Feature Interview with Greg Tallman
How did a native from West Virginia become the Director of Golf at Cabo del Sol resort in Baja, Mexcio?
Well, without consuming too much band width ¦ I have been rather fortunate to work at some fine clubs having started out in the Pittsburgh area before moving to Florida. After 5 years near Tampa I moved to Fort Myers where I was lucky enough to land at Fiddlesticks CC which remains one of my favorite clubs today and undoubtedly the finest offering from Ron Garl. While there I split time between Fort Myers and Linville, NC ( Grandfather G&CC) which is perhaps the coolest place I have ever been. While clichÃƒ© I would simply state that Grandfather is special. The golf course is superb and often overlooked when discussions of the best courses in the south are discussed. On a side note I will never forget scraping ice from my windshield on August 19 ¦ AUGUST 19!
Anyway rather than make the trek back north one year I decided to do something bizarre and take a teaching gig on a cruise ship. Little did I know how that would change my life. While escorting a group back in 2000 we stopped in Mazatlan, Mexico (mainland Mexico due east of Cabo). They were in transition and without a golf professional so I jokingly said I would gladly come down and run the operation. Well, one thing led to another and 6 weeks later I was moving to Mazatlan, Mexico and getting married to a beautiful young lady from South America a week later! Crazy times indeed! (Please note I had known her slightly longer than a week ¦ nearly a year).
One of the parties involved in the Mazatlan project was consolidating ownership of Cabo del Sol and thus we began overseeing both projects before making the move to Cabo permanently on 2004.
So the condensed version ¦ got restless, went on a high seas adventure, met pretty Latin girl, made joke about moving to Mexico, moved to Mexico ¦ simple really!
You first arrived here in 2001 â€œ how have things changed over the past six years a) at the resort and b) in the region?
Wow ¦ seems like everything apart from the Cabo nightlife has changed dramatically. Golf wise we have seen the failure of a high end private club only to be reborn and wildly successful to the point of hiring Gil Hanse to design the second course at Querencia. During that time El Dorado has gone from high end public course with several dramatic holes on the ocean to ultra exclusive private course with merely a glimpse of the ocean on one par 3 hole. As for the area in general the population has skyrocketed to more than 150,000 in the general area that includes the towns of Cabo San Lucas and San JosÃƒ© del Cabo collectively known as Los Cabos (the capes). Many new master planned developments are in various stages of development all of which feature golf at a very high level. In addition to Hanse we will have new courses designed by Jack Nicklaus, Tom Fazio, Greg Norman, Davis Love III, Phil Mickelson, Arthur Hills, Todd Eckenrode/Fred Couples and a strong possibility that Coore/Crenshaw will begin work soon near San JosÃƒ©. This does not include our proposed third course here at Cabo del Sol for which we have yet to choose a designer.
The Ocean Course’s combination of desert and sea provides a course that is visually rich with spectacular features. However, describe a couple of the subtler nuances that the first time visitor may not pick-up on until it’s too late.
Yes, one never tires at seeing the unique features offered when mountain and desert meets the sea like a one hundred year old cardon cactus growing alongside a young palm tree to the right of the 18th green a few feet from the crashing surf of the Sea of CortÃƒ©z.
Strategy wise I continue to be surprised how a seemingly perfectly placed tee shot on #3 (330 yard par 4) rarely takes what would seeming be the normal kick off the back side of a bunker some 40 yards from the green but instead kicks left more often than not leaving a devilish little pitch to a deceptively difficult green where if the pin is on the back portion of the green one is required to hit a near perfect shot to get close. A shot struck with less precision will run through the green as the outing surface falls away from the player on the back half, something not readily evident from the fairway.
Another short par 4, #14 offers a challenge from the tee that many never realize or understand as most opt to play safe short of the fairway bunker and leave a 7-8 iron from a sidehill lie. The bold play is to challenge the deep arroyo and squeeze the tee shot beyond the bunker into the flat portion of the fairway leaves only a wedge from a flat lie back across the arroyo and a good opportunity to set up a birdie. As I struggle with this decision each time I play the hole, it is perhaps my favorite hole on the course.
You just hit a good drive at the fourth and are 225 yards to a green beyond an arroyo.However, you are hitting the shot from a downhill stance. Set-up wise, what adjustments do you need to make to get some height on the approach shot?
Truth be told I rarely hit a good drive on hole 4 but on the rare occasion I do you set up the approach well. So I have just hit a career drive and now have the opportunity to reach a par 5 in two, only problem is I have a pronounced downhill lie and need to get some air under a hybrid or fairway wood (sorry, Tiger I am not).
The best advice here is fight your urge to help the ball or lift it as in doing so one generally hangs back on their back foot and fails to get good extension through the shot which spells disaster on a downhill lie. To have any chance of executing this shot one must stay down though the shot and swing with the terrain extending through impact and perhaps even allowing yourself a Gary Player walk through finish. Of course it also helps if do play like Tiger and this is a mere 7 iron shot!!!! Even still same rules of thumb apply.
What are a few examples of how The Ocean Course has evolved with time?
The most visible changes have come at the 16th hole where the green location has moved on two separate occasions while the fairway strategy has also been tweaked more than once and stands as a true testament that courses can evolve and improve through constant review and exchange of ideas from the appropriate parties. I could not imagine anyone of sound mind not believing that the current 16th is far superior to the original and among the finest holes anywhere. The most recent change occurred in 2004 as we were switching the greens from tifdwarf to TifEagle. We invited Jack and Jim Lipe to visit during the process and Jim took the opportunity to spice up the greens just a bit. During one visit we were on site at 16 and the conversation gravitated to the current green site and if it could be improved. After more than one hair-brained idea from yours truly a possibly frustrated Lipe said “well in a perfect world the green would be back there” pointing to the edge of the cliff just above the beach. Jim quickly found out that we believe in the perfect world scenario and 24 hours later we were building the new green site while Jim was on a flight to Russia with Jack explaining that we were changing one of Jack’s favorite holes “Jack you remember #16 on the Ocean Course?” Well Upon returning from Russia Jack made a visit to review the green site and after some subtle tweaking gave it his blessing. Whew!
How is the Nicklaus Design to work with during this process?
Simply put first class. All of the criticisms you hear from other architects about the Nicklaus organization, the private planes, fees for this and fees for that ¦ well I would not say these people are making this up but I can tell you straight up that has not been our experience with Jack, Jim Lipe or the Cabo based designer Kurt Bowman. All, including Mr. Nicklaus have been very giving of their time and energies when it comes to The Ocean Course at Cabo del Sol.
Are there any significant design changes being contemplated in the near term?
Yes, likely within the next year we will redesign each of the back to back par threes at holes #6 and #7. While others are sacrificing ocean front golf to cash ion on $15 million home sites we are actually moving theses holes towards the water ¦ nearly IN the water. While it is hard to imagine, the new holes will be far better than the current versions and further connect the golfer to the ocean and in a subtle way the rest of the course. I say connect to the rest of the course as the landmark lighthouse and the Cabeza de Ballena (Whale’s Head) land form will serve as a backdrop for hole 6 before the player is reconnected with these features later in the round at holes 13, 15 and 16. The current 6th is among Lipe’s favorite holes but as he stated during the site visit it just keeps getting better this is like Da Vinci getting the chance to repaint the smile on the Mona Lisa.
The new 7th will have the potential to be among the finest short holes anywhere as it will check in at 140 or so from the back tee set atop the granite shelf a few feet from the water. While an oft debated subject on this site I would put the par three holes on The Ocean Course atop any list of great collections of par threes on one course ¦ heck a good case could be made already and as Jim said it just keeps getting better.
Making holes shorter, moving golf closer to the ocean ¦ we must be out of our minds!
What is the climate/various playing seasons here at the tip of Baja California?
We have two playing seasons, perfect and nearly perfect. October through June the weather is virtually guaranteed to be perfect on a daily basis with an extremely rare day of rain and the occasional windy day (though the wind is not often so strong as to be a nuisance). The normal day in the busy Christmas to Easter period is high or 80 or so and a low of near 60 or put in simple terms ¦ ideal. July through September can get a little warm but not as hot as many might believe being this far south. Highs can reach into the mid to upper 90’s while humidity runs between 3 and 60 percent. I am sure the folks in Dallas and Houston would find it downright lovely versus their own weather.
What grasses thrive the best in these conditions?
All warm season grasses are in heaven in this area. We are blessed with a good water situation at the resort and thus have no issues maintaing our Bermuda grass fairways and TifEagle putting surfaces. Each new course built will feature some form of paspalum and need to build a desalinization plant.
What did re-grassing the greens with Tifeagle in 2004 mean to The Ocean Course?
Better playing surfaces, particularly in March and April when we would begin to see significant ware on the Tifdwarf surfaces after the cool winter nights compounded by the near daylight to dark traffic on The Ocean Course. The TifEagle handles cool night temps better than the dwarf and thus stands up to the traffic a bit better. While I understand lush green surfaces may not yield optimum playing conditions having greens turning purple in late February was an indicator that it was time to upgrade the greens. As noted above Jim Lipe took the opportunity to add subtle contours to many of the greens while maintaining the original playing characteristics.
What time of year provides the optimum playing conditions?
Perhaps the absolute best time to visit Cabo is between Thanksgiving and Christmas. The courses have undergone intense summer maintenance programs and are in near perfect condition and there are few folks traveling at this time so tee times are readily available. In reality though there is not a bad time to visit Cabo.
The Ocean Course is #88 in GOLF Magazine’s current world top 100 courses. How do you keep it in world class shape?
Interesting that we make some stunning changes, lauded by all who see them and we fall sharply from one period to the next ¦ oh well the rankings serve as a fun talking pointy anyway. As noted above we undertake rather aggressive summer programs with each course closed for nearly 30 days throughout the summer. We stagger the closings and programs beginning in June and running through September. During this time the greens will be punched 4 times, fairways verticut 4 times, roughs and tees verticut at least twice and approaches nearly stripped of turf and top dressed aggressively. Executive Superintendent Cody Swirczynski oversees the same programs on each course with the assistance of Desert Course superintendent Frank Sterbak. We will lightly verticut and topdress greens on a weekly basis throughout the year ensuring the ability to keep them as grain free as possible and running at optimum speeds.
What are some of the unique challenges of running a golf program in this part of the world?
Los Cabos specifically I would say the labor market. Employee retention is more difficult as there is effectively zero unemployment in the area and a staff member who decides to leave at noon is probably employed elsewhere by 5:00. Obviously a bit overstated and not true in all cases but a fair indication of what is happening in the area. The expansion occurring in Los Cabos is crazy and creates a new set of challenges for all of us. At times you feel like the training center for all of the new places popping up as there will always be a handful who believe the grass is always greener. Thankfully we have seen a number leave only to return months later, makes one feel good about what we are doing.
The Ocean Course opened to great fan-fare in 1994 and has averaged over 30,000 annual rounds ever since. Nonetheless, the last television event here was in 1999 for the Senior tour. How do you market The Ocean Course and keep it fresh in people’s mind?
Honestly we market very little. As our development is undergoing a massive re-planning we have pulled back our marketing efforts. Of course the fame and popularity of Los Cabos in general and The Ocean Course specifically have allowed us to do that while focusing our efforts on The Desert Course which had the dubious distinction of opening in the wake of September 11, 2001. Again, with the area’s popularity and short flight from so many population centers we have focused our efforts locally as tourism continues to climb in Los Cabos.
Tell us about the Desert Course at Cabo del Sol that Tom Weiskopf designed in 2000/2001.
Quite often overlooked as “the other course at Cabo del Sol,” The Desert Course, is a superb golf course in its own right as evidenced by its being rated #5 in all of Mexico by Golf Digest ahead of such respected courses at Querencia and Palmilla.
With a name like The Desert Course people instantly seem to get the impression they are being shipped back into the middle of the peninsula removed from the ocean. This could not be further from the truth. The ocean is visible from each of the 18 holes and serves as a stunning backdrop on various holes throughout the rollercoaster ride as the player climbs some 225 feet over before arriving at the 8th tee that affords a stunning overview of not only all of Cabo del Sol and the Sea of Cortez but the entire coastline from Santa Maria and Chileno Bays toward San JosÃƒ© del Cabo in the distance. After climbing to the high point on hole 8 (some 325 feet) the inward half winds its way back down to the 18th green and clubhouse set at the same elevation as the opening tee.
There is a whimsical nature to the uphill and downhill approaches with the best downhill coming on the front nine (#4) as the while the most captivating uphill approach breaks up the back plunge at #14. The opposite of what one may gather from the earlier description of the nines.
The green complexes follow this whimsical theme and are in general more interesting than those on The Ocean Course with the surfaces and surrounds at 2, 4 and 14 my favorites anywhere on the property.
With the extraordinarily high level of golf throughout Cabo it is hard to say someone is making a mistake by playing one of the other facilities but doing so under the assumption that there is no need to play the other course at Cabo del Sol is shortsighted at best.
Describe a favorite par three, par four and par five from the Desert Course and what you enjoy about playing them.
- Par 3 â€œ Has to be hole #2 which is one of the new hole introduced by Tom Weiskopf and his very talented design associate Phil Smith in 2005. Nearly 200 yards from the back markers the green complex features a kicker slope along the right side of a green that then falls right to left and thus offering numerous ways to attack the flag regardless of hole location. Players are often surprised at the result of their shot as the kicker slope is partially obscured by a bunker some 20 yards short and well right of the green. When the prevailing wind is up, in the face of the player, the kicker slope is a welcome assist for sure.
- Par 4 â€œ I am going to cheat and pick two holes here. On the front side I will say hole 6 which snakes 404 yards between two massive rock formations, one of which hides some additional 40 yards of fairway as one stands on the tee. The partially blind uphill approach is softened by the lack of bunkering around the green with the lone bunker set some 15 yards beyond the back edge of the putting surface. On the back nine is my true favorite (though I always mention 6 as well) at hole #14, a 419 yard dogleg right. A center line hazard from the tee comes in the form of a natural rock outcropping where much of the surrounding vegetation was also retained. The player can play right or left though the true play is just over the right edge setting up the attractive approach. The approach plays uphill to a green site reminiscent of hole 14 at Augusta National with the first 20-25 feet of the green surface repelling balls back down a slippery slope leaving a very tough pitch. This feature wraps around the entire front right half of the green as well with making a pin set just above the crest on the right front half far more challenging than the back pin in this very deep green where the player would see little more than the top of the flag stick.
- Par 5 – I would have to give the nod to #9. At 520 yards the hole wraps its way around the same TibÃƒºron arroyo that bisects hole #8 on The Ocean Course. A cape hole if you will. Classic risk reward from the tee the player may play safely to the right where an abundance of fairway awaits or attack the hole by challenging the arroyo from the tee. Cutting the corner requires a carry of slightly more than 280 yards but will shorten the hole considerably. A well executed drive may set up the opportunity to have a go at this perched green with shots left just short again setting up a very tough pitch to green that again has a small false front to contend with.
What does the future hold for the greater region around Cabo San Lucas from a golf perspective?
The future of golf in the region is very bright. As mentioned before the finest architects in the business are being given some great parcels of land on which to design their courses. In the next 10 years we should see upwards of 20 new courses open in the Los Cabos area. The development of the pacific side (Los Cabos is actually on The Gulf of California or Sea of CortÃƒ©z) along the the area beyond San JosÃƒ© del Cabo known as the East Cape is moving full steam ahead with some exciting new projects in the works that will certainly add to the lure of Cabo as a must see golf destination.It is not only the immediate are of Cabo that is growing either. Some day in the future you will see golf junkies planning extended vacations to Los Cabos only to take a few days out of the trip to visit Todos Santos, approximately one hour north in the Pacific Ocean and La Paz, the state capital that is about 2 and one half hours north on the Sea Of CortÃƒ©z as the golf is beginning to develop in these areas as well. Baja is a special place ¦ among the best on earth.
Sounds like golf in Cabo has never been stronger. How is golf faring in the rest of Mexico? What are three other courses outside of California Baja Sur that you recommend playing?
The quality of golf throughout MÃƒ©xico continues to improve after nearly two decades of watching Cabo emerge as THE golf destination for Americans traveling internationally. The Cancun area has added a few quality facilities over the last few years while Puerto Vallarta would likely still stand second to Los Cabos in overall quality of the golf product. There are other relatively good courses sprinkled throughout the country but as far as concentrated areas of golf worth getting on a plane to see ¦
While Los Cabos and southern Baja certainly lead the way in terms of quality, Mexico in general and really most of Latin America are experiencing rapid expansion in golf development. Well, perhaps rapid is not the correct word to use down here but there are a vast number of courses on the drawing boards throughout the region. In addition to various projects in the hot tourist destination of mainland Mexico, some of the bigger name architects are being sought out to design courses in Costa Rica and Panama as well. Why? Who knows but as people’s time becomes more valuable the long treks to Hawaii are becoming more burdensome and those places closer to home that offer the same tranquil settings are popping up in some unlikely places. Add to that the sense of escape one gets when traveling to an area with vastly different culture not to mention a different language and you have the formula for a wonderful getaway from the grind. And for those who scoff and utter cheap labor under their breaths jump right in with that theory and your business model will go the way of many a gringo investor in these lands.