A certain segment of the population regards Cancun as the ultimatein sophisticated vacation fun. These are the same peoplewho look at the beer bong as a greater invention thananything old Thomas Alva Edison came up with, Madden PS2tournaments as the ultimate test of manhood and WillFarrell as the world's greatest hero.
Nothing wrong with this. My little brother is aproud member of this Cancun-adoring base and he justgraduated from college on the dean's list and is headed toa life of financial-firm bonuses.
It's just not the stuff of your typical golfing demographic. Cancun and golf seem to mesh about as well as Karl Rove and liberals. Cancun is the place to go for cheesy resorts with Budweiser-stained walls, cheap trinkets being hawked on the street and nightclubs where foam reigns. A wonderfully crafted par 4 is anything but par for the course.
"Cancun's Spring Break any time of the year," one already well-hydrated college kid explains waiting for a midmorning flight to this party town in the heart of June.
This is a flight where short skirts and longshorts are the norm, where a golf bag looks as out ofplace on the luggage conveyer as a bikini would inBaghdad.
Only, it's not long before you're being pluckedout of the crowd of college students waiting for a ride inthe endless shuttle van lines, taken to a new P.B. Dyecourse that's a short ride from one of the four JackNicklaus courses, which is short ride from the new GregNorman course.
The motivation can be found in the green of U.S.dollars. The area's big resorts are tired of having tocater to college kids, who can be finicky with their bucksand hell on the cleaning crews.
"We're trying to draw a more affluent crowd to theMaya-Cancun area," said Julio Viscontti, president of theCancun Golf Association. "We want to be about more thanjust Spring Break. As a hotel general manager you want tosell as many standard room rates as possible. Sometimesnow they have to drop that rate.
"If you're drawing golfers, you can hold thatrate."
In other words, golf is a key to the cash register because golfers do not balk at high rates. Nothing wrong with that. It's the strategy behind every could-be, would-be and should-be golf destination everywhere. The question is whether the Riviera Maya-Cancun corridor lives up to the standards those higher rates demand.
So far the answer is as mixed up as MichaelJackson. You can have a great time golfing in Cancun,playing interesting courses during the day, dancing anddrinking the night away with the friendly locals. But youcan also end up on courses more overpriced for theirquality than anything found in even Las Vegas. And youcan be freaked by the fact that all the major resorts havehuge gates and guards who take down your name and roomnumber when you leave in a taxi in case you don't return.
Every golf trip hinges on the choices you make.But in a Cancun trip the difference in the results fromyour selections can be as wide as the margin betweenJennifer Aniston and Kathy Bates on the Babe Scale. Thejust-opened P.B. Dye track, the IberostarPlaya Paraiso Golf Club, is a wondrously inventivelayout with an eighth hole possessing so many swales andhills that you'll think you're navigating a mountain bikeobstacle course. You don't have to know that Dyecompletely re-bulldozed this hole when he didn't like howit turned out at first to realize that a lot of sweat andanxiety went into getting it just right. And the newNicklaus Dunes Course at Moon Palace Resort is a strikingshow of target golf.
Yet for every hit, there seems to be a whiff as embarrassing as the $200 million 2005 Yankees. Viscontti admits that the golf association has tried to persuade the owners of the Cancun Golf Club at Pok Ta Pok to put money into restoring this Robert Trent Jones design that's a shell of what it could be. Viscontti needs to look at the Hilton Cancun Golf Resort, the club where he's the director of golf, as well. For a visit to the Hilton found a course with far too many deep brown patches, puddles and torn up tee boxes for its $150 price tag.
Admirably, the super courteous staff at the Hiltoncourse admitted they were having some off-seasonmaintenance issues. Unforgiving, they were not offeringgolfers any discount for these troubles.
Which brings up another truth in Cancun golf: Foran area where you can buy a necklace with gemstones for 50pesos ($5) on a street corner, it's determinedly high-browin golf pricing.
"It's expensive," said Carrol Travis of Colorado,who routinely paid $250 a round on a newlyweds' trip. "Butwe're on our honeymoon, so we decided to splurge."
Carrol smiled at her husband, Jeff. Then, theyhurried to hit their tee shots. The temperature wasdancing in the 90s, the humidity made your golf shirtstick like a wetsuit and the bugs were feasting. Onemonster mosquito landed in a glob of bug repellent, took abite out of the supposedly-protected arm and flew awaymerrily.
Yet for all the pests, creature and otherwise, thatcan muck up Cancun golf, there's an undeniable charmhitting balls here. For one thing, this isn't yourfather's golf vacation. Even on the courses, the crowdskews much younger than usual. You'll see a steady streamof 25- to 35-year-olds pulling out their drivers.
Guys like Hugo Donoso of Madrid, Spain, who in themiddle of a 14-day trip through Mexico could not stopgushing about Playacar Golf Club, a course in the RivieraMaya-Cancun corridor that puts you up close with jungleanimals. "It's so beautiful," Donoso said. "Sobeautiful."
The ever-enthusiastic, ever-scheming promoters needto realize this is what determines a would-be golfdestination's ultimate success or failure: the memoriesgolf nuts take home. The Cancun Golf Association isunderstandably obsessed with boosting the number oftourists who golf (currently that's only 7 percent ofvisitors, with 90 percent of those golfers coming from theUnited States). There is also plenty of pride in the factthat eight more courses are in the works and that theRiviera Maya-Cancun area should have 20 courses within twoyears (a huge number considering there are only 137courses in all of Mexico).
But all that means little if a golfer goes to thewrong course at the wrong time of year and gets turned offto Cancun golf. A well-publicized visit from the GolfChannel cannot change that. One bad experience is all ittakes and this area's much too inconsistent still toprevent that.
You'll find golfers having the time of their life,belting out songs off-key at the karaoke bar at theIberostar resort. You'll also find golfers lamentingspending $200 on a subpar course, trying to drown theirsorrows at bars with hand stamps and teenagers young andannoying enough to be their own kids.
Spring Break is in no danger of losing itsstranglehold over Cancun. A birdie paradise does not comeso easily.
June 27, 2005