April 06, 2015

Playing a round at El Cardonal at Diamante

The first thing that strikes you about El Cardonal is the sweeping ocean view. Seemingly every hole offers a portrait of the Pacific Ocean as you move uphill from native dunes into the trees and cacti, navigating deeper into the menacing arroyos.

The first golf course opened by Tiger Woods Design is located on a 1,500-acre private oceanfront community in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. It is a short drive from the city center but feels a million miles away when you reach Diamante, also home to The Dunes Course designed by Davis Love III, which opened in 2009 and is now ranked 52nd in the world by Golf Magazine.

El Cardonal sits above The Dunes Course and is both challenging and user friendly, depending on which of the five sets of tees you choose. Woods was influenced by the Golden Age of courses on the West Coast, specifically Riviera Country Club, Los Angeles Country Club and Bel-Air Country Club. Lawn-like tees vary in size and shape, and offer various strategic routes depending on your courage and ability. His goal was to make every hole playable, regardless of your skill level, and he has succeeded.

From the back tees, El Cardonal measures 7,363 yards, which is more than our foursome cared to tackle. We chose the III markers, which, at 6,291 yards, doesn’t sound intimidating but packed plenty of punch, especially since it was our first crack at the course and we were more interested in having birdie putts then killing ourselves.

Wind can play a factor here, especially the lower half, but we caught El Cardonal on a tame day. After a light, free snack at the open-air bar near the putting green, we moved to the 487-yard, par-5 first hole, which plays downhill and features a fairway bunker on the left that, if carried, jettisons your ball down a speed slot and provides the shortest angle to the green. The third shot is played slightly uphill from a valley surrounded by sand dunes. Several greenside slopes can be utilized to get the ball closer to the hole. We scored a birdie, two pars and a bogey, and liked how Woods eased us into the round.

The downhill par-3 second hole plays toward the ocean and the large punch bowl-type putting surface helps funnel the ball toward the pin. The short par-4 third is drivable for long hitters, but you must carry a deep bunker along the right side of the fairway. The smart play is a layup, producing a short, uphill approach and a good birdie opportunity.

The long par-4 fourth usually plays into the wind and the second shot is played to an elevated green guarded by a large bunker on the right. Even if you miss the putting surface, you have a good chance of saving par.

At the par-4 fifth, you are again helped by the prevailing wind. However, a sandy desert arroyo flanks the right side of the hole. Strategic bunkers demand accuracy off the tee and near the green on this fun test.

The par-5 sixth is ranked as the hardest hole on the course, mainly because of its length — 601 yards from the back tees — and M-shaped green. Proper position is essential due to a deep bunker guarding the front-middle of the green. Finish on the wrong side and you will struggle to make par.

The downhill par-4 seventh boasts a great ocean view. Your best plan of attack is to stay left and try to carry a fairway bunker, providing a clear path to the green. If you bail right, you must contend with a bunker short-right of the putting surface, which is flanked on both sides by tight chipping areas.

At the par-4 eighth, sandy arroyos jet out off the tee, landing areas and green, so accuracy is a must. The par-3 ninth usually plays into the wind, so take an extra club and favor the right side of the green.

The par-4 10th measures only 344 yards from the back tees, but aggressive players must navigate three well-placed fairway bunkers. The wishbone-shaped green is protected by a massive bunker in the middle.

Like most holes at El Cardonal, the par-3 11th allows players to run the ball onto the green, an attractive feature for mid-to-high handicappers. Do not over-club, as a deep pot bunker lurks long-right. The green is also testy due to subtle bumps and undulations.

The uphill par-4 12th tempts you to carry the left fairway bunker, but there is big trouble if you pull it left. The right side will result in a safer but longer approach to the smallish green, which is elevated and has fold-offs on the front and right sides. This proved to be one of the most challenging holes for our foursome.

The long par-4 13th requires a carry over a sandy arroyo, which extends along the right side of the hole. Favor the right side for the optimum angle to the green. The par-5 14th meanders through a sandy tributary of a larger arroyo. There is plenty of room right, but it leaves a longer approach shot to the green, which is guarded by a specimen desert plum on the right.

The uphill par-4 15th is a dogleg left, and bunkers protect the left side of the fairway. A cardon cactus is strategically positioned short-right of the green and shots landing in this area often carom onto the large putting surface that has several undulations.

At 154 yards, the par-3 16th is the shortest — but hardly the easiest — hole on the course. Tee shots must carry two arroyo canyons and the green is divided into three levels, so picking the proper club is a must to escape with a par or better.

The tee on the par-4 17th is the highest point of the course and provides panoramic views of Diamante and the Pacific Ocean. This is a prime photo opportunity. The split fairway makes you choose your strategy, with the higher right side offering the best angle to the green, positioned on a point that connects with the same arroyo that protected the 16th green.

The par-5 18th hole tumbles some 60 feet downhill toward the ocean. Cross-bunkers guard the second landing zone and the green is reachable in two for long hitters. The slender putting surface drops off on several sides, so choosing the right club is essential. You must also be aware of the prevailing right-to-left wind on this fun finishing hole.

“I loved the spectacular views of the Pacific,” said Jesse Rogers from California, co-founder and managing director of Altamont Capital Partners. “The course was beautiful, fair and very playable. The environment in the club and on the range was relaxed and lively. Our caddie was fantastic and the service was superb and professional. I also thought the on-course mojito and margarita bars were terrific innovations. Overall, I loved the experience and would give it an A+.”

Fellow Californian and commercial real estate developer Mark Daschbach agreed.

“I had a fabulous time,” Daschbach said. “The golf staff was very welcoming and the pro shop and clubhouse were conveniently located, as were the outdoor dining area, driving range, putting green and first tee.

“As for the course, it had great views and was challenging and fair. I used every club in my bag during the round, which to me is a testament to the quality of the course design. It was a course I could play every day and I can’t wait to return. I can honestly say El Cardonal was a perfect 10.”

David Plager, director of pediatric ophthalmology and adult strabismus at the Riley Hospital for Children, and professor of ophthalmology at the Glick Eye Institute at Indiana University Medical Center, is very appreciative of what Woods has created.

“As a member at Diamante, I am thrilled with the recently completed addition of El Cardonal,” Plager said. “The course manages to provide a completely different experience than the adjacent Dunes course. Tiger’s team accomplished just what they set out to do — create a course that simulates the playing style of many Southern California courses but with the added benefits of fantastic ocean views and the Cabo weather.

“El Cardonal is fun and fair but can be as challenging as you want to make it depending on which tees you use. Add in the beautiful clubhouse facilities, the top quality driving range and the on-course comfort stations, and it’s pretty tough to beat. In fact, I think the combination of El Cardonal and The Dunes Course provides a golf experience that rivals anywhere in the world.”

Plager added, “It’s clear that Tiger wanted a place where you spend your mental energy deciding how to best play your next shot, not digging through the arroyo to find your ball. The course requires a balance of quality in all areas. You can’t beat it with just one facet of your game intact.”