surveys a vast jungle canopy lapped on several sides by a cobalt blue sea and then has the Mesoamerican equivalent of an Archimedes moment, “Yes, let’s build.”
The Maya are gone, their cities and temples and culture having receded into the landscape. But for a something-from-nothing success story of more current vintage, look no farther than Cancún, which in fewer than 40 years has gone from being a narrow, uninhabited spit of sunbathing-perfect sand to one of the hottest destination spots in Mexico. As in days of old, a popular sport has taken root locally. Golf is hot on the Caribbean end of Mexico. From modest hit-and-giggle beginnings, the play has become solid, attracting the architectural likes of one Shark and one Bear, and a yearly visit by the PGA Tour.
Perhaps the best of the courses arrived courtesy of Greg Norman, who as his playing days waned has morphed from a head-scratching to a head-nodding designer. Playa Mujeres Golf Club, just a tad north of Cancún proper, is a joyous romp through wetlands, dense stands of palm and a couple of passes at the coast. It’s Shark Subtle – classy, stylish, like his more recent clothing portfolio, which is nicely devoid of neon colors and large, embroidered sharks.
The front nine traipses through chit palm thickets and seasonal wetlands in a manner not altogether unlike an old course routed where stands of pines would allow. I’m not getting all “Golf in the Kingdom” weepy over a bygone day when all was better because it’s hard to do so with gentle Caribbean breezes buffeting your face, electric carts rumbling over elevated wooden pathways that protect the riparian habitat and titanium tinkling hybrids in the bag. Like the man himself, the shoulders are broad, and there’s little in the way of a Mother Nature condo-alley effect; just don’t venture outside the line of the seam. Playa Mujeres twice plays down to the water’s edge during the back nine – water that is the blue of a toucan’s eyes.
Farther south, along a comely stretch of land-meets-sea that some public relations savant dubbed the Riviera Maya, Norman’s El Camaleón Golf Club is home to the Tour’s Mayakoba Golf Classic, which is the place to be if the expected WGC-Accenture Match Play invitation somehow got lost in the mail.
This part of the Yucatán is much richer than Cancún in the type of vegetation where huge cats with amber eyes and saber-equipped paws lie in wait just past the OB markers, while the mangrove stretches of holes teem with long-snouted nasties that only a Dundee could love. Don’t worry. It’s no more dangerous than Adventureland, even if the property abounds in cenotes, natural limestone wells of crystalline freshwater that the Maya favored as “ceremonial” sites. For the claustrophobic, Norman’s two Caribbean- side par 3s let you clear your head. And wise players who know a day is best if doubled up can visit the nearby Robert von Hagge-designed Playacar Golf Club or P.B. Dye’s Iberostar Playa Paraíso Golf Club.
Back up in town, Riviera Cancún Golf Club is what happens when the greatest player ever meets the worst movie ever. For those who’ve been asleep the past many decades, that would be Jack Nicklaus and “Waterworld.” At the ribbon cutting last fall, Nicklaus addressed the challenges of dealing with a site absent “dry land” and covered with an average of three feet of water: “I don’t have a problem with environmental restrictions. Just tell me what I can do, not what I cannot do.”
What Nicklaus did was push up and thread 18 green ribbons of terra kinda firma through an expanse of lagoon, marsh, sand and canopy of trees. To say a course in Cancún or along the Riviera Maya has water in play is not exactly man-bites-dog news. Yet here the interplay between golfer and what is wet, or what would be wet with a good lunar pulse, is some order of magnitude greater. It’s a tough play, as Nicklaus acknowledged, one more reminiscent of his earlier works – in terms of keep-it-in-play difficulty for high-handicappers if not prototypically “Jack” design features – than what has come of the House of Nicklaus more recently, and even just down the road at Moon Spa and Golf Club. Moon, a stylish 27-hole layout presenting three distinct looks of wet, green and rolling dune, offered a much larger building envelope and more natural terrain.
Knowing fun-in-the-sun hotel trade would be Riviera Cancún’s bread and butter, Nicklaus tried to “contain the ball,” placing bunkers and waste areas where we hacks are most inclined to leave it on those rare occasions when the drives aren’t 305 and striped. It’s a strategy that works, mostly, and with fast-running Paspalum Supreme from tee to green, balls do want to run out to oblivion, or at least something briny. And as courses are living beings, change is a natural thing, and the design team set about almost instantly to add more containment.
The opening eight scream “resort,” and that’s really an invitation, not a warning. Open, set beside huge stretches of lake that showcase yet another of the shades of blue that exist in the tropics, these holes are about looking around, enjoying the scenery and hording those wonderful things known as pars. At nine, it all turns, with the artifice of lake replaced by the real stuff, alternating walls of water-rooted trees and avenues of native grasses separated by strands of Paspalum. Is it wet? Is it dry?
And with a white tee – yes, white – slope of 136, it is muy difícil.
But then, just because you’re on the Riviera Maya doesn’t mean you’re always going to enjoy the easy life.