CABO SAN LUCAS, Mexico - No destination in the world is gambling on golf's future like this mecca of sun, sand and sea at the tip of the Baja Peninsula.
My visit to "Cabo" last December was my first in nearly four years (fifth overall), and, to my shock, I barely recognized the place. Resort hotels and golf courses are sprouting up everywhere. The once-sleepy fishing village that Jack Nicklaus discovered in the 1960s has become the go-to luxury vacation for American snowbirds, especially those toting clubs. Its dreamy year-round climate (it barely rains) and scenic landscape - where the desert, mountains, beaches and azure waters of the Sea of Cortez and Pacific Ocean collide - are the draw. Not even a pair of hurricanes (in 2014 and 2016), a tropical storm (2017) or an unfortunate rise in cartel violence (2017) could slow the rush of tourists or development. Despite a Level 2 travel advisory from the U.S. State Department, Los Cabos attracted a record 2.6 million visitors in 2018. A major airport expansion is opening new gateways with more direct flights, so continued growth is expected.
New hotels that debuted last year created more than 2,500 addition rooms, pushing Cabo's inventory to 17,000-plus. The 2019 calendar year will bring another 2,000 new rooms. Many of these new properties will pair well with golf. Los Cabos already has more five-star hotels than any other destination in Latin America, but there still seems to be no end in sight. Another 650 rooms at luxury brands like Park Hyatt and St. Regis are scheduled to open from 2020-2022.
New golf course construction isn't far behind. Twin Dolphin by Fred Couples and Todd Eckenrode opened late last year as Cabo's 16th course. Nine new holes by Nicklaus came online at the sprawling Puerto Los Cabos community, too. Two other projects are scheduled to open for 2019/early 2020 - Rancho San Lucas by Greg Norman and a Robert Trent Jones Jr. course at the under-construction Four Seasons Resort Los Cabos at Costa Palmas. Quivira and Diamante, two dueling properties near Cabo San Lucas, have plans for more golf, though nothing is under construction at either property.
All of these numbers boggle the mind. When I first visited Cabo a decade ago, there were only 10 courses. At what point does too much development steal the soul of a place? After all, Jack's friends call him the "guy who ruined Cabo."
I can vouch he hasn't ruined everything after playing/touring parts of seven courses and staying at or touring five different hotels in five days last December. Everything skews to luxury living - the golf, the restaurants, the resorts.
At times, though, I'm a little taken aback by all the growth, especially when a hole along the ocean/sea gets gobbled up for redevelopment. I recall the proverbial good 'ole days when less of the world knew how great Cabo was, back when the highway corridor between San Jose del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas wasn't overrun with traffic. The secret is out, apparently, and everybody wants a piece of it.
Day 1: Arrival day at Diamante Dunes
I've never had such a disjointed round before: I played the back nine of the Dunes course at Diamante Cabo San Lucas almost four years after playing the front nine (I was visiting then in 2015 to review the new El Cardonal by Tiger Woods). I'm glad I waited to finish the round. The back nine is very different now. Several new holes have been created to make room for the two new hotels on the beach - the Nobu Hotel Los Cabos and Hard Rock Hotel Los Cabos. Since Diamante operates as a private members club, the good news is these hotels can offer limited access to guests who want to play.
Strategically, several great half-par holes (for example, the 247-yard seventh plays like a par 3 1/2) make for an interesting front nine. The dunescapes captivate throughout, weaving a hilly maze of blind shots and crooked lies. The hotels scheduled for grand openings this year have stolen some of the oceanfront scenery from the Davis Love III design, but this is still probably a World Top 100 golf experience. Every golfer gets the VIP treatment with the free smoothies and bitesize breakfast/lunch treats before the round, the music at the range and the two additional comfort stations on the course providing all the food, drinks and snacks you'll need.
By staying at Diamante, I had access to its 10-acre Crystal Lagoon, state-of-the-art fitness club, five restaurants, private beach and six miles of walking and hiking trails. It's got all the amenities, no doubt. Real estate ranges from villas, casitas, penthouse suites above the clubhouse to massive beach club estates.
Day 2: Touring the future of golf
Touring Rancho San Lucas was like going on an ATV resort excursion without having to pay for it. Only a few holes had grass, so much of the morning was spent envisioning desert sand becoming cactus-lined fairways. The site gently sways up and back down again, featuring one spectacular hole right on the beach and an island green par 3. Accommodations are already available at the Grand Solmar at Rancho San Lucas. If the economy stays humming, expansion will continue for years between real estate and more resort accommodations.
Back at Diamante came another forecast into the future of golf - a quick round on The Oasis. This little gem by Woods sports 12 short par 3s in a practice-park type setting around a central lake. Each of the holes is flexible in length but generally less than 100 yards (the longest being 143 yards). The staff simply sticks numbered tee markers in the ground to share how long the hole is playing. Defended by sticky paspalum grass that doesn't accept bouncing the ball into tiny greens, my short game got a real workout. My only complaint was it cost $30 for anybody to play. Something like this should be free to grow the game and encourage participation from any level of golfer. I played through one couple and saw a family tee it up as I was enjoying a drink in the Palapa bar that serves as a clubhouse. It would have been nice to see more participation on such a beautiful afternoon.
That night, I strolled through San Jose del Cabo, the quintessential Mexican town. Its vibe is more low key than Cabo's party scene. Thursday nights from November through March attract crowds of families for 'Art Walk', where vendors sell their paintings and children perform traditional dance. Inside the Don Sanchez Restaurant, a live band rocked as I dined on lobster tacos, tuna tartar and short rib.
Day 3: From Cabo del Sol to the Montage
The Ocean course at Cabo del Sol has always been my favorite course in Cabo ever since I laid eyes on it. Nicklaus worked magic along the beach. The water is close to holes six and seven that you almost need a swimsuit to play the back-to-back par 3s. Unfortunately, the other iconic par 3 on the beach - the par-3 17th hole - has been replaced by a new par 3 built in the middle of the back nine. Sacrificing beachfront holes is nothing new in Cabo - just ask golfers at Cabo Real and the private El Dorado Golf and Beach Club. Here it has bigger implications beyond one hole. Expect an announcement on major changes coming soon.
This time, I steered my golf cart away from the water toward the Desert course. I was pleasantly surprised that Tom Weiskop over-delivered as an architect ... again. It's a rousing round at higher elevations. What is supposed to be a secondary course would be a star anywhere else.
That night revealed an even better surprise: The new Montage Los Cabos.
I've been fortunate to enjoy many of the top 10 Cabo hotels for golfers before: The Pueblo Bonita Pacifica and One&Only Palmilla were especially impressive. The Montage set my new standard of excellence, where unique room designs spill out onto an over-sized patio overlooking multiple pools and a beautiful private cove on the Santa Maria Bay. A swimmable beach is a rare commodity in Cabo. Having indoor and outdoor showers - plus a tub - are another big bonus in my book. I went rogue ordering dinner at Mezcal, skipping the usual Mexican fare for suckling pig, a chef specialty that capped off a perfect visit. The only catch for golfing guests is a round at the adjacent Twin Dolphin will cost north of $400. I passed.
Day 4: Life at Puerto Los Cabos
The new Nicklaus II nine at Puerto Los Cabos brings clarity to perhaps the most awkward union in golf. For nearly a decade, Puerto Los Cabos operated as an 18-hole course with nine holes by Nicklaus and nine by Norman. Both those nines go spectacularly toward the beach, while this new nine-hole loop feels more like a mountain course. It climbs to the highest heights of the property with panoramic views of the water. Puerto Los Cabos has matured nicely into the flagship facility of Questro Golf by incorporating the all-inclusive comfort station concept that's so popular at Diamante and Quivira. Questro Golf also operates Cabo Real and Club Campestre San Jose, but neither offers the comfort stations.
Two resorts, a Secrets and a Marriott, reside nearby with a third, Zadun, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve, under construction. While I'm sure they're all great, I enjoyed my night at the Hotel El Ganzo, an eclectic 70-room boutique decorated by resident artists. A rooftop infinite pool, a lobby bar overlooking the marina and an underground recording studio provides fun at every level. During the day, a boat floats guests across the water to the Container Restaurant & Bar for lunch and happy hour. After dark, I took the more traditional route, 10 minutes by car.
Day 5: Departure day at Club Campestre
Like any diehard golfer in winter, I snuck in one last round before my flight. Club Campestre San Jose is the most affordable Cabo course outside of the Cabos San Lucas Country Club (which is making a comeback with seven new holes built after tropical storm flooding in 2017) and the nine-hole Course at Vidanta. By affordable, I mean $190. Nothing in Cabo comes cheap. The discount comes without holes on the ocean. My playing partner and I cursed Nicklaus a time or two when one of his penal green slopes repelled what we thought were solid shots. Otherwise, we left in agreement the course was worthy of our time.
Heading to the airport, I couldn't help but wonder: What will Cabo look like in another four years? Times are a changin'.