Cabo del Sol (The Ocean Course)
Los Cabos, Mexico
Some of the key tenets of golf course design are in seeming conflict with one another. For example, holes of any great golf course have to feel that they belong together, that one leads into another as opposed to being in competition. That virtue though has to be balanced by the desire for diversity. The more varied the challenges, the more compelling the golf, provided that the course works well as a whole.
Essentially, this was the challenge that faced Jack Nicklaus and his design team led by Jim Lipe when they became involved in the Cabo del Sol project in 1990. On the one hand, Jack Nicklaus was given over 1,600 yards of sea frontage with which to work. On the other, the interior land was little more than decomposed granite with no soil or nutrients for growing grass. Various active arroyos fed down the mountain side across the resort’s 1,800 acres. In addition, the vegetation was thick and inhospitable, consisting of various cacti (including the cardon which is the largest in the world), palo blanco, palo verde, ciruela, tabachin and mequite.
How to make these seemingly incongruent elements come together was the task. If successful, Nicklaus Design would blend the appeal of several different types of golf (mountain, desert, and sea) into one eighteen hole course, a unique opportunity. Certainly, the underpinning for the course’s immediate success was the 1,600 yards of coastal frontage. Consisting of jagged granite rock formations, the coastline wasn’t linear and provided the opportunity for several tees and greens to jut (seemingly at least) into the sea. Holes were routed in crescent shapes, meaning that tee balls could be played over the rocky coastline and even over a sandy cove at the seventeenth.
Upon its opening in 1994, photographs of these ocean side holes quickly captivated the public’s imagination and Cabo del Sol has enjoyed great fanfare ever since. The six holes that feature their greens along the coastline (the fifth, sixth, seventh, sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth) compel golfers to get on a plane and come to the east tip of this cabo (or cape).
Though the greens of the final three holes are no more than twenty feet above sea level, the elevation changes coupled with the arroyos and desert setting of the interior holes provide their own playing excitement. Indeed, it’s the strength of the inland holes that make this Mexico’s only world-class course. In particular, the imaginative use of the arroyos lends the inland holes a similar intense playing interest as that found with the sea holes.
Some of this drama is created for the interior holes by the use of half par holes. Overall, five (!) of the twelve interior holes can be termed as half par holes, three in the form of reachable par fives and two as drivable par fours under certain wind conditions. Although, without a doubt, trying to reach any of these greens in one shot less than regulation calls for some form of gallantry.
The par five fourth and fifteenth holes descend toward the sea and provide enticing prospects for eagles of the sort that rarely exist. They also act as an important bridge in transitioning the golfer from the higher desert holes down to the coastline ones. Pete Dye wasn’t as fortunate at Casa de Campo’s Teeth of the Dog where the interior holes play across flatter ground that didn’t yield holes of the same golf quality as his famous coastline ones. Also, the transition from the par five fourteenth to the fifteenth par four along the cliff line at Casa de Campo is much more abrupt – one moment the golfer is playing an inland hole along a lagoon and the next (after a long cart ride), he is standing on a dramatic cliff top tee. Though the golfer delights in finding himself there, there is no sense of grace as to how it was accomplished.
Nicklaus Design pulls off the transition with greater aplomb. Similar to Casa de Campo, Jack Nicklaus designed two nine-hole loops, each with several holes touching the Sea of Cortez. A par five takes the golfer from the desert to the ocean on each nine. The beauty behind such a routing plan is that it leads to a well-balanced course with spectacular holes on each side. In any such case, credit has to go to the developer for allowing Jack Nicklaus to reach the sea on both nines. Unlike other developers in the Cabo San Lucas region where some sea holes are being sacrificed for the sake of residential lots, such is patently not the case here.
When all was said and done, some of the holes captured the flavor of mountain golf with their attractive backdrops of hills and the use of arroyos (the Baja California Sur answer to mountain streams). Other holes play off the delightful contrast of the scrubby desert floor against the green prepared playing surfaces for golf. Finally, the ocean holes themselves provide the matchless exhilaration that is experienced only when the game is played next to (and over!) a large body of water.
As seen below, Cabo del Sol and its holes are chock full of drama (!) from tee to green. The hazards, and the various manners in which they were incorporated into the holes, make Cabo del Sol visually arresting. Ultimately, though, the heart of any golf courselies its green and their surrounds. In the case of Cabo del Sol, plenty of recreational golfers leave the course thrilled by their round(s) as they are so wowed by the course’s tee to green aspect. However, specific credit is due to Jim Lipe and the rest of Nicklaus Design for the greens themselves. Take a look at the first five. The first one allows for approach shots to be kicked in from the left following the natural slope of the ground, and thus avoiding the deep right greenside bunker. The second green calls for a high pitch over a fronting center bunker to a shallow green. The third green is open in front to those that properly position their tee ball down the left side. The fourth and fifth are exact opposites with the fourth located dramatically beyond an arroyo while the fifth appears as an extension of the fairway. The greens proceed in this diverse manner, always posing a different question to the good golfer. Can he fade it into the eighth as the kidney green bends right around its greenside bunker and can he draw it around the left greenside bunker at the ninth?
Yes, the seaside holes and the interior ones with the arroyos highlight what a great opportunity/raw property Cabo del Sol represented. However, it’s the green complexes themselves that leave many critics confident in their assessment that this is Jack Nicklaus‘s best overall design. Judge for yourself as you read below.
Holes to Note
First hole, 435 yards; The first hole heads in a north-easterly direction which is to say that the mountains are on one’s left and the ocean is out of sight and to the right. That being the case, the natural slope of the first hole is from left to right. As we’ll see at the third too, this tilt was put to great use at the green. Unlike some holes built early in Jack Nicklaus‘s career that left you feeling that you needed to be Jack Nicklaus to play them properly, the first green is far more clever. Set on a forty-five degree angle to the fairway, it bends to the right around a deep front bunker. The fun is had in using the left to right tilt of the ground left of the green and all the short grass to kick approach shots onto the putting surface. Bearing in mind this is a resort course, this is but one example of how a hole was built to accommodate a wide range of playing talents.
Second hole, 575 yards; This is the only hole on Cabo del Sol that plays entirely within an arroyo. Its one hundred and ten yard wide corridor and natural bend to the right lent itself perfectly to good golf. Though the second is the longest hole on the course, the good golfer is still hoping for nothing more than a wedge approach shot.In order to obtain that, he needs to fit a 200-220 yard second shot into the elbow of the hole as it bends right 115 yards from the green. Safely onto the terrace, the golfer has a short iron in his hands and a good look at the green. However, if something has gone amiss on the first two shots, the shallow green at only twenty yards deep offers a poor target from well back in the fairway.
Third hole, 325 yards; Heavily influenced by the tenth at Riviera (and there is no greater compliment than that), the third has it all. Anything from a driver to a five iron has been used off the tee, depending on the day’s wind and the state of one’s game. The key playing features are the general left to right tilt of the ground, a large bunker in the left fairway 120 yards from the green, and the angled green itself which is wide but shallow and protected by a right front bunker. If anything, the burst in technology that has occurred since The Ocean Course opened has made this hole all the better/more tempting as more golfers go at the green from the tee.
Fourth hole, 540 yards; A great drive here leaves the golfer in a conundrum: should I go for the green or not? Complicating matters is the invariably awkward stance that results in any fairway that drops eighty feet as this one does. Given the arroyo that fronts the green, the golfer is left with the need for a high approach from a hanging stance. Such a shot is never easy but the Sirens’ call of an eagle makes many a smart man try a less than smart (though intrepid!) shot.