GARZON, Uruguay - Hidden in the rural hills of South America's second smallest - and arguably safest - country is a paradise of food, wine and golf.
Some called Alejandro Bulgheroni crazy for believing he could put Uruguay on the map in the world of wine.
It doesn't pay to bet against an entrepreneurial billionaire who has other wineries around the world. Last November, his Bodega Garzon Winery was named the "New World Winery of the Year" by the Wine Enthusiast Magazine. In less than a decade from the first grape planting, it has already produced a bottle considered among the top 25 wines in the world by one publication.
Now can he do the same for golf? Before you laugh and think 'Uruguay? For golf?', let me remind you of one very significant historical fact: Uruguay is already on the map for the golf purist. The capital of Montevideo houses the rarest of golf treasures - a classic course redesigned by Dr. Alister MacKenzie you can actually play unlike Augusta National or Cypress Point. Couple Mackenzie's Golf Club de Uruguay with Bulgheroni's Garzon Tajamares Golf Course like I did for a golf getaway you'll never forget.
Last May, Garzon Tajamares became the world's first "PGA Tour Preferred Golf Course," a designation similar to the TPC (Tournament Players Club) brand. Garzon Tajamares, a course Bulgheroni had built in his backyard in rural Uruguay, is slightly more accessible through this new relationship with the Tour (although it's still incredibly exclusive). Playing Garzon Tajamares is also part of the luxurious lifestyle being offered to members of The Garzon Club, a new private club where food, wine and golf live in harmony.
The course and winery are located roughly a half hour inland from Jose Ignatio, a chic beach enclave on the Atlantic Ocean that, for six weeks in the summer months of December and January, becomes the go-to vacation for South America's rich and elite. It's been labeled the "French Riviera of South America." It attracts celebrity chefs - Argentinian Francis Mallman coordinated many of my meals and owns a hotel in tiny Garzon - and celebrity guests - Katy Perry stayed at the same beachfront bungalows I did. Having known little about this obscure country before my visit, it became clear almost immediately that this rural outpost two hours east of Montevideo should be on the map for adventurous travelers whether it's golf, wine or relaxation they seek.
Bodega Garzon Winery, the heartbeat of The Garzon Club, debuted in 2016 as the first sustainable winery outside of North America built in accordance with LEED Certification. It's a stunning, state-of-the-art facility perched atop a hill. Driving in on rough, back-country roads (some unpaved), it was hard to envision such an awe-inspiring final destination. The view from the back patio stretches for miles, looking down upon the grape vines planted neatly in small pods. The restaurant soaks in these views and couples them with the open-fire cooking concepts created by Mallman that are traditional in Uruguay.
Cut into the hillside is the sprawling underground wine cave and cellar, where glass walls reveal exposed rock. Massive concrete rooms house rows of vats and casks. Smaller corridors lead to private rooms of wine lockers or places to sit and sip. Where the real magic happens is in the dirt. The soil, influenced by the ocean, is the soul of this place. Multiple varieties of grapes can thrive in the temperate climate, creating bottles of pinot noir rose, balaste, tannat, marselan and sauvignon blanc. Garzon wines are available in certain markets in America.
After touring the facilities, it was time to celebrate the Wine Spectator award. The party spilled out onto the patio, where cooks prepared homegrown beef from Bulgheroni's nearby farms on open-fire grills. The setting sun and passing clouds spread glorious light upon the grapes. Darkness brought to life the dance party spun by a deejay. It's no surprise that wineries throw the best parties.
Eventually, construction of the Garzon Lodge & Spa at the winery and a beach club in Jose Ignacio will bring Bulgheroni's dream to life.
The golf course grew as Bulgheroni (in the photo above, second from the right) attempted to pass on his passion for the game to his children. It started with three holes, then grew incrementally from 5, 9 and then a full 18 holes. At one point, his wife thought three of the holes were too close to the house, so he had three new holes built farther away, leading to 21. From 2013-15, Angel Cabrera, the two-time major champion from Argentina, was brought in to redesign the whole thing. What emerged is a special round among the region's rolling hills and 10 ponds. The water features deliver the defining moments - tiered waterfalls near the third green, the peninsula green on the par-5 12th and the ponds lurking on the fun par 3s at no. 5 and no. 15.
Bulgheroni doesn't play much any more, but he's proud of what's here. When I asked him what his favorite part of the course is, he responded: "The trees. I think the greens are marvelous. I really like the layout. Cabrera changed it and it's better now."
You probably haven't heard of the course because nobody has played it. No raters. No magazine writers. It truly was one man's playground. Probably only a couple thousand people have teed it up in the past decade. And that's the biggest allure ... its exclusivity. You're getting an experience only a few golfers will ever enjoy.
The relationship with the Tour isn't necessarily to get a tournament - although maybe something happens down the road. It's more about getting the recognition the course deserves and opening it up to the right kind of golfers who will appreciate it. Neither Golf Digest nor a popular website that ranks courses around the world list Garzon Tajamares among the top courses in Uruguay, a country with only 10 courses. That's a tragedy to what is most certainly one of the top courses in South America.
"It is the No. 1 course in Uruguay according to many people," Bulgheroni said. "I want to have a number of people come to the course and enjoy it."
Jose Ignacio and Punta del Este
Bulgheroni, an Argentinian, brought his agricultural businesses (farming, cattle, olive oil) to Garzon in 1999 and fell in love with the place before it became popular.
Jose Ignacio's roots as a fishing village have given way to a social scene that explodes once a year, as revealed in this New York Times feature. Yet it has maintained its small-town, lost-in-time feel. I visited about three weeks before high season and many of the high-end shops in the downtown were still closed. Thankfully, La Huella, everybody's favorite gathering place on the beach, is always open. The fresh seafood comes right from the Atlantic outside.
Location has fueled Jose Ignacio's rise. Sitting on the Atlantic at the mouth of the Rio de la Plata river, land-marked by a lighthouse, its beautiful beaches are perfect for surfing and kite-boarding, thanks to the clashing of currents and winds of the river and ocean. It's roughly 20 miles from Punta del Este, a more vibrant cityscape easily reachable from Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina across the wide waterway. Punta del Este offers more shopping, night life, several strong courses I didn't get to play and a few curiosities like Casapueblo in Punto Ballena, home to an eclectic clifftop hotel and a museum gallery of local artist Carlos Paez Vilaro.
Art is also a big part of the three casually elegant Vik hotels in Jose Ignacio. I stayed at Bahia Vik Jose Ignacio, where every private beach bungalow sports its own theme. The walls of Bahia Vik's main building are adorned by large murals of the family's children. Painted, whimsical creatures from Greek mythology dance on the ceiling. Long walks over the sand dunes onto the beach are a must. Farther inland is Estancia Vik Jose Ignacio, a ranch house even more elaborate in its decor that is surrounded by rolling pastures. We dined again on an endless parade of meats and sausages grilled on the indoor, wood-fired BBQ.
A Mackenzie in Montevideo
Back in Montevideo, I met up with Claudio Billig, an influential leader in Uruguay's golf scene. He's the club captain at the Golf Club de Uruguay and president of both the South American Golf Federation and the Uruguay Golf Association, the country's keeper of the game that consists of roughly 1,200 golfers with active handicaps (and 4,000 total golfers according to its website).
A round at the Golf Club de Uruguary is easily doable on arrival or departure day. The private club sits in the heart of the city only minutes from a modern airport that accepts one direct flight from the United States on American Airlines through Miami, a nine-hour jaunt. That's nothing compared to Mackenzie's journey, which took weeks to accomplish.
The course has remained true to Mackenzie's redesigned routing from 1930, as the city has sprouted up around it. Sadly, any original documents or Mackenzie memorabilia were lost in a clubhouse fire started by a local terrorist group in 1971. A half-melted trophy, the only artifact left, is proudly on display in a glass case. There is an original routing plan, signed by Mackenzie, framed and hanging on the wall in an upstairs boardroom.
You shouldn't have issues with access, despite the club's thriving local membership of 3,000 golf and social members. The land, leased from the city, is open to the public on Mondays when the club is closed, and the non-members are welcome on at least one afternoon per week. Call ahead to set up your tee time.
There's nothing overly epic about the golf experience, other than the Mackenzie nostalgia. It's a pleasant walk, and at roughly 6,600 yards, easily accommodates all skill levels. The par-4 first hole is short and tight with trees, bending gently right to a green surrounded by bunkers. That look is typical of the round's challenges. Length is secondary to hitting straight tee shots to stay out of the trees and for proper angles into tricky fast greens drenched by bunkers. Stirring views of the river accompany the back nine, although a major roadway separates the course from the water today.
The club will celebrate its 100th birthday in 2022.
"The course is very desirable not just because it is Mackenzie, but because on the course, from here, you can see the whole city," Billig said. "Although it is not a long course, the design is very nice."
Billig remains hopeful that golf can continue to grow in Uruguay. He said the Uruguay Golf Association is currently raising money to build a driving range for aspiring junior golfers and trying to transform another private club into a public course for more access. Many little things could help to grow the game ... more visiting golfers from America or the exposure of a large tournament coming to Uruguay, for example. Tom Doak just might be doing his part. The world-famous architect recently scouted a site for a potential new course in Uruguay. If that ever came to fruition, there's no doubt golf in Uruguay would be on the map permanently.