The Long Shot
Mexico’s Riviera Maya is in the midst of an all-out building blitz to become the world’s hottest new golf destination. Sun-soaked and bursting at the seams with flashy new, celebrity-designed courses, it’s got everything it needs to succeed. But is it the real deal or just style without substance?
Just 200 yards from the first tee at El Camaleón Golf Club, in dripping summer heat, I crack a line drive toward a postcard-perfect green 240 yards away. It’s a routine shot for a hacker like me—arrow-straight as it bounces over the plush tropical grass, past the low, thick jungle that borders either side of the fairway. Routine, that is, until my ball vanishes into a gaping, 50-foot-deep hole smack in the middle of the fairway.
Driving through the limestone bedrock to subterranean water systems, these sinkholes, called cenotes, pock the Yucatan Peninsula by the thousands, concealing within them alien stalactites, bats, tangled vines and other eerie wonders. The ancient Mayans considered them portals to the underworld, holy places where priests tossed boys to watery graves as sacrifices to the gods.
Peering into the inky depths of the cavern, I scarcely make out my own offering—a brand-new Titleist—sitting at the bottom, in the ultimate unplayable lie.
So begins my tour of the Riviera Maya, one of golf ’s hottest new destinations and a topologically unique land where nothing seems as banal as the exotic. Six years ago, there were just a handful of major courses in this sun-soaked, 80-mile-long sliver of paradise on Mexico’s Caribbean coast. But the region is developing rapidly, and today a dozen world-class layouts lure tourists to Cancún and south along the coast, to the ancient Mayan ruins of Tulum.
Carved out of tropical forest and limestone soil by legendary architects that include Greg Norman, Jack Nicklaus, P.B. Dye and Robert Von Hagge, these designerlabel courses are typically the jeweled centerpieces of gated, multi-hotel resorts wedged between Highway 307 and the sparkling Caribbean. With that type of pedigree, it goes almost without saying that they’re aesthetically striking and full of strategic intrigue, but what does it all add up to?
Will they ever become the equal of North America’s major golf destinations—Arizona’s Valley of the Sun, Alabama’s Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, California’s Monterey Peninsula? Will they maintain the area’s natural, indigenous beauty, or succumb to glitzy commercial excess? During a swing through one of golf ’s newest frontiers, I hoped to pick up a few clues and—with any luck—maybe a birdie or two.
The first Europeans to arrive on the Yucatan—a shipwrecked band of Spaniards who came ashore in 1511—were captured by the Mayans and sacrificed. Lucky for me, the locals are far more hospitable today. During a clubhouse break the next day at Playacar Golf Club in Playa del Carmen, I strike up a conversation with Leonor Mui Poch, a warm, friendly waitress, who volunteers a local history lesson.
Poch grew up in what was then a remote jungle village, where she spoke only Mayan and worked on her family farm. She still remembers when Playa was a sleepy fishing village where hippies rented thatched huts on the beach and tourists only passed through on their way to the ferry for Cozumel. But seven years ago, Poch moved to Playa del Carmen, joining thousands of Mayans in the tourist trade, including the army of men who work the golf courses as caddies, assistant pros and maintenance workers. Now fluent in Spanish and English, she says she embraces the radical change that’s transformed the town into the de facto capital of the Riviera Maya. “We’re very busy here,” she says, “but life is still easy.”
Out on Playacar’s golf course, it seems odd, even a touch irreverent, swinging a Wilson driver on ancient Mayan land. But architect Robert Von Hagge carefully designed it to incorporate (while protecting) more than 200 sacred Mayan ruins.
If that wasn’t reassuring enough, Mexico’s National Fund for the Promotion of Tourism (Fonatur) imposes rigid environmental guidelines on resort developers throughout the region, helping foster a broad-based eco-consciousness. If a golf course cuts too deeply into the ecologically important mangroves, for instance, the government will simply shut the project down. When Mayan artifacts were uncovered further up the coast at Playa Paraiso Golf Club, Fonatur oﬃcials swooped in to ensure they remained untouched. Fairmont Mayakoba, the resort home of Greg Norman’s El Camaleón course, even employs a full-time ecology manager.
After all, it’s the Riviera Maya’s indigenous beauty and rich cultural history that drive much of the tourist trade here. I can see why from the moment I step onto Playacar’s first fairway, which unfolds cinematically, like the opening scene of a National Geographic special. Fairways tunnel off into the jungle, creating isolated corridors whose tropical tranquility envelops even the most impatient linksmen.
But the look of benign beauty is deceiving. At more than 7,000 yards, Playacar is a stern, rugged test for the ill-prepared golfer. Its fairways are as narrow as hotel hallways, its landing areas small and precise and its greens like distant postage stamps, making the margin for error razor-thin. And there’s no rough whatsoever—if you’re not in the fairway, you’re probably in the jungle, which is treated as a lateral hazard. Wayward shots are rarely recovered. Rather than bushwhack through the stuff—no doubt full of things that bite, scratch, claw and sting—the general rule in the region is to simply drop another ball in the fairway and play on.
In other words, if you don’t manage your game and keep the ball in play, your supply of balls dwindles quickly. (The rather dubious course record, according to Playacar golf pro Adan Alvarez, is 24 balls lost in a single round.) I, too, lose my share on the front nine, not to mention all confidence in my driver. But every round yields at least one gratifying shot. For me, it comes on No. 9, a 390-yard par-4 that plays right into the teeth of the Caribbean wind. My wedge soars over a crystal-clear lake and appears to be carrying into a sand trap behind the green, when it suddenly plops down eight feet from the pin. I roll in the putt for a bogey, boosting my confidence as I head into the back nine on one of the region’s oldest and most difficult courses.
“Welcome to the Riviera Maya,” says Kevin Sebulski, El Camaleón’s director of golf, as we ease into seats overlooking a lush practice area on my first day. “It’s golf like you don’t see in the rest of the world.”
That’s hardly hype. It’s a rare round of golf where you play through several distinct landscapes, taking a crack at every imaginable kind of shot along the way. But that’s the case at El Camaleón, a Greg Norman design that bends around jungle, mangrove forest and wave-crashed beaches, earning its name—The Chameleon.
One minute you might be staring down at the sparkling Caribbean from a seaside cliff, and the next you’re gazing up from a mangrove swamp at a dove-white egret wheeling lazily in the sky. Virtually every facet of the landscape adds to the course’s quality—and to your chances of earning a sky-high score.
It’s no surprise that three of the PGA Tour’s most accurate drivers—Fred Funk, Brian Gay and Mark Wilson—have come here and won the annual Mayakoba Classic (see page 54), the first ever oﬃcial Tour event held outside of the US and Canada. Mangroves and jungle hem in many fairways; other landing areas are fortified with lagoons, canals, tropical trees and bunkers that affect play; and a stiff Caribbean breeze steers shots away from the greens, making a strong short game crucial, too.
That’s the challenge that’s drawn New Jersey lawyer Bob Simonds to El Camaleón, where he’s prepping for his second round on the practice green. A hardcore golfer who’s traveled to Ireland, Scotland and the Pacific Northwest to play the ancient game, he’s a big fan of the design work of Norman, who in many ways has helped make harmony with nature and aesthetic beauty as fashionable in 2011 as Pete Dye’s railroad ties were in the 1980s. “This place is great in the way it makes use of natural terrain,” Simonds muses.
And the holes at El Camaleón have earned fame not just for their diﬃculty, but also for their natural beauty. Take No. 15, the par-3 that’s set against the Caribbean. From its crowned green, you can see tourists snoozing on powdery sand beaches and taking lazy swims. Or, if you adjust your gaze a few degrees higher, you can stare across the turquoise water to the island mirage of Cozumel.
Then there’s No. 6, a short par-4 that plunges into the mangroves, an impenetrable haven for lush flowers and exotic reptiles that thrive in its coffee-brown water and tangled roots and branches, not to mention for wayward golf balls.
Just a few hours into my first day on the Riviera Maya, and I’m already sinking easily into the slow local rhythm. “Here, it’s a bit different than in North America, where everything is about pace of play,” Sebulski had told me. “It’s not about playing in four hours because you have to get back to work. You’re here for the afternoon. It’s a lifestyle.”
It’s one I could get used to. Moving through the course, I take time to savor the jungle’s primal attractions—lush foliage, a riot of colorful birds and the chance to spot a zoo’s worth of exotic animals. Here, jungle raccoons routinely patrol sand traps, wild boars rumble across fairways, bats whirl out of cenotes at dusk and jaguars are known to appear, from time to time, on the course’s wild fringe.
The story is the same farther up the coast, at Playa Paraiso Golf Club, where the animals go about their timeless business. Somewhere in the endless expanse of jungle that spreads out before me, a jaguar rouses itself from its daytime languor, the spectral cries of howler monkeys fill the hot, thick air and a python slithers through the undergrowth.
But the real menace is P.B. Dye’s outlandish course, which stands as a towering achievement on the tortilla-flat Yucatan. A hands-on, tractor-driving designer, Dye stubbornly moved and shaped earth to build precipitous slopes, narrow gullies, angled greens guarded by large bunkers and subtle, shot-altering contours. A typical Dye course has several holes that are penal in nature, and the first one comes into view as Playa Paraiso Golf Director Glenn Preciado and I bump along in a golf cart toward the 550-yard, par-five No. 7, which climbs to an oceanfront, three-tiered green.
“Winter is our high season, when we get a lot of hardcore golfers,” Preciado says, and I can see why as we push on over crests and swales and gullies that virtually guarantee off -balance shots.
A bit later, we’re sitting in the cart on No. 9 tee, chatting about all the changes that have come to the region in recent years. Every course, it seems, has its own special character. Moon Spa & Golf Club, a Jack Nicklaus design, accommodates the average player. Nicklaus’ par-3 El Manglar Vidanta is an ideal place for beginners. Playa Paraiso is an annual stop on the Canadian Tour. Playacar is a doorway to the old Yucatan.
Before long, I’m headed north on the four-laner to Cancun’s airport—passing cenotes and Mayan ruins and some of the most dazzling golf courses in all of North America—when I think back to a conversation with El Camaleón’s Sebulski. He told me that Greg Norman didn’t know about the cenote on No. 1 until a bulldozer nearly fell through the thin topsoil to expose it. Instead of filling it in, though, Norman left it there. In doing so, he created one of golf ’s most unusual hazards, a symbol of sorts for both Riviera Maya golf and the defiant civilization whose pre-Columbian roots reach back 3,000-plus years in this land.
I think, in the end, that’s the secret to the courses of Cancún and the Riviera Maya. Instead of creating conventional courses for typical Yank and European golfers, architects like Norman and Von Hagge tossed aside their design books, using Mother Nature’s ancient handiwork to create a truly unique, truly Mexican golf destination. Only here can a golfer lie his third shot at the bottom of a 50-foot-deep pit surrounded by stalactites, iguanas and, in some cases, maybe even an ancient Mayan artifact.
THE BIG DANCE
The first Mayakoba Golf Classic, in 2007, ended in a sudden-death playoff between eventual champion Fred Funk and runner-up Jose Coceres. It was an appropriately dramatic end to a historic match, the first ever PGA Tour event to be played outside of the US or Canada. Since then, the event has grown and flourished on Mayakoba’s famed “Chameleon,” and in February it will feature 132 pros playing four rounds for a $3.7 million purse. Feb. 22-26, 2012 The Mayakoba Golf Classic At El Camaleón Golf Club mayakobagolfclassic.com