EDITOR'S NOTE: Updated Dec. 2020
When it comes to premier public golf in Mexico, it's mostly the Shark and Golden Bear show.
I've made more than a dozen golf trips to Mexico the past decade, playing 31 courses from coast to coast. It's no coincidence that Jack Nicklaus and Greg Norman have designed most of the best courses I've discovered south of the border. Their name recognition carries clout with international developers looking to attract American golfers.
Nicklaus has been handed many of the country's best coastal sites since making a splash at the 27-hole Palmilla Golf Club, which celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2017. Norman counters with the El Camaleon Golf Club, the host of Mexico's only regular PGA Tour event, the Mayakoba Classic in Riviera Maya, and the new Rancho San Lucas, a 834-acre master-planned community that debuted in 2019, featuring 1.2 miles of beachfront in Cabo. Interestingly, the 27-hole Puerto Los Cabos in Cabo features nine holes by Norman and 18 by Nicklaus.
Other architects have tried to break this Nicklaus/Norman stranglehold with some success. Nick Price (El Tinto Golf Course and Grand Coral Golf Club, both in Riviera Maya), Tom Weiskopf (Vista Vallarta Golf Club near Puerto Vallarta and the Desert Course at Cabo del Sol) and Robert Trent Jones Jr. (Cabo Real Golf Club, Costa Palmas and Riviera Maya Golf Club) have designed multiple resort golf courses in Mexico. Fred Couples entered the fray in 2018 with the new Twin Dolphin Golf Club in Cabo, a collaboration with architect Todd Echenrode. They're more Scottie Pippen than Michael Jordan, though -- a supporting cast instead of the star.
It should be noted that Tom Fazio's exquisite Querencia and Chileno Bay Club and El Dorado Golf & Beach Club by Nicklaus and Twin Dolphin -- all in Los Cabos -- are private, although the Chileno Bay Resort & Residences by Auberge that debuted in 2017 will allow some access to Chileno Bay and The Montage Los Cabos some pricey access to Twin Dolphin. For more on Cabo's best resorts for golf check out this story.
With all that sorted out, here is a most valuable Deegan's Dozen: The top 12 public/resort courses I've played in Mexico:
The new kid on the block has shot straight to the top. Norman's Rancho San Lucas offers some of the best sand dunes anywhere in the world. The stretch from 14-16 is memorable. There's also an island green at no. 17 to mix things up.
2. (tie) Quivira Golf Club
No course showcases Cabo's desert-mountain-ocean landscape better than this beauty near downtown Cabo San Lucas that opened in December of 2014. Quivira's gorgeous par 3s and a quirky drivable par 4 cling to mountain cliffs above the ocean. Towering sand dunes frame other holes. The desolate desert sparkles on the final three par 4s at holes 16-18. Only golfers who stay at a Pueblo Bonito resort or own property inside the development have access to Quivira.
I finally got around to playing the full 18 at the Dunes, the only course in Mexico to achieve world top 100 status by Golf Magazine. I played the front nine in 2015 and the back nine in 2018, giving me a disjointed perspective of the Davis Love III design. The opening loop introduces some fun dune holes, although it lacks the ocean views of a more dramatic back nine. Two new holes, the par 5 at no. 12 and par 4 at no. 13, debuted in 2014. Anybody can play at the private Diamante if they stay on property or at the new 600-room Hard Rock Hotel Los Cabos and the 200-room Nobu Hotel Los Cabos, both of which opened in 2019.
Rees Jones breaks into the Mexican market with a stunner in tiny Loreto, 300 miles north of Cabo and 700 miles south of the border. The front nine is framed by the towering Sierra de la Giganta mountains before a two-hole run through subtle sand dunes near the beach at no. 12 and no. 13. It takes a two-hole climb to reach the other side of the mountains for the climax, the par-3 17th hole 250 feet above the crashing waves of the Sea of Cortes. Once you get over the visual fireworks, it's a harrowing shot to a tiny target green set on the cliffs. The adjacent Villa del Palmar at the Islands of Loreto is a great spot to unwind after golf.
With eight holes on the ocean, this gorgeous Nicklaus course put Punta Mita north of Puerto Vallarta on the map in 1999. The famous "Tail of the Whale" hole -- the extra par 3 called 3b -- plays to a natural island green in the ocean. A raised cart path allows access to the green at low tide. Unfortunately, the water and waves were up the day I played it, and the resort's amphibious cart wasn't working. I splashed two in the drink and still went about my round in a good mood. It's a fun experience.
The former Ocean Course at Cabo del Sol has been rebranded The Cove Club. Its stunning 17th and 18th holes along the Sea of Cortez have been lost to redevelopment, but its famous back-to-back par 3s at nos. 6 and 7 are still right on the beach.
Forget the Tail of the Whale. The par-4 17th hole at Bahia might be the best on property. This Cape Hole -- one of six ocean holes on Bahia -- requires several heroic shots to avoid ending up on the beach. Nicklaus spiced up Bahia, which opened in 2009, by making it more difficult than Pacifico. Severe greens make putting a challenge. After complaining about the course's difficulty, many members have come to enjoy Bahia's shot-making elements more than Pacifico.
8. Palmilla Golf Club
Jack's first foray into Mexico and Latin America debuted Palmilla's Arroyo and Mountain nines in 1992 in Los Cabos, followed by the Ocean nine in 1997. I prefer the Mountain and Ocean loop best. Palmilla's Ocean nine drops 600 feet in elevation during the first six holes with the third green perched on the beach. A treacherous canyon surrounds the par-4 fifth of the Mountain nine. Management by Arizona-based Troon Golf assures top service and conditioning.
Norman's tournament-tested track, tucked inside a lavish resort development 40 minutes south of the Cancun International Airport, traverses three ecosystems, the jungle, mangroves and beach. Signature par 3s at nos. 7 and 15 don't really show off the Caribbean Sea until golfers putt on the greens. A clubhouse renovation in 2014 added a chic second-floor bar and restaurant.
Tiger Woods' first design is a solid rookie debut as a designer. There's no "oh wow" hole, just a bunch of strong dune holes to start, desert arroyos to tackle in the middle of the round and some nice panoramic views of the ocean coming home. What sets El Cardonal apart from the competition is the rock-star treatment players receive throughout the day. Golfers enjoy free food and drink at the driving range and course comfort stations.
11. Litibu Golf Club
The Punta Mita courses 10 minutes away tend to overshadow this excellent Norman course. Litibu is vastly under marketed and a relative unknown. The opening of the new, adjacent Iberostar Playa Mita might help it gain some traction. Litibu (named after a local bird) hosted a Canadian Tour event in 2010, a year after opening. Several unique inland holes rival the three holes with ocean views (3, 4 and 18). Three hungry bunkers guard the middle of the fairway on the uphill, par-4 16th hole. When the pin is cut back left on the par-3 17th, the tee shot is completely blind over dense jungle. Kudos to Norman for being creative.
This club 25 minutes from Puerto Vallarta delivers true jungle golf at the base of the Sierra Madre mountains. The Nicklaus Course is slightly longer than Vista Vallarta's Weiskopf Signature Course, although both have identical slopes from certain tees. It hosted the 2002 World Golf Championships, EMC World Cup and the 2006 Blue Agave Golf Classic of The Champions Tour.
This Norman course edges out a host of other worthy competitors because it's run so well by Vidanta, Mexico's largest course owner/operator, and kept in such great condition. It's also a fun round that's very playable. And it gets bonus points for having a lighted par-3 courses on property. After attending the 2016 grand opening, I haven't played the five new holes that were scheduled to be completed in 2017, so there's always a chance this course could move up or down depending upon the new routing.
Mazatlan's Estrella Del Mar
Estrella Del Mar, Mazatlan*, Moon Palace Golf & Spa Resort, Weiskopf Signature Course at Vista Vallarta Golf Club, Puerto Los Cabos, Cabo Real Golf Club, Iberostar Playa Paraiso Golf Club, Playa Mujeres Golf Club, El Tigre Golf Club at Paradise Village Resort, Nayar Golf Course, Flamingos Golf, Desert Course at Cabo Del Sol.
* Indicates a course Deegan hasn't played.