Tuesday, June 18, 2024

The golfer’s guide to Mexico – Where to play the country’s best courses

Mexico is one of the world’s best but most underrated golfing destinations, with great courses in almost every region. At their best, these courses feature world-class designs from very familiar names — most notably Jack Nicklaus and Greg Norman —  in spectacular natural settings. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of these golf meccas are found in well-traveled resort areas. That makes them easy to find for most vacationers but also increases competition for tee times.

However, there are plenty of hidden gems, too, including outstanding layouts in some unexpected places. 

The top golf destinations in Mexico

Golf locales like Los Cabos, the Riviera Maya and Puerto Vallarta aren’t just popular with tourists. They’ve also proven increasingly popular for the PGA, LPGA and LIV Golf Tours.  

Los Cabos 

Cliffside 17th hole at Danzante Bay. It is probably the definitive bucket list golf hole in Mexico, and one of the few worldwide worth traveling to see in person. (TPC Danzante Golf Resort)

Cabo is especially notable, as it’s the golf capital of Mexico and, indeed, all of Latin America. Eighteen courses are currently open, with up to six more being planned or under construction. With only one exception — the modest Vidanta course that started the golf trend in 1987 — all are world-class layouts from a who’s who of big-name designers, including Nicklaus, Norman, Tiger Woods, Davis Love III, Fred Couples and Tom Weiskopf. Love’s links-style Dunes Course at Diamante in Cabo San Lucas is the most highly rated, peaking at 34th in Golf Digest’s listing of the “World’s 100 Greatest” layouts. However, it was a neighboring course, Woods’ parkland El Cardonal, that was chosen to host the first PGA event in Los Cabos, the World Wide Technology Championship in 2023, after it was moved from Mayakoba on the Rivera Maya due to drama surrounding the Saudi-backed LIV Tour (of which that course’s designer Greg Norman is CEO).

The TPC Danzante Bay Golf Resort in Loreto, another Baja California Sur destination, is also a must visit thanks to its Rees Jones design and stunning backdrops featuring offshore islands. 

Quintana Roo

Camaleón Mayakoba Golf Course
The picturesque Greg Norman-designed El Camaleón Mayakoba Golf Course on the Riviera Maya. (Fairmont Hotels and Resorts)

The state of Quintana Roo isn’t far behind Los Cabos in its number of world-class golf layouts. It makes sense, since about 20 million people annually travel to its best-known resort area, Cancún. 

Like Los Cabos, the best courses in Cancún come from high-profile former players. Three-time major champion Nick Price crafted the world-class El Tinto Course at Cancún Country Club; another major champion, Tom Weiskopf, designed Puerto Cancún; and the greatest champion of them all, Nicklaus, laid out Riviera Cancún. 

Norman’s then-newly opened El Camaleón Mayakoba Golf Course became the first official PGA Tour event in Mexico following its premier on the Riviera Maya in 2007. Thanks to its mix of divergent terrains — from jungle and wetlands to coastline holes boasting Caribbean vistas — it’s one of the most memorable regional loops and now serves as a LIV Tour stop each year. It’s located just north of Playa del Carmen. Nicklaus’ Cozumel Country Club is the top golf spot on the eponymous nearby island.

Puerto Vallarta and Nuevo Vallarta

On the 6th green at the Jack Nicklaus-designed Quivira Golf Club in Cabo San Lucas. (Quivira Los Cabos)

Nicklaus put Los Cabos on the golfing map and then did the same for Nuevo Vallarta with his superb Bahía and Pacífico courses at Punta Mita; and Puerto Vallarta with his course at Vista Vallarta. Norman’s Vidanta Vallarta course also deserves plaudits, since it’s now the site of the oldest pro tournament in the country, the Abierto Mexicano de Golf. The event has been played since the 1940s, including at several locations and as a stop on several tours — Challenger, Nationwide and the PGA Tour Latinoamérica, to name a few — before it graduated to the PGA rota in 2022. 

Mexico City

Club de Golf Chapultepec in Mexico City has hosted the National Open 18 times. In recent years, it has also played host to the WGC-Mexico Championship, treating galleries to the sight of golf balls sailing massive distances due to the course’s nearly 8,000 feet in elevation. Laid out by Scotsman Willie Smith during the Mexican Revolution and renovated by Percy Clifford in the early 1970s, it hosted the WGC event for only four years, 2017 through 2020, before it was moved due to pandemic conditions and then dropped from the rotation. It’s private, so it’s not playable unless you know a member. This, it should be mentioned, is an issue at many courses in Mexico City, including Nicklaus’ Bosques Real and Cañadas de Santa Fe courses.

Lorena Ochoa and LPGA landmarks

Tres Marías Golf Course in Morelia, designed by Jack Nicklaus. (Tres Marías)

It’s worth noting that Mexico’s most accomplished golfer, retired star and World Golf Hall of Fame member Lorena Ochoa, has also been associated with domestically hosted tournaments. She is a three-time winner of the LPGA-sponsored Tres Marías Championship, held between 2005 and 2010 at the Jack Nicklaus-designed Tres Marías Residential Golf Club in Morelia, Michoacán. She never won her eponymous tournament, the Lorena Ochoa Invitational, contested between 2008 and 2017, which originally saw top money winners on the tour playing John Bredemus’ Guadalajara Country Club layout, considered one of the best in the country. But that might be because she retired in 2010, prior to the event’s relocation to the likewise acclaimed Lawrence Hughes and Percy Clifford-designed Club de Golf México in Mexico City. 

The legacy of the “Golden Amigo”

What quickly becomes apparent to anyone playing golf in Mexico is how many of the best courses were designed by the “Golden Amigo,” Jack Nicklaus. It’s all the more remarkable considering the 18-time major champion didn’t design his first course in Mexico until 1993, when he completed the first 18 of 27 holes at Palmilla in Los Cabos. 

In the three decades since, Nicklaus has crafted five more courses in Los Cabos; two at Puerto Peñasco in Sonora; and one each in Campeche and Mérida, among many others, including previously mentioned loops on the Riviera Maya and in Puerto Vallarta, Nuevo Vallarta and Mexico City. All are of excellent quality. 

His El Jaguar course is a particularly underrated gem. Crafted around lakes, sacred Maya cenotes and ancient archaeological remains, Nicklaus’ 7,282-yard layout is a master class in integrating a course within its natural setting. The course features an unusual five par-3s and five par-5s to accommodate its picturesque routing. But it’s bookending par-4 holes at 9 and 18 that are among the best golf holes in the country. 

A brief history of Mexican golf 

As Nicklaus’ legacy suggests, just as in the United States, where Scottish immigrants played an outsize role in the game’s development, golf in Mexico has benefitted from international influences. The first golf links ever built in the country — the six-hole Santa Gertrudis course laid out at Orizaba in Veracruz in 1894 — was the work of Scottish employees at a local jute factory. A dozen more courses had been built by the mid-1920s, including layouts in Guadalajara, Mexico City, Monterrey, Pachuca, Puebla and Tampico.

Another wandering Scot, Alister MacKenzie — best known for designing golf courses at Augusta National and Cypress Point — is also listed as the architect of record for Club Campestre de Tijuana. However, some sources alternatively credit prolific American designer William Bell. What is known definitively is that as part of the Agua Caliente Club property during the Prohibition Era, the course hosted a PGA tournament whose field included golf legends Gene Sarazen, Bobby Jones, Walter Hagen and Horton Smith. Sarazen, the winner, pocketed $25,000.

There’s no doubt regarding the number of courses Percy Clifford designed in Mexico. The esteemed Mexico City native is responsible for at least 40, including memorable loops at Club de Golf México in his hometown; Querétaro Golf Club; Los Tabachines in Cuernavaca, Morelos; and Bajamar in Ensenada, Baja California. As recently as 1980, it was estimated that he was responsible for designing half the courses in the country. He was also an exceptional golfer, winning the National Amateur six times and the National Open five times.

Bucket list holes and experiences

Quivira Golf Club
Hole routing along the Pacific Ocean coastline at Quivira Golf Club. (Clint Johnston/Quivira Los Cabos)

No country on earth has more awe-inspiring, one-of-a-kind golf holes than Mexico. The cliffside 17th hole at TPC Danzante Bay is probably the definitive bucket list golf hole and one of the few worldwide worth traveling to see in person. Set just south of Loreto in Baja California Sur, the bunker-wrapped, sheer, cliff-framed green for the 178-yard par-3 gives way to breathtaking panoramic views of the Sea of Cortez and offshore islands of Bahía de Loreto National Park. 

“I think most people would agree that the location of the 17th hole at TPC Danzante Bay is one of the most spectacular in the world of golf,” noted course architect Rees Jones rather modestly, after spending seven months on the iconic hole before the course opened in two phases in 2016 and 2017.

The “Whale’s Tail,” a par-3 at Nicklaus’ sublime Pacífico layout at Punta Mita is likewise celebrated, as it showcases the only ocean-based green in the world. The hole isn’t even in the actual routing, and is known colloquially as “3b.” But the 194-yard shot from the blacks is a must-try for visitors. However, if you want to putt, you’ll have to contrive to arrive during low tide, when the green is reachable via a stone pathway that’s usually underwater.

It’s the only ocean island golf hole in the world. The one-of-a-kind par-3 “Tail of the Whale” at Jack Nicklaus’ Pacifico layout at Punta Mita. (Four Seasons Resort Punta Mita)

The Nicklaus-designed Quivira Golf Club is also notable for its magnificent coastal scenery. The par-4 sixth is the most famous, featuring a small rocky outcropping where players can aim for the green, itself jutting out from a cliffside above the crashing Pacific. For those who find the 310-yard tee shot daunting, don’t worry: there’s a comfort food station on the way up the mountain that will provide liquid courage. Or you can hit a safer shot into the fairway and follow it along its sloping route down to the sea. The par-3 14th, meanwhile, also requires a tee shot that risks a lost ball falling hundreds of feet into churning ocean waters below. But at 148 yards, it’s short enough that most golfers should be able to land the shot safely.

Oso and Lobo, two friends who are scratch golfers and have played most of Mexico’s 230 or so courses, consider the question to be one of quality plus amazing settings. They love the holes mentioned above, but other favorites include the 6th and 18th at Tres Vidas, an Acapulco loop from Robert von Hagge; number 2 on the same designer’s Laguna Course, one of three nine-hole layouts at Isla Navidad in Manzanillo; and the ninth hole at El Tamarindo, a David Fleming design also found in the state of Jalisco. It just goes to show that when it comes to lists of the best golf holes, it’s best to make your own.

What to know when planning a Mexican golf trip

Before you start planning the list of the Mexican golf courses you want to play on your next vacation, make sure you have tee-time access. Some golf courses are public, while others are restricted to guests staying at certain resorts. Golf in Mexico is expensive enough — the best resort courses cost $200 and up for greens fees — without factoring in luxurious hotel accommodations. 

Besides budgeting, your main concern should be ensuring your itinerary of courses doesn’t include an area covered by a travel advisory from the U.S. State Department. Los Cabos, Mexico City and the Riviera Maya are safe. But Mazatlán, home to several good golf courses including Robert Trent Jones Jr.’s Estrella del Mar, is currently a no-go. Sinaloa, the state where Mazatlán is located, is on the “don’t travel” list, as is Michoacán, where Nicklaus crafted 27 holes at the Tres Marías Residential Golf Club. 

So pay attention to these factors. Otherwise, just have fun, hit it straight and enjoy the views.

Chris Sands is the Cabo San Lucas local expert for the USA Today travel website 10 Best, writer of Fodor’s Los Cabos travel guidebook, and a contributor to numerous websites and publications, including Tasting Table, Marriott Bonvoy Traveler, Forbes Travel Guide, Porthole Cruise, Cabo Living and Mexico News Daily. His specialty is travel-related content and lifestyle features focused on food, wine and golf.

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