First Stop: Cabo del Sol - Where the Sun Meets the Sea

By: Jeff Shelley

The first stop on our Cabo checklist is Cabo del Sol, an upscale place with eighteens designed by Jack Nicklaus (The Ocean Course) and Tom Weiskopf (The Desert Course). The Nicklaus track opened in the mid-'90s, while Weiskopf's opened in early 2002.

The golf operations at Cabo del Sol are overseen by Brad Wheatley. Brad is an expert on golf in this part of Mexico, having been involved in the construction of Palmilla's original 18, Cabo's first resort course, and then becoming its head professional when the track opened on Thanksgiving Day 1992.

Brad is originally from the tiny Texas Panhandle town of Darrouzett (pronounced "daroozit"), and got started in golf at age 15 by mowing the greens at a course in a nearby town. Brad, now 40, gradually worked himself up the ladder, eventually landing a job as an assistant pro at La Jolla Country Club, where he befriended Don Koll, a big-time developer.

When Koll's focus shifted to the tip of the Baja Peninsula, Brad made it known that he wanted to be a participant. So Wheatley, who had often come to Cabo to fish and knew the area was a prime spot for top-of-the-line golf resorts, moved to Cabo when Koll started Palmilla. Thus began his ongoing love affair with Cabo and the Mexican people, and the friendly, soft-spoken Texan has been a fixture on the local golf scene ever since.

Brad's current boss is Robert Day, a wealthy Southern Californian who owns the two golf courses and a total of 1,800 acres at Cabo del Sol. At one time, the developer of the original Ocean course and the adjoining Hacienda del Mar "vacation club" was one and the same. But the resort component has since split off on its own, and is now associated with Sheraton Hotels, which has a hotel next door. Also, Troon Golf operated Cabo del Sol in 2001, before moving down the highway to take over the operations at Palmilla.

Day has intentions of developing portions of his vast holdings into homes. The property has many things going for it, with virtually every angle of the sloping terrain offering spectacular vistas of the Sea of Cortez and/or verdant fairways. Among its features may be the world's most spectacular driving range. The double-ended practice area occupies about 20 acres, with the range's far end (opposite the clubhouse) boasting perhaps the best views from any practice tee anywhere.

Most Americans balk at the idea of living in Mexico, conjuring up images of destitute, densely packed barrios with rampant crime, terrible living conditions, and brackish drinking water. That may be the case within the innermost bowels of Mexico City, but not in Cabo, one of the most Americanized and sanitary foreign places you'll find.

The water coming out of the faucets in the resorts along the Costa del Sol is purified and drinkable, and the roadway linking bustling Cabo San Lucas and the more traditional San Jose del Cabo is paved and four-lane. So Day's idea of creating a Desert Mountain on Baja's southernmost tip is not too optimistic. The infrastructure is certainly in place.

A couple of factors, however, have stymied his efforts, and those of other developers in Baja's "toe." One is the American economy, which has been in the doldrums of late and continues to languish. Another is 9/11, an event that will forever live in infamy and one that continues to have a profound effect on travel.

The wonderful golf courses in Cabo are not in the dire straits of their Hawaiian brethren, several of which have either closed or gone bankrupt. Cabo's are in better shape, and should continue to be because of their non-reliance on Japanese owners, who spent way too much for their Hawaiian properties and priced out vacationing tourists.

But not everything is sweetness and light in this paradise. The major reason behind Cabo's lean number of rounds played is directly tied to its high prices. Although the rates have stayed the same for the past two years, mainly because of 9/11, Cabo is still the most expensive golf destination in the world, with green fees at its three premier facilities priced well over $200.

There's a certain "keep-up-with-the-Joneses" mentality at work in Cabo. But the steep prices are ultimately rooted in an inherent Mexican trait. There's an old Mexican proverb that goes something like, "Eat the cake all in one bite." In other words, the hell with tomorrow - get it while you can today. If Cabo golf's primary American clientele does not balk at paying the high tariff, the prices assuredly would rise even higher.

The problem extends beyond the golf courses to the Cabo tourist trade in general. Prices are rising across the board, from hotel rooms, to restaurants, to taxis - it seems that everyone here is charging more for services. When we first came to Cabo in the mid-'90s, a red snapper cooked in the Veracruz style - one of my favorites - cost $12 with all the trimmings. That same meal is now $19. Thank God for the fish and shrimp tacos at Las Gardenias, which still are priced at around $2 each.

When will the price escalations end? Who knows? The bottom line is that fewer rounds are being played because people are spending most of their vacation dollars on necessities, and there's not enough left over for golf.

Enough Cabo Economic Analysis

Let's go to the two great courses at Cabo del Sol, which just made history by opening the first official clubhouse in Cabo. The 25,000-square-foot structure, which had opened just before we arrived in late-2002, won't be fully functional until later in December.

By then, it will feature a members-only area (the club now has around 30 members who pay $40,000 for access to the Desert Course and $100,000 for playing privileges at both courses) with food service, locker rooms, etc. It also has banquet space and one of the most spacious pro shops anywhere. Brad has paid his dues in Cabo by operating out of small and stiflingly hot cabana "clubhouses" for over a decade. If anyone deserves a first-class facility, he does.

The Golden Bear proclaims his Ocean Course has "the finest three finishing holes of golf in the world." Who dares deny that? Ocean's concluding triad - a par-4, par-3 and par-4 - are truly wonderful testaments to seaside golf. The holes hug the Sea of Cortez, daring players to land on grass off the tee or, much worse, find a real beach.

But there's more to the 7,103-yard Ocean than Jack's pick of the litter. Before reaching this threesome, the course ventures up and down over topographically varied terrain, winding through cactus groves, beside dry washes and arroyos, and over barrancas, with all types of devilish, manmade impediments to par.

As is Jack's wont, most fairways favor the player who hits a power fade. There's usually plenty of room off the tee, but stray too far left or right, and you'll find where Nicklaus has plopped down his signature high-lipped, cavernous bunkers that are often the burial grounds for aspiring resort-course players. Some of the fairway-side bunkers on Ocean are so deep that golfers go into them and are never seen again.

That last part might be overstatement, but what isn't hyperbole are the wonderful views found on Ocean and its sister Desert layout. Of the two, Desert is more accessible, if for no other reason than Desert's fairway traps are escapable.

The bunker sand found throughout Cabo is of coarse grit, with fried-egg lies nonexistent. At Weiskopf's track, finding a bunker off the tee isn't nearly the penalty that it is at Jack's place. Indeed, one's chances on a Desert hole are not lost when in a bunker, and the fairway bunker shot to a green with a mid-iron can actually be executed.

Desertīs other attributes include a series of short par-4s that are quite luring for longer hitters. A design trademark of Weiskopf's is that he always includes a driveable par-4. In the case of Desert, there are at least two quads - and a couple more, depending on the tee used - which tempt players to reach for the big dog.

Also unique about the 7,097-yard Desert track is the disparity in length of its front and back nines. The front, which winds uphill near a starting point by the new clubhouse, is over 200 yards shorter than its counterpart, which descends from a halfway house with food and beverages at the course's highest juncture.

Another feature is the manmade water hazards on the final two holes. A scenic pond with fountain guards the left side of the 17th green, which sits at a 45-degree angle to the fairway. From there, the liquid in the pond seeps into a rocky creek that meanders back and forth through the closing hole, ending up in another pond at the right of the 18th putting surface. A pump system re-circulates the water, recreating the aesthetic - or angst, depending on a player's success in negotiating it - for others.

In sum, Cabo del Sol is one of my favorite places to golf in the world. I'm joined in that opinion by none other than Fred Couples, who once commented to a mutual friend of ours, John Bracken, that this course was the best he'd ever played, anywhere.

Who's to argue with a guy nicknamed Boom-Boom?

See you later this week from Palmilla.