A Mexican Adventure: Golf South of the Border

As Southern California is pretty much now tapped out for me (at least as far as public courses go), it was time to hit the road and go international. I’ve always wanted to go down to Baja California in Mexico, but for a variety of reasons, I’ve had my hesitations about traveling south of the border.

Back in the day, heading down to Tijuana or the beaches was no big deal. However, the requirement of a passport and the rise in crime have definitely hurt the tourism there. It’s hard to avoid hearing some of the horror stories about the drug cartels and corrupt police/Federalis hassling the unsuspecting Americans. Though I’ve always longed to play Bajamar, it was one road trip I never wanted to take on my own.

Finally, this weekend the timing seemed right and I made every preparation to make sure everything went as smooth as possible. The idea stemmed from participation in the annual GK Cup match play tournament arranged by members of Greenskeeper.org. A friend and I were randomly paired for a first round match. He happens to be a bit of a “course collector” like myself and always up for an adventure. We were talking about courses to play and looking for something new for both of us. The prospect of a little road trip came up and he mentioned, perhaps jokingly, that we head down to Baja. We did more research and started putting the plan together.

We made a 1:00 tee time for our match at Bajamar Ocean Front Golf Resort, which would of course be the star of the trip and the site for our match. However, my inclination is to get in as much golf as possible while down there (and my friend is the same way), so we booked a “warm-up” round at Real del Mar.

Though it may be a bit of a scam, I looked into getting the short-term (daily) car insurance to cover any accidents/liability while in Mexico. Like any insurance, you rarely ever need it, but you also don’t want to get caught in a situation where you need it but don’t have it. I found some rates online in the $25 range, but ended up just doing it through my normal insurance company for a little added piece of mind and familiarity. It ended up being $37. We didn’t end up needing it, but I still felt a little better having it on my first ever venture into Mexico.

Everything was set and there was no turning back, so I picked him up in San Diego at 5:00 in the morning on Saturday and we were on our way!

Going through the border into Mexico was super simple. It seems they might stop and search a vehicle every now and again (mostly people with recreational trailers it seemed), but otherwise just wave you through with no check of any ID or a second glance. As other friends told me, getting into Mexico is the easy part.

We stayed on the main highway to the coast and then got on the scenic toll road. On that, it was a breeze. Other than all the signage being mostly in Spanish, you wouldn’t really know you are in a different country. We hit one toll plaza ($2.20, accepting American cash—which is true everywhere in Baja) before we got to Real del Mar. Everything was real quick and easy.

Real del Mar Golf Resort • Tijuana, Baja CA • 4/18/15

The place was a ghost town when we arrived a little after 6:00. We had a tee time set for 7:00 and noticed a sign that said the pro shop opened at 6:45. By 6:30, the workers started showing up and getting carts ready by the first tee. They were extremely nice and got our bags loaded up on the cart. We went down and rolled a few practice putts on the terrible putting green, but the pro shop guy didn’t show up by 7:00.

An elderly gentleman had shown up and was getting ready to tee off. We talked with him briefly and he’s been playing this course for many years (apparently he lives close by in Rosarito). He mentioned that they recently hired a new superintendent and that the conditions have improved quite a bit, though things were still very rough. He also mentioned that you want to stay in the fairway or you’ll likely loose your ball. Once we had been on the course a little bit, we realized that was not an exaggerated statement.

I knew Real del Mar was not going to be a great course and the conditions would likely be bad. The resort had fallen on some tough times and, by all accounts, just went further and further downhill. However, I knew I would ultimately play it once finally visiting Baja because of the completist in me.

That older guy teed off and we were waiting around awkwardly. One of the cart attendants came over and mentioned that we could go ahead and play, and then pay at the turn. We were just about ready to hit when we saw the pro shop finally open up, so we went ahead and paid then. $45 with a cart is overpriced for what you get at Real del Mar, but for a weekend in an area with very limited golf options, it is what it is.

I’ll start with the good things about Real del Mar, which are the setting and the layout. Both are enjoyable. Other than some funky sewage smells from time to time and lots of bugs, the setting is kind of cool running through a canyon. The terrain is rugged and hilly and overlooks the ocean on the other side of the highway a number of times, which presents a nice backdrop on some of the holes with elevated views.

The layout is target golf to the max (heed the old man’s warning of “stay in the fairway” accuracy required). From the sandy canyon walls that will swallow up your ball to some creeks, water hazards and barrancas, there is trouble everywhere you look. There are some narrow angles and tight landing areas. Once you are safely off the tee, the greens are pretty easy to get at, though, so it’s all about keeping the ball in play. That’s a lot easier said than done here.

It’s clear that the resort and the golf course either used to be really nice or were at least intended to be when opened. The years have been rough on this place, though, and that’s reflected in the awful conditions. I was not expecting much, and was actually pleasantly surprised by the fairways. They were definitely the highlight condition-wise. Not great by any standards, but significantly better than expected.

Everything else? Well, let’s just say this course needs a lot of work to be remotely decent again. The tee boxes were unlevel and inconsistent. The rough was brutal. At times it was impossibly thick/deep and you were very likely not to find your ball, even if you watched exactly where it went into the grass. Other parts are just dirt and weeds. As the old man said, anything off the fairway was hard to find, and if you did, it was a very difficult lie.

The sand traps were a mess and basically unplayable. Luckily, I only found one. The greens had all sorts of big dead spots. They were bumpy, slow and ugly. I will say that we noticed the greens on the back nine were better overall than the front, with the exception of the signature hole (number 17). Its island green was torn to shreds.

The look of the 17th now is kind of a metaphor for the whole course. This is a great par-5 that doglegs right off the tee and then plays to a big island green, tempting longer hitters to go for it. The scorecard features a beautiful overhead picture of this green that was obviously taken a long time ago when the course was much nicer. Now, all the water around it is stale and overgrown, and the green itself is not pretty.

The other signature hole here is the par-3 6th, aptly named “Ocean View” because of its elevated tee and a nice overall vista beyond the green.

I wouldn’t recommend Real del Mar in its current state to anyone other than my fellow hardcore course collectors who will play everything once no matter what. That said, the layout and setting here are good enough that I am rooting for this place to turn around and keep heading in a better direction. Though I likely wouldn’t come back unless I heard things are immaculate, and that is probably not going to happen because it may be too far gone, it still has the potential to be something great.

My friend proclaimed that this was the worst course he had ever played. Granted, he spent more time hiking the hillsides searching for his balls than in the decent fairways and he hadn’t quite set his expectations properly. I have played much, much worse as you’ve seen, and I like to try looking for positives. In a sick way, I kind of enjoyed the way it was because it was an interesting way to start my Mexican adventure—like I was Indiana Jones hacking my way with a machete through the jungle in search of a treasure that unfortunately wasn’t there.

Some pictures from Real del Mar Golf Resort (4/18/15):

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Real del Mar was just the warm-up and we knew greater things awaited us further south along the Baja coast. We road the toll road the rest of the way, hitting one more toll booth before we got to Bajamar. We considered stopping for a bite to eat along the way, but neither of us were too comfortable on our first visit to venture too far off the toll road and into any of the towns. We did ultimately pass a beach with all sorts of vendor stands set up in the parking lot and it looked promising.

I was just hoping for a little taco shop, but all the stands there were selling snacks/candy or shrimp/fish cocktails (solamente camarones o pescado). Unfortunately, seafood is not my thing and I had to pass. We ended up just eating at the Bajamar Resort bar. Everything in Mexico definitely has a more relaxed pace, so the service was slow and nerve-wracking as our 1:00 tee was looming. I ordered a chicken quesadilla and I was not impressed, but at least it was some sustenance before our match.

Bajamar Ocean Front Golf Resort • Ensenada, Baja CA • 4/18/15

Checking in at the pro shop was very confusing and unorganized. Several people were all trying to check in at once as 1:00 is when their mid-day $74 rate begins. Ultimately, it all worked out fine and, though later than expected, we were teeing off as a twosome on the Lagos nine and we had it all to ourselves. Fortunately, they have three nines here, so everyone was spread out nicely.

Lagos and Vista are the older nines here, and then Oceano was added in the 90s along with a renovation of the other two. Oceano is now the star and any 18-hole routing here will include it because they know that’s the one people want to play. We ended up getting to play all 27, with Vista being a “bonus” nine after our match was complete (and in case you are wondering, I played terribly and lost, but it was fun nonetheless).

All three nines at Bajamar offer something a little different. Each has its own character and charm. Naturally, Lagos and Vista are the original combo and are both inland throughout the rugged desert terrain, so they flow together best compared to the more seaside links style of Oceano.

Lagos, as the name would imply, brings water hazards into play on a number of holes. Holes 4 and 5 are a great back-to-back stretch. The 5th is a tricky par-5 that’s a double dogleg with the approach to a green tucked way to the right behind a big water hazard. I played safely and it was a pretty simple three-shot hole. My partner played aggressively and it paid off. He cut off a lot of the corner with a big drive and then was left with a completely blind shot to the green. He hit a beauty and ended up with an easy two-putt birdie.

The next hole is a great par-3 that also brings part of that big water hazard into play along the right. It has an elevated tee with a great view of the ocean in the distance. I should mention that it was extremely windy in the afternoon, so we were both using 2-3 clubs extra on this tee that was already intimidating enough.

Lagos finishes with a fun par-3 over another large water hazard with the restaurant/bar right behind to add a little pressure if people are watching.

Then, we were onto Oceano, which is the real reason anyone comes to Bajamar. This course has a more open feel, but with a lot more contour around the fairways and greens. It is definitely a links style design that fits beautifully with the oceanfront setting, though the rugged desert still comes into play around some of the edges. It’s an interesting and beautiful setting for sure.

The fun really starts when you reach the 4th hole, which is an awesome short par-4 as you start to head closer to the water’s edge. The approach shot is over a rocky ravine and is definitely intimidating, even with a short iron/wedge in your hands.

That is just the beginning, though, because the 5th hole is the signature one at this resort. It is a Cypress-Point-esque par-3 along the edge of a cliff. Giant waves were crashing on the rocks below and it was simply stunning. It’s simply one of the coolest holes I’ve ever played.

Holes 6-8 continue along the water’s edge, offering similar ambiance and spectacular views up and down the coast. We caught up to a really slow group by this point, but didn’t really mind taking our time during this stretch of holes. We actually joined up with a single who was also waiting along with his wife, who was just riding along and enjoying the scenery. He mentioned that they were just watching a mother whale and her calf swim along the shoreline. I sure wish I had seen that as it would been the icing on the cake.

Oceano definitely left a great impression on me and my friend. What a spectacular collection of oceanfront holes!

We circled around and kept it going on the Vista nine. We had that course all to ourselves as a great way to round out the day. Vista runs back inland, but offers more changes in elevation than the Lagos nine and really uses the surrounding desert terrain to great effect. The holes are framed nicely with a great aesthetic look all around. The two par-3s on this nine (numbers 3 and 8) are similar with elevated tees and gorgeous views of the ocean behind. They are both great looking and really fun holes.

Whereas Oceano kind of reminded me of a mix of the Bandon courses and the Pebble Beach courses, Vista really reminded me of Trump National Golf Club in Rancho Palos Verdes. It’s more of a rugged desert style than the lush green style of Trump, but it definitely had a similar overall feel.

Overall, Bajamar was in pretty solid condition. It was far from pristine, nor was it super lush/green, but it was plenty playable and consistent throughout the tees, fairways and rough. The fairways were kind of a mix of kikuyu and bermuda cut down tight, but I almost always had a nice lie. The bunkers were not good. They had a lot of pebbles in them and the ones I found were all very firm on top. The greens were mostly in nice shape, rolling a tad slow for our tastes. Some were very soft and spongy. Others were definitely more firm. It wasn’t always easy to know what to expect when hitting approaches.

With all the problems this part of Mexico has had drawing tourists in recent years, Bajamar has also had its own struggles and probably isn’t quite the course it used to be. I can only imagine what this place would look like with Pebble-level conditioning! That said, any issues with the conditions are very easy to overlook when you have such a magnificent setting for a course and three great nine-hole layouts. It was well worth the price we paid and I would gladly go back in a heartbeat.

Some pictures from Bajamar Ocean Front Golf Resort (4/18/15):

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Lagos

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Oceano

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Wait, is that the Loch Ness Monster coming out of the ocean after a long swim from Scotland to Mexico?

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Vista

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Getting down to Bajamar and back was a breeze. Never did we see anything “sketchy” or encounter anything but super nice Mexican people who seemed very happy to have Americans down there spending money. Of course, we really didn’t venture at all off the toll road, so we didn’t tempt our fate. It’s just important to know how easy it was to head down there for the golf along the coast.

One other cool thing that’s available is Bajamar Resort offers a “fast lane” pass to get back across the border in a supposedly quicker fashion than the normal crossing at San Ysidro. I say “supposedly” because we got the fast pass and were keeping our eyes peeled when getting back to the border crossing. It was pure chaos going through this corner of Tijuana and nothing is well marked. I saw a sign that said “Via Rapide” (literally meaning “fast way” in Spanish) and followed it. Unfortunately, it was not the right way and we still ended up in the main border crossing section.

Though it took two hours to get back into the U.S. from there (compared to about 30-40 minutes from what I hear about the fast lane section), I was kind of glad we did it on this, my first visit to Mexico. We were fortunate it wasn’t that bad of a time to cross (a friend of mine told me it once took him over seven hours!!!) and it was really interesting to see how crazy that place is.

There are all sorts of street vendors just walking in between the cars trying to peddle their wares. Some people just straight-up beg for change. Others sell cheap trinkets, blankets, knock-off soccer jerseys and just about any cheap crap you can imagine. There are of course some food vendors, too. Our saving grace was the lady that came by and sold us a big bag of churros for $2 and they were delicious. So good, in fact, that we bought another bag a little later (this guy sold them for $1.50, though, but his were not nearly as tasty). The sugar high got us through the night and had to suffice as dinner as the taco guys never went by us, but we finally made it through at 10:15 at the end of a very long, but fun day in Mexico.

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