Tiger Woods' El Cardonal Course transforms Diamante Cabo San Lucas into Mexico's best 36-hole golf club

CABO SAN LUCAS, Mexico -- Paul Cowley, dressed like he's just returned from the Australian Outback, parks his maintenance cart at a comfort station on the Dunes Course at Diamante Cabo San Lucas.

His wide-brimmed hat protects his tanned skin from the unrelenting sun. His boots are probably filled with sand from the dunes he's been sculpting the last seven-plus years of his life.

Nobody knows Diamante's celebrated 36 holes better than Cowley. As the lead architect for Davis Love III, he helped build the Dunes, including two new holes that debuted in 2014. For the past two-plus years, Cowley has served as the project manager for the El Cardonal Course, the much anticipated first design by Tiger Woods. Cowley brims with pride when talking about golf at Diamante.

"There is great contrast," he said of the two courses. "The Dunes, it's warm-season links golf. This is warm-season grass, but we designed it like a links. Tiger's course has more arroyos, and there are more long views of the ocean. Tiger likes the southern California bunkers and strategy."

These are heady times at Diamante, a lavish time-share and real estate development that has quickly surpassed Cabo del Sol as the premier 36-hole club at the tip of the Baja Peninsula. Diamante seems to have overcome its early setbacks, which included a lawsuit filed by a group of NHL hockey players who were original investors.

Chad Redfern, who acted as my tour guide during a visit in January, said interest in Diamante has soared since Woods opened El Cardonal in December 2014. "I keep looking at the web site numbers," he said. "They keep going up and up."

The Diamante experience

If Cabo is Mexico's version of the Hamptons of Long Island, then Diamante is its National Golf Links or Shinnecock Hills. Every golfer wants inside the gates of this private resort to see what all the fuss is about.

The effort required to play Diamante's headliners is tied to selling real estate and timeshare units. A new policy that requires staying on property and attending a "sales presentation" is currently in the works, according to Redfern.

Diamante's golf facilities are spectacular, even by the luxurious standards of Cabo. A man-made, 10-acre saltwater lagoon was created for swimming, kayaking and other water sports. An all-inclusive Hard Rock Hotel Los Cabos is scheduled to open sometime in 2016.

The El Cardonal and the Dunes Courses operate in separate campuses. Their sprawling clubhouses feature multiple restaurants (El Cardonal's have yet to open). The Dunes Residence Club is a collection of two-bedroom condos on the upper floors of the Dunes clubhouse. The El Cardonal clubhouse is particularly impressive, with a Nike-theme pro shop and a golf academy home to three indoor hitting bays.

The driving ranges and comfort stations of both courses serve free food and drink, an over-the-top splurge available at other elite Cabo clubs such as Quivira, the new course by Jack Nicklaus, and at the private Querencia Country Club.

Diamante: Tiger Woods' El Cardonal Course

My best advice to enjoying Diamante? Play Tiger's course first. Savor its creative nuances before you start measuring its worth against the incomparable Dunes Course closer to the Pacific Ocean.

Panoramic ocean views come from nearly every hole of El Cardonal, named for the tall, slender cactus that thrive in the region. Woods built broad fairways for his 7,363-yard, par-72 layout. Maybe Tiger has a soft spot for folks who hit it crooked off the tee, who knows?

Higher handicaps can sneak around many of the large, flash-faced fairways and greenside bunkers, inspired by the classic courses in southern California Woods grew up playing. Better golfers can take them on with bold intentions.

El Cardonal's overwhelming emphasis, according to Diamante Developer Ken Jowdy, was playability. None of the greens are insanely rumpled with undulations. Water only intrudes on one hole, the 351-yard third, an interesting, drivable par 4. Most of the desert arroyos that crisscross the back nine (with the exception of the 154-yard 16th hole) are clear of scrub brush and bushes, so recovery shots remain possible.

"He (Woods) focused more on the people he plays with on Wednesdays (the amateurs in the pro-ams) than on the weekend (the pros)," Jowdy said.

El Cardonal starts strong with three good holes and finishes that way, too. The par-4 17th hole might be the best of the bunch, highlighted by the ocean view from the tee and a tilted fairway that sweeps approach shots from right-to-left into gaping, greenside bunkers. Perhaps the best endorsement of the whole project is that Woods will return to design another course at Diamante.

"His vision and commitment was strong," Cowley said. "He's played a lot of golf courses around the world. A lot of pros like Tiger -- and Davis, too -- consciously or subconsciously figure out what kind of courses they like when they play. (Woods) has a good depth of design knowledge because of his career as a pro golfer."

Diamante: Davis Love III's Dunes Course

The big news on the Dunes, ranked 52nd in the world by Golf Magazine in 2013, is the addition of two new holes. Out are the 12th and 13th holes that wrapped around a lake. The two new holes closer to the beach fit more in line with Cowley's "warm-season links" motif.

The 514-yard, par-5 12th hole, which is 80 yards shorter than the previous par 5, ends at a redan-style green that angles diagonally away from the approach shot. The new, 378-yard 13th hole wanders downwind toward a 12,000-square-foot punchbowl green.

A day at the Dunes, which opened to acclaim in 2009, starts at its awesome "slider bar," where breakfast or lunch sliders and smoothies are made fresh for golfers. Music adds a burst of energy to its cool, 14-acre practice range cut from desert rock.

The dunes -- more dramatic and natural than those on El Cardonal -- introduce themselves almost immediately, creating an amphitheater of sand surrounding the second green, a daunting par 3 of 229 yards. Love III used the bigger sand piles to locate a series of elevated tees and greens.

His "half-par" holes show a fun-loving side not many pros-turned-architects have developed. Without looking at a scorecard, I originally thought the 475-yard sixth hole and 290-yard seventh hole were back-to-back par 4s. They're actually a short par 5 and long par 3, a surprising twist that makes sense considering the terrain of each hole. The round climaxes at 16, a 154-yard par 3 at the ocean's edge.

It's interesting to note that Woods and Love III have only designed 15 courses between them. Considering their efforts at Diamante, the golf world could use a few more from both of them.

Jason Scott Deegan has reviewed and photographed more than 1,000 courses and written about golf destinations in 20 countries for some of the industry's biggest publications. His work has been honored by the Golf Writer's Association of America and the Michigan Press Association. Follow him on Instagram at @jasondeegangolfpass and Twitter at @WorldGolfer.
Commented on

The effort for owners to visit Diamante is incredibly high. In fact, it is not possible. If you invested in Diamante and are an owner/member there, you are not allowed on the property if you are not staying there. So, what is the point of investing in a golf membership if you can't golf there if you are in Los Cabos and staying at another resort? Owners aren't even allowed to dine at the restaurants on the property while they are in Los Cabos, but staying at a different resort. That is what makes Cabo del Sol more appealing. I am always welcomed back to any of my three Cabo del Sol properties, whether I am staying there at the time, or not. 

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Tiger Woods' El Cardonal Course transforms Diamante Cabo San Lucas into Mexico's best 36-hole golf club