I know it’s coming. We’ve finished the 16th hole, so the 17th is next. It’s just kind of how golf works.
I’ve seen pictures of the par-3 penultimate hole at TPC Danzante Bay, a Rees Jones design which fully opened last December. They just don’t look real. There’s a green, precariously pitched on a cliff, with a 100-foot drop to the Sea of Cortez on three sides. It’s the kind of hole I’d design in a video game, but this kind of real estate doesn’t come available for a golf architect too often.
So, my expectations are tampered — you know, in case a cliffside, peninsula par 3 isn’t as stunning as it sounds on paper and looks on the Internet.
We drive our cart from the 16th green across a graded path for a future road, then up over a hill. And there’s the reveal.
Holy hell. It’s even better in person.
First you see a bit of the lower tee box, and then you see the green. Then you see the wispy native grass surrounding the back of the remaining land. And then you see the vastness of the ocean beyond. It takes your breath away. And then it dawns on you: You’ve got to hit that tiny-looking target from where you’re now getting out of your cart.
It took me three rounds to finally birdie the 17th hole, but not before I polluted the ocean (which is cleaned up regularly by employees) with four new balls.
TPC Danzante Bay is the centerpiece of the Villas del Palmar at the Islands of Loreto in Mexico. Loreto is on the east coast of Baja California Sur, the second-lowest provice in Baja California, which flows from the United States west coast into the Pacific Ocean. Cabo San Lucas is a seven-hour car ride south to the tip of the peninsula.
A variety of people I talked to while in Loreto — most of them fellow North Americans who bounce around this part of Mexico on time-share vacations and other holidays — spoke of this resort as what Cabo was once like. The Villas del Palmar is a 10,000-acre property still in its nascency. There’s a resort with three buildings, including Building 2, Building 3 and Building 4. Where’s Building 1, you ask? The joke is they started with Building 2, but it’s coming. So are homes, eventually. There are some homesite prepared around the golf course, though they’re relegated to the early holes of the course and only a model home is built to this point. Eventually, there will be a full-service marina, with other townhomes and a restaurant. Everything a visitor can enjoy now is shrouded by a desert mountain range, and the amenities are a two-mile ride down a prepared-but-not-paved road from an entrance all but the informed would skip on a two-lane road. No one will know you’re there unless you share.
The setting is part of the allure of the resort and the golf course. When I wasn’t playing golf, I spent most of the time in one of the five pools which overlooks the Sea of Cortez. From overhead, the pools form the shape of a turtle. The hot tub had the most people in it day in and day out, while sunbathers flocked to the turtle’s back-right flipper for tanning. The most noise I heard, other than the morning aquatic aerobics class, was the wind in the palm trees. It’s jarring to look at the ocean, too. There aren’t any boats out there 99 percent of the time. The water and the five main islands near the resort, including the privately owned Isla Carmen, are protected by Mexico’s federal government, limiting fishing and boating. It feels like the ocean, the gray-sand beach, the islands themselves are yours.
The rooms are typical of an upscale Mexican resort. The approtionment is nice, and the balconies are enormous. They’re well-covered, and you could spend all day out there enjoying the ocean breeze and the people watching.
There are three restaurants at the Villas del Palmar: Casa Mia, an Americanized quick-bites restaurant where you eat semi-al fresco; The Market, which has several buffet options daily and a spirited entertainment program with nightly dinner; and the Danzante Restaurant, which is more upscale and features cuisine native to Baja California Sur, including daily fresh-caught seafood. The food and service are excellent. Three desalinization plants provide potable and drinking water for the whole property.
But I was there for the golf. On our first night, it didn’t seem like we’d get much in. The remants of a hurricane hitting the west coast of Baja California made its way to the resort on Night 1, bringing with it 60 mph winds but not a ton of rain. The power went out temporarily, and the breezes blew out the satellite TV-and-internet connection for a day. When I awoke, the wind was howling, made louder by the nature of the long balconies and the swirling wind. The clouds were moving with breakneck speed, a time-lapse shot in real time. Nevertheless, we dressed and went over the range, which reminds me some of Cascata, near Las Vegas. You’re hitting shots up a mountain (sans Cascata’s waterfall, which eventually flows through the clubhouse). With the 25 mph win directly in our face on the range, the shots were more for posterity and gawking than preparation.
Once we had spoken the Director of Golf Danny Garcia, who has an amazing job, and went to the first tee, the fears of a wind-ravaged round disappeared. The first hole, a 310-yard straight-forward poke from the blue tees, was dead downwind. The par-5 second, which ran perpendicular to No. 1, was kind of downwind. The par-3 third, which asks a tough question with a hidden putting surface but apparent danger all over, was also downwind. Then the downhill, 350-yard fourth, which I drove in our second round, was also with the wind. Sensing a trend? There were shot in the wind through the round, yes, but whatever wind there is — and it’s typically pretty calm — at TPC Danzante Bay flows around the mountain range which frames the front nine. The breeze is somewhat diminished because of the mountains, and there’s not much swirling.
Four holes in, I was more positive on a Rees Jones design than I’d probably been in my life when we got to the par-5 fifth. It’s a downhill tee shot with framing mountains and a center-line bunker that can catch a thumped drive. As the spitting rain let up for a second, we looked out from the tee box to the full view of the Sea of Cortez and saw a rainbow. Other than 17, the fifth is the most stunning visual on the course.
While TPC Danzante Bay plays like a desert course, particularly on the front nine, it’s also a resort layout with plenty of width. A big miss lands in rocks and is played as a lateral hazard, but that didn’t come up too frequently amid our media group of players ranging from scratch to a 15 index or so.
After the par-5 10th, which should be a birdie for most, the visually concerning 11th is the toughest hole on the course. The par 4 shares the only man-made water hazard on the course — built for pooling water from the desalinization plant — with the prior hole, andn it offers a tighter-looking landing area than any on the course. It’s a bucket of water to the face before a wide-open final (six of) seven holes. Making the way to No. 12, cacti still abound, but the rocks give way to sand as the a pair of holes approach the Sea of Cortez. Truthfully, the par-5 12th and the short par-3 13th aren’t the most interesting holes architecturally. But the views are just jaw-dropping. Jones pays off the glimpses from the tees on Nos. 3, 5 and 9. The next three holes are get-able, short-ish par 4s. Two play uphill, and their routing and bunkering force a golfer to think through how they want to make 4 or consider making 3. But at that point, you’re thinking of 17. You have to be.
The 17th hole wasn’t even part of the original plan for TPC Danzante Bay. Rees hadn’t laid it out. But, as the story goes, it’s a little hazy who exactly broached the subject of building a stunning par 3 on this space of cliff. The owner, Owen Perry, asked Jones if such a hole were possible, and the Open Doctor made it so. It played differently each day, with a help wind the final two rounds following a breeze in the first round. The surrounding bunkers merely catch a mediocre shot. Bad shots disappear down the cliff. There aren’t many hit-and-pray wedge shots in golf, but this is one. With a pair of tee boxes further right of ours, there’s an even more challenging route to the putting surface. It’s impossible not to spend extra time on hole, just looking beyond the man-made golf hole and onto the rocky cliff.
The turn back home gives one last glimpse of the ocean before a dramatic, downhill final tee shot with a full view of the property and the Sea of Cortez. It’s the third-best view on the course, which is saying something. For a longer hitter, the tee shot is semi-blind, calling for a draw to hit the downsloping fairway to leave a short iron or wedge. A pair of bunkers to the right capture the cowardly.
It took three tries, but I finally broke par in our final round: 77 (where I was 3 under through six with a par-4 eagle, ouch), even-par 72 (where I missed a 40-footer at the last by a foot) and a closing 70 with seven birdies where I was 2 over through four.
TPC Danzante Bay is like the broader resort. It feels yours. The course sees maybe 20 rounds per day, so the odds of seeing another group, much less playing into them, are poor. At $200 per round, it’s reasonable for a resort course, and the views alone are worth the money. The course can play as long as 7,200 yards from the tips, but the 6,500-yard Gold tees make it fun and scorable for better players. The Blue and White tees will offer everyone a chance to succeed. The par 5s are reachable for even medium-length hitters, and the par 3s are pretty much a short iron for all. The paspalum grass surfaces are a delight, and the green speeds are about a 9 on the Stimpmeter. You can make putts all day on the course, then head to the nine-hole putting course for some post-round fun.
The Villas del Palmar could be a buddy trip destination, but it’s not a rowdy place. It’s termed a relaxation resort. It’s really meant for couples and young families to get away from it all. Guests can charter a boat to tour the islands, or even visit Isla Carmen and snorkel or SCUBA in the area. The wildlife, with fish, crabs and a host of birds, is incredible. The amateur geologist in you will love the views and the feeling that you’ve taken ownership of a large swath of ocean. Golf is a draw to the resort, but the recreational offerings make for well-rounded days.
About 90 minutes after the final round, our caravan headed to the one-gate Loreto airport. It was a reminder we were in a part of the world transitioning to a destination. Travel here now and expect a little grit. It’s charming, really. If you want to have views like these, a golf course like this and a resort like this to yourself, then you have to give up a few minor things. However, Loreto won’t be a hidden gem forever, and neither will this resort. It’s too good for that.