PUERTO VALLARTA, Mexico - Shortly after the Jack Nicklaus at Vista Vallarta Golf Club opened in early 2001, it was chosen to host the 2002 EMC World Golf Championships. The largest sporting spectacle ever held in Mexico were the 1972 Olympic Games and 1994 World Cup soccer championships, but this sent notice to the world that Mexico was in the golf business to stay.
Even though the winning Japanese team of Shigeki Maruyama and Toshi Izawa won the event with a tournament record 36-under-par, the presence of Phil Mickelson, David Toms, Mike Weir, and Vijay Singh put this course in an elite category. Nicklaus' Vista Vallarta course has never stopped building on that publicity.
In addition, the property has played host to the Ford U.S. Collegiate Golf Championships, previously won by Tiger Woods. Not bad for a course that opened in April of 2001.
Now it is one of the first choices of courses to play when visitors arrive. They all want to play the course the pros played. It doesn't hurt that the course is pushed up against the foothills of the Sierra Madre Mountains with its highest holes serving up stunning views of the Bay of Banderas.
The 7,057-yard, par-72 course will make you think, especially on the greens. In typical Nicklaus style, this course has generous driving areas, but the greens have more undulations than some tricked-up miniature golf courses. All are well guarded and bunkered, putting a premium on the approach shots. The holes themselves are well-conceived: Nicklaus chose to work with the natural contours of the former ranchland, which means the holes have more individuality and character than most designers and architects can create.
Some will curse the rolling terrain, and others will marvel at the grassy hillsides, dense forests of palm, giant ficus trees and natural creeks. Either way you look at it, it's a course that gets people talking.
Most people rave about the par-5 third hole, a 550-yard challenge that requires three superb shots to get onto the elevated green in regulation. It rises a little more with each shot, against a backdrop of the misty mountain peaks. It is rated as the toughest on the course, in part because you can't even see the green on your approach, but the hole surprises everyone once they climb to the top. A jaw-dropping view of Banderas Bay makes the trek worthwhile.
The par-4 13th hole is a short 340-yard dogleg that, if played correctly, should be an easy par or possible a birdie. The hole requires a short tee shot and then an accurate approach to a very shallow green. In the MCI, with teammate Toms safely in the fairway, Mickelson took a rip at the front pin location from the tee. His ball carried the dogleg's trees, as well as the creek fronting the green, and his ball landed on the front left part of the putting surface. He made his second for eagle, but he's a professional. Don't try this if you value your ball or your score.
This course presents opportunities for good golfers who want to attack, just like Mickelson. The only complaint comes from something nobody can control - the humidity. Sweat-soaked gloves are common, so bring along a change or two, maybe even the Neoprene kind that get stickier as they become wetter.
Hopefully by the time you get to the finishing four holes, you still will have a few dry spots. You'll need a good grip to have a rip at these four. Even though two of them are par-3s, it's all the golf you can handle. The 15th is a par-3 over water that tests your shot-making ability. Come up short, and the ball finds the water, but go long and the incline from back to front will funnel your ball into the bunker.
No. 16 is a great dogleg-right par-4 because the tee shot is longer than it appears. Many big hitters feel they can carry the bunkers on the right side of this 423-yarder, but a play to the left is the smart play. If you are lured into the trap by trying to cut off the dogleg, you'll be left with a very difficult shot onto a severe green that is well-guarded. Take a chance here, and you could be looking at bunker, bunker, three-putt. That's no way to finish.
Once you get to No. 17, another par-3, 170 yards might seem like a piece of cake. But this hole plays like 200 because it's uphill, and because of the large rise in the middle of the green, you must land it softly. If you are off just a bit either way, you'll be rolling off and facing a very difficult chip.
The signature finishing hole, a 445-yard beauty, starts on an elevated tee with a spectacular view. Play this dogleg left up to the right side of the fairway, and the contour of the hole will slingshot your ball around toward the green. If you try to cut the dogleg high over the trees in an effort to carry the creek on the left, you'll be sorry. Singh tried it five times during a practice round and never retrieved any of the balls. He finally gave up and played it by the book. Trouble is, on this hole, and typical of many Nicklaus courses, the second shot is much more difficult than the first. The green has a giant rise that guards the back left pin location. A par here is worthy of a multi-cerveza celebration.
The MCI event and the quality of this classic Nicklaus course - open fairways but well guarded, undulating greens - makes it easy for Puerto Vallarta to market Mexico as an international golf destination that everyone can enjoy.
Less than 10 minutes from the marina district of Puerto Vallarta, about 3 miles inland from Marina Vallarta and Banderas Bay, this is an easy ($10) cab ride from most hotels and resorts.
Vista Vallarta Golf Club
Jack Nicklaus course
Colonia San Nicolas
Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
Phone: 52 332 290 0030
Rates: $140, with a $99 twilight rate.
Look up in the hills off to the left when standing on the fourth tee box. Up in those mountains, deep in the jungle, is where portions of the movie Predator, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, was filmed in 1987. The grueling shoot in the tropical forests was interrupted by Arnie's marriage to Maria Schriver. ' Puerto Vallarta also was the on-site location for Night of the Iguana, the 1963 John Huston film featuring Richard Burton and Ava Gardner.