Golfweek Comp Issue — 2012 Annual Guide
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The Coast With The Most
Martin Kaufmann

Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula showcases luxurious resorts, value pricing and an improving golf scene

The Yucatan Peninsula loops northward toward America’s southern coastline in a happy accident of geography, allowing Mexico to display its best assets to its biggest market. The sun-splashed beaches, the decidedly upscale resorts, and the growing collection of golf courses along the coastline are all prominent upon arriving at Cancun International Airport, which is only a two-hour direct flight from some major hubs in the southern United States.

Given that, it’s hard to fathom that Cancun’s 17-mile spit of beachfront was, not that long ago, a giant shovel-ready project with few inhabitants. In the 1970s the Mexican government snapped up the coastline, built the infrastructure, then began luring major resort operators to its pristine beaches. Even the name Cancun was tweaked to make it easier for potential tourists to pronounce and remember.

For many, popular awareness of Cancun can be traced to a specific date: Jan. 27, 1975. That was the publication date of the iconic Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover in which model Cheryl Tiegs was pictured frolicking in the surf at “Mexico’s splashy new resort.” The accompanying story described a seaside setting that was “equal parts model city and construction camp,” as job seekers were schooled in how to care for the well-heeled tourists who would soon begin arriving in droves. They obviously learned well.

“The people will do anything for you,” said Kevin Rafferty, a serial Cancun vacationer from Newcastle, England. “They probably work 14, 15 hours a day, and they always have smiles on their faces.”

These days Cancun may or may not fit the definition of “model city,” but it’s definitely not a construction camp. Resort towers line Kulkulkan Boulevard, the four-lane strip through the Hotel Zone. Cancun is Mexico’s leading resort destination, annually attracting nearly 6 million visitors, more than 80 percent of whom arrive from North America.

The resort expansion continued along the coast, in the region that has been known for the past dozen years as Riviera Maya, which extends roughly 100 miles south of Cancun, past the cliffside Mayan ruins of Tulum.

For all of their master planning, one thing Mexican officials could not have contemplated was the drug violence that has wracked parts of the country. It never occurred to me prior to my recent visit that the violence occurring largely in border towns more than 1,500 miles away might have tainted the calm coastline of Quintana Roo. The tourism numbers have held up relatively well, but resort executives cite anecdotal evidence of visitors’ concerns – questions when booking about safety, the occasional cancellation – that are cause for concern.

The Mexican government, which is heavily invested in this region, is fighting back. There are scattered checkpoints with heavily armed police officers, including one near the airport exit on Highway 307, that can be disconcerting if you’re not prepared for it. But this appears to be more a show of force than an actual use of it. During my weeklong visit, I saw police pull over only a handful of cars, with the vast majority of motorists breezing through the checkpoints without stopping. Frankly, the far greater road nuisances are the occasional speed bumps along Highway 307, the main north-south corridor, that force drivers to brake from 70 mph to 10 mph.

Along the Yucatan Peninsula, dozens of all-inclusive resorts lavish guests with so much food and drink as to raise a fleeting thought: How do these resorts make any money? But they seem to be holding up rather well. Moon Palace Golf & Spa Resort, just south of the airport, recently expanded to 2,434 rooms with the addition of ever-grander accommodations. Yet golf packages can be had for as little as $277 per person per night, based on double occupancy.

As the room count suggests, bigger is better at Moon Palace. As we circled the main pool complex, Phil Krick Sr. Said, “You couldn’t hit a driver over this.” Well, perhaps Bubba Watson could.

That morning Krick, a former tour and club pro who now spends most of his time teaching, had been consigned by his son, Phil Jr., director of golf for Palace Resorts’ three area courses, to show me around 18 of the 27 holes at Moon Palace. The Kricks are naturals at this: A day earlier, Phil Jr. Had aced the difficult, par-3 third while showing the course to a Canadian film crew.

Moon Spa & Golf Club and its outstanding sister course, Riviera Cancun, are the best golf options in Cancun. Both are Jack Nicklaus designs, but that’s where the similarities end. In part that’s due to the setting. While the Moon Palace course, which opened in 2002, is part of a mega-resort and cranks out 50,000 rounds annually – a big number given all of the other amenities – Riviera Cancun, a 2008 opening, is a standalone facility, a rarity in this resort setting. It’s operated by Palace Resorts and is near the Hotel Zone, but there is no nearby construction. Riviera Cancun is all about golf, including its Nicklaus teaching academy, which opened in August. Water is more prominent on the course, as are large waste areas that are often sprinkled with wiregrass, and the difficult green complexes reflect Nicklaus’ strategy in recent years to counter the rabbitball era.

“This one is a lot trickier than Moon Palace,” said Steve Nuttie, a honeymooner from Liverpool, England, who had just finished a round at Riviera Cancun with Rafferty.

For all of Cancun’s appeal – its whitesand beach, its endless swim-up bars, its luxurious accommodations staffed impeccably by locals who literally were born and raised to work in hospitality – it’s hardly the exotic destination intrepid travelers found 30 years ago. Now it’s arguably more Americanized than South Beach.

By contrast, part of Riviera Maya’s appeal is that it takes visitors through towns that are more authentically Mexican without forcing visitors to venture too far outside their comfort zones. It’s also here, about 45 minutes south of Cancun, where you’ll find El Camaleón at Mayakoba, home to PGA Tour’s Mayakoba Golf Classic and certainly one of the best designs to come out of Greg Norman’s shop. While it has held up to Tour competition – Johnson Wagner won a playoff after shooting 17 under in February – it manages to be resort-friendly from the 6,562-yard tees.

The entire Mayakoba development is a 640-acre architectural marvel – sort of the Vienna of the tropics, only with far superior accommodations. The mile-long beach fronts a tropical forest and nearly 150 acres of mangrove, all of which can be navigated via an elaborate canal system. Mayakoba is home to three uber-luxe resorts – a Fairmont, Banyan Tree and Rosewood – which is the hospitality equivalent of going to Carmel and trying to decide whether to play Pebble Beach, Cypress Point or Spyglass Hill. Norman’s design is a reflection of Mayakoba’s elaborate ecosystem. The target line off the first tee is a huge cenote in the center of the fairway. As we approached the fifth tee and the mangrove, Kevin Sebulski, El Cameleón’s director of golf, reminded me, “The first four holes you can find your golf ball. Not here.” By No. 7, players reach the beach, where, on this cloudless morning, Cozumel was visible six miles off the coast. The back nine makes a similar loop, from jungle to mangrove to beach.

That afternoon I drove 20 minutes to the south to Playacar Spa & Golf Club in Playa del Carmen. This Robert von Hagge design opened in 1994, making it one of the granddaddies of the Riviera Maya golf scene, and a surly one at that. Driving corridors are slender and often penal, there are more doglegs than a busy kennel, the forced carries are plentiful, and the small greens don’t leave much room for error. Design geeks might note that Playacar’s 18th has more than a passing resemblance to the famous finish of Doral’s Blue Monster, which also bears von Hagge’s fingerprints.

Other nearby golf options include Iberostar Playa Paraiso and Grand Coral.

Iberostar is the product of P.B. Dye, who apparently views papa Pete’s more famous land sculptures not as inspiration but rather as challenges that need to be one-upped. Intended or not, there are insouciant riffs on TPC Sawgrass and the Stadium Course at PGA West, with mounds upon mounds, tabletop greens and steep falloffs. It’s surely not for everyone, but it definitely makes an impression, so much so that it ranks 16th among Golfweek’s Best Caribbean Courses.

A newer and far tamer option is Grand Coral, which opened in February just south of Mayakoba and is as pleasant as its architect, Nick Price, who seems to have channeled his inner Bill Coore. Fairways are large, and green surrounds are subtle and tightly mown, making the Texas wedge a good option.

While the course is perfectly lovely, it is Grand Coral’s clubhouse that makes the biggest statement. It is an imposing, bleached-white, trapezoidal structure that spans the entry road. In difficult times, this new structure is a reminder of the confident vision upon which this coastline was built.