Sunday, March 30, 2008

Cabo Del Sol (Ocean) Golf Course

The Corona warehouse came into view as our plane made its final approach to land in Los Cabos airport. It was an early sign that it was going to be a good trip. My mid-winter flight from Newark brought me to our friendly neighbor in the south for a welcome break. I was bumped to first class on the flight down and enjoyed the show from a group of big cleavage, silicon breasted, botoxed women and their oversized husbands with leathery faces on their way into the sun. All I had to do was put on my gold chain and my sweat pants and I would have felt right at home. There is a reason The Sopranos was based on a New Jersey Mafioso family.

The flight was uneventful and we arrived in Mexico to experience one of life's simple pleasures. That is, flying from a cold climate in the winter, arriving in the tropics and walking out of the plane directly onto an open stairway, with the warm sun beating down on you. It is a redeeming experience and is a much better way to arrive than walking through a jetway, through an air-conditioned terminal that is hermetically sealed.

It has always been a curiosity to me why no desert golf courses are ranked in the world's top 100 golf courses. There are many fine courses in Arizona, Nevada and Palm Springs that provide an enjoyable, different type of golfing experience -- that of target golf. The name of the golf course ranked #68 in the world threw me off -- Cabo Del Sol (Ocean). In reality it is a desert golf course laid out with islands of both green and fairway set among the desert.

I played the Jack Nicklaus-designed Cabo Del Sol (Ocean) under fine conditions this past February: seventy degree weather, a mild breeze, in the first group off the tee, with the sun rising over the water. It was my first round wearing shorts in six months and it felt great to play in such a nice location. You can see the brilliant day unfolding at Cabo del Sol below, with the cacti providing a nice frame to the sunrise.


The summary of the landscape at Cabo del Sol is: The desert meets the ocean. The summary of the golf course is: Jack Nicklaus-style forced carry shots and fast greens.


The first tee shot of the day, seen above, is typical of what you face all day at Cabo Del Sol: a forced carry over the desert.

The approach shot to the 4th green

Often times, shots to the green at Cabo del Sol also require a forced carry over desert as well. The approach to the par five fourth hole, above, requires you to hit a shot over about 60 yards of desert and over a ravine, to an elevated green.

Cabo del Sol is located in the Mexican state of Baja California in Cabo San Lucas. Baja California is a peninsula of land between the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of California. The course overlooks the Sea of Cort├ęs and was opened in 1994. The course starts away from the water on a desert plateau and then gradually plays downhill until it reaches the water at the par three sixth hole.


The par three 6th hole

This 165 yard par three is situated in a dramatic setting among the craggy rocks right on the sea. The setting is made even more spectacular by the whales that fill the expanse behind this hole. Grey whales migrate the 12,400 miles to Cabo in the winter from Alaska to mate here. Whales are clearly an intelligent species spending their winters in Mexico! The water immediately offshore is extremely deep, which is what attracts the whales here. As you play the holes along the water, and this one in particular, you can see them continually jumping up in the water and also shooting plumes of water into the sky. I suggest playing Cabo del Sol between December and April so you experience the whales while you play.

The par 3 6th hole

The par three sixth is one of the prettiest of its kind anywhere in the world and for my money rivals Pebble Beach's seventh for scenic beauty.

From behind the 7th green

The dramatic par three sixth is followed by another par three, the seventh, which is a 137 yard hole that plays at a ninety degree angle to the sixth and is parallel to the water. You can see the curious juxtapositions at Cabo del Sol, above, where Cactus plants in the desert meet the ocean. The sixth and seventh are the only holes along the water on the front nine. You don't return to the water until holes sixteen through eighteen, which finish along the sea. At this point, the course is routed back inland and plays up the plateau and then back down it again for the closing stretch of holes.

The view from the 11th tee

The 11th hole is a classic risk-reward hole. A very short par four at 328 yards, the hole offers a generous lay-up area down the entire right side. What is tantalizing, however, is that you can hit your drive just short of the green by hitting over the vast desert area on the left. Take the risk and you will have a very short shot to the green and a very good angle of approach. Miss it and you'll be down in the sand for a bit. Jack Nicklaus's courses can sometimes be overbearing and too difficult to play. I didn't find that to be the case at Cabo del Sol. As with this hole, the overall course is a nice bit of Nicklaus design.

Approach shot to the 12th green

The twelfth hole is a 473 yard par five and the picture above is the approach to the elevated and well bunkered green.
The downhill par 3 3th hole

The 171 yard downhill par three 13th hole, seen above, again demonstrates the forced carry present on every hole. The greens at Cabo del Sol are among the best I have played in all my travels. They were in ideal condition when I played and were very fast.

A desert hazard at Cabo del Sol

The signature 16th hole

The sixteenth hole is the signature hole at Cabo del Sol and is featured on its scorecard. It is a 342 yard par four that plays downhill. The approach shot to the green should obviously not be long.


The par three 17th

The seventeenth hole, pictured above, is another forced carry to a beautiful, small green perched between the ocean and the desert. It is somewhat reminiscent of Pete Dye's Casa de Campo where he built several holes into the water. Golf Magazine has also compared this hole to the sixteenth at Cypress Point.


The par 3 17th hole 

The eighteenth is a disappointing hole that plays along the water but doesn't really take advantage of the great terrain and beautiful setting. According to its website, Jack Nicklaus calls Cabo del Sol "the best three finishing holes in all of golf." I don't agree. Carnoustie is the clear winner here, followed by Merion and the National Golf Links of America.

You must take a cart at Cabo del Sol because the walk between green and tee is often quite long. The greens fee is steep at $325, but then again, you are playing one of the world's best golf courses in a dramatic location. Cabo del Sol was the first time I had tacos for breakfast, at the half-way house between the nines. It know it sounds unusual, but they are included in the cost of your round, and they are delicious.

Cabo del Sol is a worthy desert course among the world's top 100. Similar to Pebble Beach and Turnberry, Cabo del Sol also has a hotel on the property and I suggest staying there to soak up the experience and enjoy the great views.

The Cabo Del Sol web-site

P.S. My business took me from Cabo to San Francisco so I was unlucky enough to fly Alaska Airlines again. They practice flying the old-fashioned way: Run your flights late, lie about the delays, charge extra for inedible food, cram an extra 15 seats onto the plane and take an extra hour to unload the bags. Bravo.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Spyglass Hill Golf Course

Spyglass Hill Golf Course (ranked #81 in the world) is located on the Pebble Beach peninsula, adjacent to Cypress Point and a short drive from Pebble Beach and Spanish Bay. Spyglass is without question one of the top public golf courses in the U.S.

The following excerpt is a nice summary of Spyglass taken from its web-site: "Spyglass Hill Golf Course takes its name from Robert Louis Stevenson's classic novel, Treasure Island, published in 1863. Local legend maintains that Stevenson once wandered the Spyglass area gathering ideas for his novels. A unique aspect of this course is that the holes are named after characters in Treasure Island. Hole names such as "Black Dog" and "Billy Bones" are hints for the unwary. As players attempt to master this difficult course, they may hear the laughter of pirates in the distance.

Spyglass Hill was designed by Robert Trent Jones, Sr., as a part of the master plan for the Pebble Beach ocean front. S.F.B. Morse, founder of Pebble Beach Company, and chairman of the board of Del Monte Properties, envisioned a string of golf courses around Del Monte Forest's shoreline. Morse commissioned Jones to design a course between Cypress Point and Pebble Beach."

The exciting first tee at Spyglass Hill

Spyglass is really the tale of two courses. The intoxicating holes along the bay (1-5) are dramatic, wide open and exposed to the elements. The inland holes (6-18) are difficult, tree-lined and play on terrain that slopes uphill.

The opening five holes at Spyglass are dramatic. I would be hard pressed to think of a golf course that has a better opening stretch of holes than Spyglass. The first hole, named Treasure Island, is a downhill sweeping par five that offers tantalizing glimpses of Monterey Bay through the trees as you stand on the tee. As you proceed down the hill, the hole sweeps to the left and the bay provides a wondrous backdrop for the green.

Spyglass Hill first hole looking down the hill

The second hole, a 349 yard par four named "Billy Bones," is one of the finest holes I have played in my travels. The tee shot is through an opening between a line of trees to a narrow fairway that slopes downhill and left to right. It is a classic risk-reward shot that rewards the more dangerous shot to the right with a shorter approach to the green.

Spyglass Hill second hole from the tee

What makes the tee shot on the second trickier is that if you want to play it safe to the left, the shot requires extreme precision. If you hit it too long to the left, your ball will end up in the ice plants (part of the carpetweed family, which tells you all you need to know), which is almost like an automatic lost ball. The short shot to the oblong, elevated green requires intense concentration due to the severity of the slope in the fairway.

Spyglass Hill second hole from fairway

The view of the bay from the second green is as good as you'll find anywhere, with the clubhouse at Cypress Point visible on your left. Overall, the hole has everything a great hole should have - dramatic scenery, great risk-reward characteristics, multiple options for low and high handicapper alike and a superb use of the terrain.

Spyglass Hill second hole looking back from the green

Spyglass Hill second green

Spyglass Hill par three third

The third hole at Spyglass Hill, named "Black Spot," is a tricky par three that plays downwind and downhill toward the bay. The nice views of the ultra-private Cypress Point and of the bay are an added bonus to this exciting hole, which sports a small green.

The fourth green (hole named "Blind Pew") is an oblong, multi-tiered green set within a sand dune, close to the bay. The green is reminiscent of the sixth at Kingsbarns or any number of greens at Cruden Bay. The 370 yard hole plays downhill the entire way with a huge sandy area down the left side.

The first five holes are truly invigorating, and if you play Spyglass, enjoy them, because the easy part of the course is now behind you.

Spyglass Hill fourth green

After the fifth hole, the course changes dramatically. The fifth and remaining holes play away from the bay, and there are no more views of the water. The rest of the course frankly feels more like Pinehurst than it does Pebble Beech. It winds its way through pine and cedar trees on the rolling terrain, leading to a difficult round of golf. When the AT&T Pebble Beach golf tournament is held each year it is played over three courses - Pebble Beach, Spyglass and nearby Poppy Hills. The pros complain about Spyglass generally, because it is such a stern test of golf. Holes six, eight and sixteen rank among the toughest on the tour each year.

My round was going very well at Spyglass until I reached the seventh hole, when, out of nowhere, on my second shot, it happened. Without mentioning the word, I will quote from two great golf writers who will explain my predicament eloquently. "It is the most demeaning shot in golf, and perhaps in any game," writes Henry Longhurst. "The ball shoots off knee high and almost at right angles to the intended line."

The next three holes were a living nightmare.

Bobby Jones explains how the affliction acts upon the mind. "Because of the fear of doing it again, by contracting the swing, the evil is cumulative, living upon itself."

I won't disclose my score on holes seven, eight and nine, but I am including a picture of the plane I flew home on, below.
Mercifully, I regained my composure on the back nine and finished with a respectable score.

The eighth hole at Spyglass Hill ("Signal Hill")

The eighth hole feels more like nearby Olympic Club, with its big elevation changes, uneven lies and narrow fairways. As with many of the inland holes at Spyglass, it plays a lot longer than the card indicates, due to the uphill terrain.

The tenth green at Spyglass Hill ("Captain Flint")

Notice how heavily wooded the back nine is in these pictures compared to the openness of the first five holes. There are several interesting features about the inland holes at Spyglass. The holes generally play longer than the yardage on the card indicates due to the continually rising terrain. Jones laid out 6-18 so that almost all the par fours play uphill and the par threes play downhill. As a result, the par threes are generally short, but still tricky, because the prevailing wind makes them play downwind, making club selection difficult.

The sixteenth hole tee shot at Spyglass Hill ("Black Dog")

The sixteenth hole, the #2 handicap, is a good example of how narrow some of the tee shots and fairways are on the back nine at Spyglass.

Overall, I really enjoyed Spyglass.

I look forward to my return to the Monterey Penninsula to play the last remaining course I need to play in California. With my round at Spyglass complete, I drove past the entrance gate to Cypress Point, the world's #2 ranked course. The entrance to Cypress Point is right off of the Seventeen Mile Drive. It looks like a tantalizing place, and I have now set my sights on getting an invitation there sometime soon.