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Cozumel Country Club a Herculean effort

By Jim Kerr,
Cozumel Country Club - jungle
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The jungle is a lateral hazard at Cozumel Country Club. (Tim McDonald/WorldGolf.com)

COZUMEL, Mexico - Under-water recreation has been thriving on more than 37 reef sites off Isla Cozumel for decades, but when the 308-square-mile island off the Yucatan Peninsula got its first 18-hole golf course in November 2001, a completely new above ground dimension was added to Mexico's largest Caribbean island.

The Cozumel Country Club is owned and managed by ClubCorp International, the prestigious golf resort company well-known for Pinehurst, the Homestead and almost 200 other properties, including several south of the border. Yet, the Herculean effort to bring golf to this part of the world was uncharacteristic of a company traditionally associated with managing, rather than building, prestigious resorts.

Attacking Isla Cozumel's coral and limestone base and low-lying saltwater marshes in the name of golf - without destroying the natural habitat - called for the best design and technology money could buy. A Nicklaus Design Group layout was turned over to Diamond Golf Construction, builder of many new courses in Mexico, and $12 million later the course opened with all 18 championship holes on the island's northwest shore. It took five years, beginning in 1996 with negotiations for the land, and included the proviso that ClubCorp invest 12 million pesos (or about US $1 million) upgrading a nearby water treatment plant to irrigate the course.

The results are impressive, but the key to short and long-term success for the project will lie in a close working relationship with Cozumel's tourism economy, both with land-based resorts and the island's high-profile cruise industry.

"It was built with cruise ship passengers in mind," says Mike Feild, director of operations for ClubCorp in Latin America. "The total number of passengers arriving in Cozumel in 2003 is expected to be 1.8 million, not to mention 700,000 crew members, many of whom also play golf."

Of the 28,000 golfers projected to play the new course this year, 45 percent are expected to be cruise ship passengers, mostly from large ships operated by Carnival, Celebrity, Holland America and Disney, all of which have some form of golf program, many with on-board professional organizers.

"Passengers like this course a lot," says Roger King, an on-board golf professional on the Carnival Pride who works for Elite Golf Cruises of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. "But they do sometimes complain about losing too many balls."

This comes as no surprise after playing the 6,734-yard, par-72 course, which winds around trees, mangroves and wetlands, incorporating the natural habitats of the island. In the process, there are significant carries over marshy areas and water hazards, craters created in construction when limestone and coral rock was quarried to construct elevation for the course. Calcarious rock, a high calcium limestone, was a main ingredient of the terrain, where Bermuda 419 was used for fairways and hybrid Bermuda for greens. The first hole, a casual 378-yard, par-4 which doglegs slightly left around a pond, is a precursor of hazards yet to come. About half of the holes have significant water to deal with, and all carry the imminent threat of a ball lost forever in the kind of spiny, malicious growth only an ancient Mayan would venture into. I found my own bag getting precariously low on balls by the time we reached the daunting 18th, an easy-sounding 356-yard Par-4 handicapped as No. 4, which nevertheless required a precision shot 150 yards over a marsh to a small landing area.

Attesting to their numbers, and perhaps their weariness with regulation ball prices in this part of the world, golfing cruisers had left behind a rather large number of range balls in these hazards. Some of the ships carry 2,000 plus passengers, along with 800 crew, but even so, the main targets of this novel new attraction in Cozumel are the resort vacationers who stay at the island's three dozen hotels, which range from large all-inclusive resorts to beachside bungalows.

For this market, ClubCorp came up with a packaging idea involving a consortium of six resorts. Two of them (Playa Azul Golf and Beach Club and Paradisus Cozumel) are "founding members" and four (El Cid Ceiba, Presidente Intercontinental, The Reef Club and Sol Cabanas) are associate members. For the visitor, this translates into unlimited golf while staying at the former, and reduced-cost golf while staying at the latter.

Divers are also considered prime cross-over candidates for the game of golf. Cozumel, with more than 25 licensed dive operators, has been Mexico's scuba diving mecca since the 1950s, as well as a good place for fishing and boating. Unlike the government-manufactured resort center of Cancun, 44 miles away across the sea, Cozumel has a history dating back to Cortes, who landed here in 1519. It also has a stable population of about 60,000 and a real, if somewhat over-commercialized, village called San Miguel de Cozumel.

Cozumel dining

Thousands of cruise ship passengers have reshaped the waterfront in San Miguel de Cozumel, just as they have in Playa del Carmen, a 45-minute ferry ride away on the mainland. Like Playa, there are dozens of shops, souvenir stalls, craft vendors and restaurants -- many of them quite good. I particularly enjoyed Guido's Restaurant on the waterfront at Avenida Rafael Melgar, where the lasagna and tuna carpaccio with homemade garlic bread was muy bueno. Like most restaurants in this part of Mexico, entrees run about $9. Another interesting choice is the Museum of Cozumel, converted from a hotel in 1988, with exhibits on Mexican history and a delightful upstairs restaurant with a great view along the waterfront.

Cozumel off course

After a morning of golf and lunch downtown, there's still plenty to do. Maya ruins on the north side of the island, museums, eco-tourist parks and nature preserves all have something to offer, not to mention diving, snorkeling or just lying on the beach.

Cozumel lodging

All five of the hotel properties associated with the Cozumel Country Club are excellent. The closest to the course are Paradisus Cozumel (paradisuscozumel.net) and Playa Azul (playa-azul.com), my personal favorite. Located on a sandy beach with an outdoor restaurant and pool, the three-story yellow hotel has brightly decorated and comfortable rooms starting at $125 a night, including unlimited golf. Package rates are available at all the hotels. Otherwise, a round at the new club will run you $110, including cart, which isn't bad compared with most other resort courses in Mexico.

"We wanted to avoid Cabo prices, which are running $160 and up," said Field regarding the courses of southern Baja. The nearest course to Cozumel is at Playacar, an upscale extension of Playa del Carmen, where prices are similarly high.

There are, of course, expansion plans at the Cozumel Country Club, which already has a "palapa-style" clubhouse with a fully stocked pro shop, driving range and putting green. Developments over the next two years will include a golf hotel, timeshare condos, villas and multi-family lots. An extension of the Paradisus Cozumel, a Sol Melia resort, will take place in 2004.

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Cozumel Country Club - windCozumel Country Club - back nine

Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.

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