The best way to explain the golf scene in Los Cabos to golfing gringos who have never been there is simple. Take the best courses of Scottsdale -- maybe We-Ko-Pa or Troon North -- and slap them along the Pacific Ocean. Then prop up a few of their tees at least 50 to 100 feet in the air so the panoramic views of the water and saltwater-tinted breezes can engage the senses.
The mountains, desert and sea collide in spectacular fashion at the tip of the Baja California Sur. Cabo emerged as a dreamy golf destination with an ideal climate in the 1990s thanks to Jack Nicklaus, and continues to expand with two more courses scheduled to open this year.
Tiger Woods' world debut will be the El Cardonal at the private Diamante late in 2014. Chileno Bay by Tom Fazio, who did the swanky Querencia, opened Dec. 31, 2013. Quivira, the sixth Nicklaus course in Cabo, is slated for a summer soft opening.
Here's a tour of the best public golf courses in Los Cabos:
Palmilla Golf Club
Nicklaus introduced Cabo to golfers in 1992 with Palmilla. Troon Golf runs the 27-hole club with the same level of service and standards of the famed One&Only Palmilla across the street.
A three-hole stretch on the Mountain nine starting at the par-5 fourth derails many a round, including the two treacherous, canyon-hopping shots at no. 5. The Arroyo nine twists through the desert settings that make the region so scenic yet demanding for golf. Palmilla's Ocean nine, added in 2007, drops 600 feet in elevation during the first six holes with the third green perched on the beach.
Ocean Course at Cabo del Sol
While the local competition purges its seaside holes, Cabo del Sol's Ocean Course continues to reinvest in its seven coastal treasures, maintaining its lofty perch among the best golf courses in the world. Since 2010, Cabo del Sol has pushed the fifth green closer to the shore and tinkered with its famous back-to-back par 3s at no. 6-no. 7.
These changes have enhanced this dramatic trio of holes almost to the point that you could argue they're better than the revered seaside beauties at no. 16-no. 18, a stretch Nicklaus has called the best finish in golf.
From start to finish -- including the free fish tacos at the turn -- spending the day at Cabo del Sol is nothing short of spectacular. Tom Weiskopf's Desert Course adds a premier second option.
Puerto Los Cabos
Nicklaus might have stolen the Masters from Greg Norman in 1986, but The Shark gets a small measure of revenge at Puerto Los Cabos, a unique hybrid design in San Jose del Cabo. Norman's front nine is more fun to play, and more beautiful to boot, than the back nine, which was designed by Nicklaus.
The Norman nine climbs skyward three of the first five holes, leading to a jaw-dropping view of the Sea of Cortez from an elevated tee on the par-3, 213-yard sixth hole. The par-5 seventh rumbles 623 yards downhill to the beach. The nine ends playfully, with a downhill tee shot that could actually find the green 350 yards away if struck just right.
Nicklaus did his best to tame his more mountainous par-37 loop, but there are a few awkward holes to fight along the way. A rousing three-hole finish starts at the scenic par-3 15th along the beach.
The golf course at Cabo Real lost a stroke to par, several hundred yards of distance and, most disappointing, a beach-front par 3 during a 2012 redesign, but this Robert Trent Jones Jr. design dating to 1994 remains a world-class experience.
To offset the loss of the 15th hole to development, Jones moved the 14th green closer to the shore. The new no. 15 -- an uphill, 211-yard par 3 -- replaced the old hole heading away from the beach. The new 16th hole, a strenuous par 4, was constructed across the street near the two finishing holes. The front nine, by far the toughest loop in Los Cabos, climbs into the mountains with gulches and arroyos collecting every errant shot.
It's worth noting that every time golfers get frustrated they can stare out to sea pondering the mean of life. There are worse places to be.
Club Campestre San Jose
Another Nicklaus design has proven its worth away from the surf. Because the 6,966-yard Club Campestre San Jose golf course is routed farther inland than Palmilla or Cabo del Sol, green fees here tend to be 10 to 20 percent cheaper.
Its rolling topography still delivers similar views of the Sea of Cortez that are so coveted in Cabo. Diagonal hazards pepper the landscape. Players must carry arroyos or bunkers dissecting fairways on five holes, four on the back nine, and worry about water on a handful of others.
Club Campestre San Jose members love the premier conditioning of the wall-to-wall seashore paspalum turf.