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Avoid becoming a McDonald's-slurping golf tourist

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

SAN JOSE DEL CABO, Mexico — The sun sets and the surfers start hopping over the little wall, dodging families with kids munching on hamburgers and an older guy with a dog at his feet who hasn't moved in so long that you can only assume it's sleeping and not dead. Before long the surfers settle into their own wicker chairs, one still in his wet suit, and order without having to look at any menus.

Cabo's golf courses
Cabo's golf courses are filled with vacationing Americans. Is that who you want to dee off course too?
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A World Cup soccer tuneup match plays on the modest TVs hanging around the bar. Earlier, a gringo in faded Bermuda shorts explained how he could never return to the United States because of a "misunderstanding." You had no trouble believing this guy couldn't go back.

The ocean waves crash on, a mere stone's throw of beach away.

This is the scene at Zipper's, a surf/sports bar in the Los Cabos corridor. Zipper's is the kind of place that tourists usually miss. You don't have to be on the run from the U.S. authorities to find it. But you do have to be running outside of the usual McDonald's and Cheesecake Factory circuit.

That's the thing about golf destinations in exotic locations. On the one hand, it's great that golf's brought you to a land you would have never seen before. On the other, once golf gets to a land it quickly becomes like everything else you've ever seen before. What came first, the
Jack Nicklaus
or the Costco? It may not rank up there with the chicken or the egg debate, but it's gaining steam.

Before Cabo found golf, it consisted of a pair of sleepy coastal Mexican fishing villages 19 miles apart. By the time Nicklaus' showy, golf magazines wowing Cabo del Sol Ocean Course opened in 1994, the dirt roads knew they had no chance. Now, Cabo San Lucas is such an Americanized party town that Ruth's Chris steakhouse competes with Hard Rock Café to lure tourists in fancy sandals.

"The golf here is for those who've worked very hard in their lives to make themselves successful," Fernando Ortiz, the pro at Cabo del Sol, reasoned. "It's for the joy of life. We want to make our guests comfortable."

Hard to argue with that. The question becomes: Does scarfing down Big Macs in a foreign ocean land make golfers happy?

Sure, there's a market for it. Anyone who tries to deny that is living in a fantasyland farther out there than Michael Jackson's. Supposedly sophisticated New Yorkers fly to Shanghai these days and end up buying jeans they could have picked up in SoHo. One of the most popular tourist attractions in Cabo San Lucas is a marina that could pass for Baltimore's Inner Harbor (only the water's cleaner and the vendors are nicer).

But here's betting that golfers — who are usually more adventurous than your average camcorder-touting tourist in black socks and tennis shoes — would relish the chance to see the true face of the new worlds they conquer. Or at least, hit 6-irons on.

I ran into several golfers in Los Cabos' resort corridor looking for "the real Cabo." Take Chicago golfer Anthony Marvin. He came to this seaside land eager to breathe in some authentic Mexican culture — along with the Nicklaus, Robert Trent Jones Jr. and Tom Weiskopf golf. Yet despite his best intentions, he got sidetracked quicker than Dennis Rodman at a stripper's convention.

"My wife told me that we were going to eat at the best restaurant in Cabo, a place the locals raved about," Marvin said, a cigar dangling from his lips as he practiced putts at Cabo del Sol. "So I'm thinking it's going to be this great little hole in the wall with amazing enchiladas and whatever, right?

"We end up at C, which is the restaurant of Charlie Trotter. The same damn guy my wife has me dropping $500 a meal on back in Chicago."

Marvin shrugs, takes another puff of the cigar.

"It's not local either," Marvin said, almost reading your mind and tapping the cigar. "Cuban. But I got it from a guy hanging around the resort. He was Mexican."

Daring to wander

So, is all hope lost? When great golf moves in does that automatically ring the death knell for anything more authentic than a cheap magnet with Los Cabos printed on it above a swimming carton shark — made in Taiwan? Not completely. While there may be more touristy Irish pubs in Dublin than there are actual Irishmen, and there certainly are no actual Mexicans golfing in Los Cabos ("it's about 89 percent Americans, 10 percent Canadians and one percent white collar crime fugitives," is how one local businessman, who asked not to be identified, put it), there are ways to get off the tourist track to Kentucky Fried Chicken.

It's about avoiding the too bright, too trite. There's a pastry café in the less overpowering sister town San Jose del Cabo that's 20 times better than Cabo San Lucas' Wisconsin overrun Senor Sweets.

It takes ignoring the locals — some of them very well meaning — who keep trying to steer you toward the American places and sticking to your plans. The cab driver who picked me up at the sparkling (and completely American filled) Sheraton Hacienda del Mar Resort didn't even recognize the Zipper's name at first. Then, he kept asking if I really wanted to go there.

Turns out Zipper's shares a parking lot with a hotel that advertises its in-room massages and hourly rates (No, I didn't run into Rush Limbaugh).

Of course, once you step into the back where Zipper's is along the ocean, there are families galore and a surf shop for the guys and gals who jump over the wall every night. You don't even care that they're watching soccer and that the TVs are almost as tiny as the ones U.S. golfers have in their SUVs.

There are no golden arches in sight. The waves are closer than in any resort palace. The waiter looks bored as all hell.

Now, this feels real. Like a golf vacation worthy of another nation.

Chris BaldwinChris Baldwin, Contributor

Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.


 
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