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In 1897, Horace Hutchinson, a two-time British Amateur golf champion–turned–journalist, published what could be described as the game’s first coffee-table book. British Golf Links is notable for its photography—scores of striking images that give us a clear idea of what Victorian-era golf was like. In a word, it was rough. On holes like “Sandy Parlour” at England’s Royal Cinque Ports or “The Maiden” at Royal St. George’s, the line between golf course, beach and broken ground was provisional and at times blurred beyond recognition.
The book’s ancient images came to mind while teeing off on the par-five 17th hole of the Dunes Course at Diamante (private; greens fee upon request; Boulevard Diamante s/n Col. Los Cangrejos, Cabo San Lucas; 866-901-1456; diamantecabosanlucas.com), a private golf and real estate community just north of Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. Winds were heavy, and the agitated air gave a sense that the ribbon of fairway unfurling on the far side of the beach might be a mirage. The green seemed impossibly distant, an Alhambra on a high ridge, its approach guarded by serrated slopes. Many great holes have been built all over the world in the past two decades, a time marked by creativity in golf architecture not seen since the interwar period. But few feel as timeless—even mystical—as the 17th at Diamante.
The Dunes Course, which was created by the PGA Tour star Davis Love III, opened in 2009. It’s easy to see why it has since received widespread acclaim. Besides the aforementioned 17th, holes like the long par-three second, with its green surrounded by an amphitheater of sand, endure in the memory. Diamante’s duneland is as spectacular as any of the famed links of the UK. The back nine should come to be regarded as one of the world’s best B sides, especially when one considers that it’s still evolving. In 2014 the club replaced the 12th and 13th—a pair of so-so inland holes that broke up the rhythm of the round—with two more strand-side marvels on land that wasn’t available when the routing was initially planned.
The flurry of new development at the Dunes is exciting, but the biggest story at Diamante is that of Tiger Woods. Following a couple of high-profile false starts—one in Dubai, the other in the North Carolina mountains—the most recognizable name in golf revealed El Cardonal, his design debut, at Diamante in October 2013. Paul Cowley, the codesigner of the Dunes, who has stayed on to project-manage the construction on behalf of Tiger Woods Design, led us on a recent site tour.
El Cardonal’s topography is quite different from that of the Dunes. It’s set mostly on the higher ground of a long, gently sloping hillside. Scored by arroyos and studded with a diverse array of trees and cacti, it feels like more of a traditional desert course, albeit one with grand ocean views.
“Pay attention to the greens,” Cowley said as we trundled down the first hole in a golf cart. “They have a ton of variety in both their shapes and sizes.” Sure enough, there is a kidney bean, a punch bowl, a butterfly and, at the par-four seventh, a shape-shifting slipper. The 13th, with slightly squared-off edges, called to mind the geometric style of Seth Raynor. Cowley also pointed out that because Woods’s putting surfaces lack bold contours, the club could readily bring them to tournament speed. It remains to be seen how they will play when finished, but interesting greens are the heart and soul of every good golf course, and here there is a lot of potential.
The bunkering scheme is noteworthy in a similar vein. Woods, true to his Orange County roots, has expressed an admiration for the “Old California” style of Golden Age architects like Billy Bell and George Thomas (Riviera, Bel-Air, Los Angeles Country Club). At El Cardonal, this translated into grass-faced hazards with swooping capes and bays. The trailing edges of these are often banked up to allow them to pop visually. It’s a glamorous look, but the Woods team deployed it with restraint. In a couple of instances, bunkers that would conventionally be placed greenside float freely some 20 yards short of the green complex—a trick Donald Ross and other old-school designers loved to break out to fox a golfer’s depth perception.
Woods and his design associates, Beau Welling and Shane Robichaud, have waited a long time for this opportunity. It’s safe to predict that El Cardonal will be a good golf course, but there’s also a sense that the group’s priority was not so much to make a grand statement as to experiment with looks, with shapes and strategies, with the basic idea of how a Tiger Woods golf course might feel. And that’s fine; architects from A.W. Tillinghast to Pete Dye took a similar approach in their early work. It’s all a part of finding one’s own voice as a designer.
Diamante exists in splendid isolation about 20 minutes outside town; those looking to make a base along the tourist corridor would do well to consider Esperanza (rooms, from $975; Ctra. Transpeninsular, km. 7, Manzana 10, Punta Ballena; 855-331-2226; esperanzaresort.com). The Auberge resort’s suites are designed to draw guests onto the balcony to soak in ocean views and the dramatic rock formations of the Arch of Cabo San Lucas. This task is comfortably accomplished while neck-deep in the bubbling waters of one of the private infinity-edge hot tubs. The public areas are built around a series of palapas, open-air huts where guests can enjoy a margarita or a romantic dinner. The spa, considered one of the best in Latin America, is a place where time blissfully evaporates.
Esperanza’s levels of comfort and service are such that simply leaving the property requires an act of will, but those who manage to pry themselves away will find Cabo’s reigning-kingpin course just around the corner. Jack Nicklaus’s Ocean Course at Cabo del Sol (greens fee, from $150; Ctra. Transpeninsular, km. 10.3, Cabo San Lucas; 866-231-4677; cabodelsol.com) is resort golf at its very best, a layout with one entertaining and photogenic hole after another. The manicured eye candy is a complement to the wild and untamed Diamante. The routing shifts moods constantly. The par-four 11th, featuring two fairways, is tempting and quirky. It’s followed by a par five defined by tough-guy posturing, as the approach must vault over an army of bunkers to gain the elevated green. The course also boasts a superb collection of par threes. The fantasy-calendar 17th is the most famous, but it might actually be the least best of the four. A pair of terrific beachside one-shot holes, the sixth and seventh, emerged as part of a 2010 renovation, while the 13th, playing some 200 yards across a native desert area and then an active arroyo fronting the green, presents one of the most heroic shots.
Diamante and Cabo del Sol have two neighboring developments that are crossing the finish line after being stalled by the financial blah-blah of 2008. Both intend to be private, real-estate-driven facilities, but it’s worth checking to see if they might be amenable to hosting an interested party. Two miles east of Cabo del Sol is Chileno Bay Golf and Beach Club (private; greens fee upon request; Ctra. Transpeninsular, km. 15, Rancho El Tule, Cabo San Lucas; 858-964-0818; chilenobayclub.com), a Tom Fazio design. The course is open after having spent half a decade in a purgatorial state of near completion, during which time local insiders played enough partial rounds to speculate that it will join Baja’s elite. Then there’s Quivira Golf Club (private; greens fee, from $230; Ctra. Transpeninsular, km. 0, Cabo San Lucas; 800-990-8250; quiviragolfclub.com), next door to Diamante—or, rather, above it. The club, which opens this summer, sports a Jack Nicklaus layout that tumbles around windswept, 150-foot-high sea cliffs.
All the expansions and improvements continue to up the region’s golf cachet, but the destination itself is also broadening its reach. A gleaming new terminal at San Jose del Cabo International Airport is designed to handle big birds arriving from the East Coast (Aeromexico is even toying with opening the first direct route from J.F.K. airport), making access to Los Cabos and its sterling golf scene easier than ever.
Golfing in Los Cabos: Buying Into Diamante
The 1,500-acre Pacific Ocean property offers fractional ownership starting at $100,000 a week. Full ownership of lots starts at $350,000 per week. Besides golf, there is a ten-acre saltwater-pool park (The Lagoon), as the ocean is unswimmable due to cold temperatures and dangerous undertows. A hotel is in development. diamantecabosanlucas.com.