Going Down to Cabo

Here, at the tip of the Baja Peninsula, where Pacific waters meet lush, lunar landscapes, new breathtakingly good courses seem to open every year. At this rate, says Gary Fisketjon, Los Cabos will have more premier golf than anywhere else in the world.

Baja California has resisted the advances of civilization for much of its history. After Hernán Cortés landed in La Paz on the southern part of the peninsula in 1535, 150 years would pass before colonization would begin with Jesuit missions along the east coast. Here, more than a hundred miles west of the mainland, across the Sea of Cortés, the effects of the revolution were only dimly felt. In 1951 the writer Fernando Jordán called this "the other Mexico," and by some accounts Baja California Sur (the state that makes up the bottom half) didn't officially join national political life until the seventies. For centuries it had remained a country suited to hardy adventurers looking for gold and pearls, and to very few others.

The destiny of Los Cabos, or the Capes, was altered in the fifties, when the weakening commercial fishery of Cabo San Lucas made way for sport-fishing vacationers and hotels to accommodate them. In 1974 a highway stretching a thousand miles from the U.S. border opened Baja to a wider world; ten years later, thanks to a new airport large enough for jets, the gates were flung wide open. But few would have believed that beyond those gates one would soon find a world-class golf destination. The nine-hole municipal course that appeared in San José del Cabo in 1988 was the thinnest edge of the wedge. During the early nineties, Brad Wheatley (now director of golf at Cabo del Sol) arrived to help prepare the construction of the first true resort, Palmilla. He recalls coping with a single landline, unpaved roads, and a host of other limiting factors. But he was still convinced by the land's beauty, from mountain and desert to beach and sea, a place he now calls home.

While the newcomer nowadays might not be surprised by the area's splendor, he may feel amazed by the widespread development, especially along the 20-mile tourist corridor between the two principal towns, Cabo San Lucas and San José del Cabo. Every hotel chain seems to have staked out a claim (the Mexican government having relaxed restrictions on foreign ownership in the nineties) and rumors abound as to who's coming next. Anyone desirous of a Graham Greene-esque sleaze, or for that matter a genuine Mexican vibe, would have to travel back in time, probably to the fifties, or several hundred miles up the peninsula. I had expected the ultraluxurious resorts to exist in splendid isolation, but instead I saw a lesser version of the Phoenix-Scottsdale sprawl, which is eating up the desert there at a furious clip. And while in Los Cabos, you're well within a foreign country, yet you sometimes feel you might actually be in an especially lovely part of southern California, as American-friendly doesn't begin to describe the situation. Even the most xenophobic traveler would feel right at home, without fear of falling prey to the drinking water or being cheated in matters of exchange, since the dollar is so much the lingua franca that you don't need the first peso. Just be sure to bring plenty of francas, as the money spent here has gone from standards Texan in years past right to Hollywood.

For all these reasons, it is with great relief that one turns toward the sea through the gates of Las Ventanas al Paraíso, which, as its name suggests, is a window onto paradise. Unhurried, opulent, calming, and elegant in every respect, the resort has dominated the best-of lists of numerous publications since its opening in 1997. During our visit it was given the London Times' award for "far-flung luxury." It was not so far-flung for Harrison Ford and Calista Flockhart, who seemed relaxed and happy with their luxury when we stayed there. My wife, for her part, saw no reason at all to even step outside of paradise for these four days.

I, however, did, and a reminder of why juts into Las Ventanas: the 15th green of the Cabo Real course, which hangs over a pool in the center of the property. For along that tourist corridor there are now seven championship courses, each every bit as striking as its greens fees and architect (Tom Fazio, Robert Trent Jones Jr., Tom Weiskopf, Roy and Pete Dye, and, with more holes than anyone else, Jack Nicklaus). Rather than cover the waterfront, I selected what seemed a representative three, each by a different designer, to evaluate Los Cabos' claims on the traveling golfer. Having been forewarned by better-heeled friends, I resisted the temptation to calculate the cost per hole.

Of all the resorts, Cabo del Sol leaves the biggest footprint with two courses: Nicklaus's Ocean and Weiskopf's more recent Desert. After navigating the sprawling arcades of the lovely Spanish-style clubhouse and warming up (free range balls are the custom, along with logo towels, bottled water and the most comprehensive guides, hole by hole and green by green, this side of the PGA Tour), I decided to play the latter first—the former is generally more crowded due to its reputation—and on the advice of teaching pro Robert Regney, stepped up to the back tee. Following two routine pars, I encountered the longest hole in Los Cabos, a 626-yard par five that moreover is largely uphill and runs into the wind. After smashing a five-iron third shot, making five came as no small relief. So did the next hole, a drivable par four (one of Weiskopf's signatures) at 329 yards downhill and downwind. Regney warned that missing the green could easily produce a double-bogey. Fortunately, I managed not to and with this two-putt birdie moved on to a long par three, feeling pleasantly whipsawed by Weiskopf's give-and-take with regard to distance. Holes six and seven (another reachable par four) reveal another one of his virtues—each calls for a drive over rocks into a landing area much wider than it appears from the tee. The eighth is breathtaking for its panorama of the Sea of Cortés and the ninth for an arroyo in which one could hide a small army.

By the turn, I was wondering if this wasn't the best course in Spanish-speaking America, and the back nine only reinforced this impression, though at 200 yards longer than the front, it is all take and no give when it comes to distance. The sea vistas are practically distracting and unmarred by encroaching houses until the 16th. The eye is also drawn to a waterfall here, a great stand of cacti there, and to many of Weiskopf's touches: greens with severely false fronts or sides (or with massive ridges and contours); visually appealing bunkers, as on the par-three 11th; and, on the two closing par fours, an artful use of water, with a pond in play on the brutally long 17th and a creek feeding into another pond of the drive-and-wedge 18th, where a 15-foot birdie putt failed to conclude the round. Seeing how Weiskopf and Nicklaus, both Ohio State grads, frequently competed on the Tour in their heyday, it is appropriate that at Cabo del Sol Tom again give Jack a run for his money.

One of the innumerable thrills of visiting Los Cabos is the possibility of playing at the members-only Querencia. This 840-acre property is said to boast the tightest security of the area's many gated communities, and its tee times are equally well guarded. The club sets aside a few slots each day for nonmembers interested in previewing the property (Las Ventanas, which has a long-running relationship with the club, has a particularly good track record of getting its guests onto the course), and they are worth fighting for. The approach by car leads up into the foothills, and it's not only the view from high above the sea that makes the driving range so extraordinary; it's also the flawless tees, the number of target greens, and practice greens to match. All of which sets the tone for a course considered the most pampered in Los Cabos. Its 300-plus acres enjoyed considerable rearrangement while Fazio's design—one of his first outside the United States—was being implemented, and the results couldn't be more impressive: spectacular vistas, impeccable conditioning, stunning elevation changes, and drop-offs that can cause shivers on a warm day. One seldom glimpses another player, and the cart paths are so discreetly camouflaged that at times I wasn't sure where I was going.

Until a vast new clubhouse complex is completed, the nines are played in reverse, but they work just fine in either order. The front opens with a par five that gives a good opportunity for a birdie, which it will try to take back on the par-four 13th, 451 yards wrapped around a canyon. The next hole, at 164 yards, is perhaps the best par-three photo op I've ever seen, with the tees and greens cut into the slopes of a deep arroyo. While there's not a weak hole on this side, the back nine is even more commanding and takes in the highest elevations on the course. Even downhill, the second hole was playing all of its 246 yards that afternoon; it's not every day one hits a three-metal on a par three. After a birdie on the following short par four, I fell in love with the par-five fourth, reachable in two with the proviso that any shots lost to the left could end up hundreds of feet below the fairway, and whose green sits on a point seemingly suspended in space. I survived the sixth, Querencia's No. 1 handicap hole, leaving me feeling as though I were walking on air. After a short par four and another imposing par three comes the par-five ninth (my 18th), where vertigo finally got the better of me. Studying the ninth from the tee is like looking off a cliff, and despite its being nearly 600 yards long, reaching it in two is easier than one might think. Returning to the temporary clubhouse, I thought even the cart looked like some luxury model, and certainly this course must rate among Fazio's finest.

Jack Nicklaus's accomplishments in golf need no reiteration, but his relevance in Los Cabos is also astonishing: 27 holes at Palmilla, 18 at El Dorado, and the fabled 18 at Cabo del Sol—63 in total. Clearly, he loves something about this place beyond just the fishing, which Brad Wheatley told me about as we played the Ocean course. There's marlin, big-time, but more interesting are the roosterfish that one can catch right off the beach, their dorsal fins splayed above the water as they feed on baitfish. In this and other respects, Wheatley is an ideal guide to Los Cabos, having seen what was coming and having created here what Fred Couples has called the best golf he's ever played. He's also patient when his companion's game goes loco, as mine did.

Even from behind trees, transitional areas, or traps, it's not hard to see why the Ocean course was chosen to host Shell's Wonderful World of Golf. With seven holes on the coastline, it's often compared to Pebble Beach, and surely the watery back-to-back par threes at the sixth and seventh as well as the double fairways of the par-four 11th (I chose the waste area between them) merit special attention. The hole rated most difficult, the 458-yard par-four fifth, was stellar in the past, as it favors Nicklaus's power fade off the tee and runs down to the beach. But now it feels hemmed in by a development on the left and new construction on the right, a double threat to its beauty. The scorecard boasts of "the finest three finishing holes of golf in the world," and that this hyperbolic claim belongs to the course's architect does little to dull the impression that the final trio make. The green at the par-four 16th also hangs over the surf—even with a wedge, one worries about the ball chasing through it. The par-three 17th actually crosses the sea, with rocks that will ricochet anything that's a little short back into the waters, and the par-four 18th is a classic, the beach all the way down the right side. It's no wonder this course has received such high acclaim—and that Nicklaus might not quite be finished with this place.

One wonders, though, how much Los Cabos can take. There's already more premier golf here than anywhere else I can name, yet additional projects are in the works. If you like to walk rather than ride and prefer simplicity to bells and whistles, you have no business coming here. Still, even friends who embody such values visibly perked up when I told them where I was headed, this being a destination well known to most who play the game. There's talk, too, of the Escalera Nautica, a "nautical ladder," sponsored by a Mexican tourism agency (with estimated investments pushing $2 billion) that could transform the entire peninsula with marinas (after all, Jacques Cousteau called this sea the aquarium of the world), more hotels and resorts, and, of course, golf courses. Until then, for anyone who wishes to travel and play, there are many windows onto paradise.

Desert and Ocean courses at Cabo del Sol: greens fees, $220-$275; 800-386-2465. Querencia: greens fees (limited tee times available for nonmembers), $330; 888-236-2229.

Staying at Las Ventanas

There is certainly no shortage of top-notch resorts in Los Cabos, but if you would like to play golf at the Tom Fazio-designed Querencia, you may wish to stay at Las Ventanas al Paraíso. The beachside property is particularly adept at getting its guests onto the members-only course. Until last year Las Ventanas had an exclusive agreement with the club, but now it's a less formal arrangement. (In other words, no guarantees but chances are good.) Fortunately, staying here is far from a hardship: Along with suites of great size and splendor, there are serene grounds and stunning pools, and more (magically unobtrusive) staff than even the most persnickety guest could demand. Las Ventanas offers personal touches that border on fetishistic. Upon arrival you are almost immediately known by name and inclination to practically every worker here, sewing kits are instantly customized to match your wardrobe and then rushed to your room, and even your pets can be spoiled rotten (at only $50 per visit) with their own menus and activities. "Director of Romance" had a suspicious Champagne-and-bubble-bath sound to it, but the woman who possessed this title, Marissa Woods, arranged for my wife's birthday an exquisite five-course dinner on the beach. Rates, $600-$4,500; 888-767-3966; www.lasventanas.com.

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