Just a little canyon clear to reach Mountain No. 5's fairway. Don't fall in the cacti. (Chris Baldwin/Golf Advisor) One canyon and you're not done at Palmilla Mountain No. 5. There's another clear right before the tucked away green. (Chris Baldwin/Golf Advisor) A cactus in the fairway (or three) is par for the course at Palmilla. (Chris Baldwin/Golf Advisor) The best views are often behind you at Palmilla. The ocean's but a rumor for most of this Jack Nicklaus. (Chris Baldwin/Golf Advisor)

Palmilla Golf Club: A pioneering Los Cabos Nicklaus still causes double gulps

SAN JOSE DEL CABO, Mexico - First reaction on stepping up to the tee on the fifth hole at Palmilla Golf Club's Mountain Course is almost universal. It goes something like: YOU'VE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME! Okay, it also usually includes plenty of bleeps on either side of kidding.

Everyone gets the point quickly, though. Birdie is out the window. Or, in this case, almost literally off the edge of the earth.

This is one of those holes where you just want to survive and advance. Of course, you'll have to close your mouth and hit a shot first. Somewhere, you're sure Jack Nicklaus is yucking it up

For Nicklaus really gave you a "simple" 401-yard par 4 in this seaside wonderland corridor of Los Cabos. All you have to do is clear a canyon wide enough across that you could be forgiven for thinking it was modeled after The Grand Canyon.

It's also enough of a drop - filled with gnarly bushes and prickly trees - that if your follow-through swing took you over the edge, you'd be looking at a face rearrangement along the lines of Ben Roethlisberger.

And then you have to do it all over again.

That's right there are two canyon-forced carries on this one par 4. Say hello to the sadist?

The second is right up on the approach to the tucked away dogleg right green. It's much smaller than the tee shot clear, but the vegetation is even thicker, the cacti seemingly higher. There's plenty to snare your ball if you don't get some nice loft on it. This time, you're shooting downhill.

Just another relaxing day in paradise?

Los Cabos is the 19-mile corridor between party town Cabo San Lucas and authentic Mexican town San Jose del Cabo that's filled with coastline, oceanside golf resorts and high-end golf. Palmilla is one of the golf pioneers having opened in 1992, though it wasn't long before it was overshadowed by the dueling Nicklaus show-stopping design of Cabo del Sol.

Palmilla has its own character though. It's three sets of Nicklaus nines: the Arroyo, Mountain and Ocean - though the Ocean nine might have the worst view of the ocean. Go figure.

Then again, Palmilla can confuse like that. The best views are often at your back. This is one course where you need to turn and look over your shoulder, back toward the tee boxes, to see what you're missing. It seems like a strange way to go about course design, but maybe Nicklaus just wanted to make sure golfers concentrate on what he's putting in front of them.

"I remembered to bring a few extra sleeves of balls this time," said California vacationer Debbie Kriel, who last played Palmilla eight years ago. "Jack can be a little mean."

Straying from the fairways at Palmilla does put you in some serious desert brush, especially early in the Arroyo nine. You'll be searching. And not finding.

There are also plenty of forced desert area clears on the Arroyo-Mountain 18 (the combination you want to play). Hulking old cacti creep into several fairways. Heck, sometimes they're not creeping - they're almost smack dab in the middle of a fairway guarding a dogleg turn.

This is one of the great thrills of Palmilla. There's just something about sending shots screaming by or over a big cactus that an oak tree could never equal.

Of course, by the time you finish the double canyon clear of Mountain No. 5, you may just feel thrilled out. No. 5 is followed by the first par 3 on the Mountain nine. You'll never be so happy to see a par 3 in your life.

The verdict

Palmilla is not the most spectacular golf course in Cabo. Of course in Cabo, spectacular, showy courses are a virtual arms race of one-upmanship. Still, if you're going to play one round in the Los Cabos corridor, the Cabo del Sol Ocean Course or Cabo Real are better choices.

If the vacation schedule allows for more golf than that, Palmilla is a more than worthy play. And sometimes a downright striking one. It's worth the near $200 greens fee. (It's Cabo, you're going to pay to play. Why fret and risk wrinkling that suntan?)

"Our service sets us apart," Palmilla Club Manager Ray Metz said, noting the Troon standards in play at Palmilla.

Actually, Palmilla's service is about equal to the outstanding service found at every course on this Los Cabos trip. And maybe a step below Cabo del Sol's almost golfer fawning operation. Still, the Palmilla starter couldn't have been more efficient and the play moved at a comfortably brisk pace.

You play Palmilla for the Nicklaus bite, though. For Nos. 6-8 run on the Arroyo nine. For the chance to shoot down from a high tee over a big rocky area into the fairway that requires another clear before the green on No. 1 of the Mountain Course.

Palmilla doesn't wow with scenery as much as it causes gulps with the shots it forces you to execute.

Stay and play

Sheraton Hacienda del Mar Resort & Spa hits you with one of the most stunning entranceways you'll ever see. The courtyard gives the illusion that you could walk right over the edge into the sea.

The resort itself has a great setup where it's easy to walk from your room to any pool or restaurant. You really feel like you're right on the ocean, even when you're in the pool with a beach between it and the sea.

Westin Resort & Spa Los Cabos has just about everything you could want on its sprawling property. Including the option of getting a massage right on the beach with the ocean waves crashing. The resort's location close to the more authentic Mexican town of San Jose, rather than Americanized party town Cabo San Lucas, is a great plus.

Dining out

For the romantic dinner of all romantic dinners, you're not going to top dinner on the beach at Sheraton Hacienda del Mar's D Cortez. They set up a full table in the middle of the sand, complete with torch lights creating a path to the white linen cloth and a fire for when the sun goes down. Your personal waiter trudges through the sand to serve you.

There's a buffet every night at Westin Resort. Forget any images of a low-end, old school Las Vegas buffet, too. These buffets are elaborate affairs. The seafood one every Wednesday is particularly popular with huge lobsters and tasty little oysters all there.

Fast Facts

Palmilla isn't just a Cabo pioneer. It's Nicklaus' first signature design in all of Latin America.

Sep 28, 2006

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Chris Baldwin


Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.