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El Camaleon golf course at the Fairmont Mayakoba in Mexico not just another PGA Tour host

Mike BaileyBy Mike Bailey,
Senior Staff Writer
Mayakoba resort's El Camaleon course - hole 18
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The finishing hole on the El Camleon course at Mayakoba in Mexico. (Mike Bailey/TravelGolf)

PLAYA DEL CARMEN, Mexico -- From the very first hole, you get the sense that El Camaleon Golf Club at the Fairmont Mayakoba resort is different than your typical resort course. Off in the distance, unreachable by mortal players on this 554-yard par 5, is a cenota, or sinkhole in the middle of the fairway.

The course builders didn't know about it until a bulldozer fell through the ground to expose it.

Instead of trying to fill it, designer Greg Norman left it there, creating an unusual hazard. As it turns out, these cenotas exist throughout the Fairmont Mayakoba, exposing an underground river system below. There's another one in behind the green of the par-3 second hole, but that's just the beginning of the topographical anomalies that set this 7,024-yard golf course apart from other golf courses.

El Camaleon, which has played host to the PGA Tour's Mayakoba Golf Classic since 2007, has become a quiet favorite among tour players. The PGA Tour event is played opposite the WGC-Accenture Match Play in Marana, Ariz., which is open to the top 64 available players in the world. Instead of taking the week off, many of those players who don't make the Accenture are choosing to make their way to the Yucatan Peninsula, 40 minutes south of Cancun to the Mayakoba Resort. The fields have been improving every year, not only because of the hospitality and quality of the resort, but the golf course has impressed as well.

"It's really been word of mouth," said Director of Golf Kevin Sebulski. "Guys play here and tell other guys how good it is, and they want to come. Really, it's not so bad to be the 65th-ranked player in the world. They have it pretty good here."

El Camaleon is a golf course for all levels

Operated by the Fairmont Mayakoba resort, the golf course is 100 percent paspalum, providing perfect lies on the fairways and consistent, albeit slower green speeds than found on most tour courses.

But around those perfect fairways is plenty of trouble, including miles of natural mangrove forests, which are home to all kinds of natural species of wildlife, including tropical birds and fish and iguanas everywhere (no, there are no chameleons). Certified by Audubon International, El Camaleon has lots of holes that are also bordered by canals that were painstakingly carved through the limestone during construction of the resort. They reveal crystal clear water that not only provides water hazards on the golf course, but a waterway between hotels and the golf course. And two holes, including the signature par-3 15th, are set against the Caribbean Sea, exposed to the sea breeze, which adds another element of difficulty.

In short, the golf course is anything but easy for the world's best players, who play it as a par 71. It requires accuracy, course management and an excellent short game. The holes are all memorable, especially the finishing stretch.

The 155-yard 15th features a crowned green that doesn't like to hold shots, especially with a cross wind. Then there's the par-5 16th (played as a par 4 by the tour), which presents players a risk-reward option off the tee. Hit driver and you risk going through the fairway, but a successful driver down the right side can leave a reasonable approach for players going for the green in two. The 17th is a short, tight drivable par 4 with a mangrove on the right and the canal bordering the left side.

The 18th is a 458-yard par-4 straight to the clubhouse. With plenty of deep fairway bunkers, hazard to the right and the driving range to the left, finding the short grass off the tee is a must.

Fortunately, there are four sets of tees, playing as little as 5,000 yards from the forward tees. For the resort player, choosing the right set of tees is paramount because you'll want to have a shortish club for approaches to avoid finding the water hazards, which are present on 80 percent of the holes.

El Camaleon Golf Club: The verdict

El Camaleon Golf Club gets high marks for conditioning, interest and beauty. The golf course is truly one of Norman's best designs, offering a variety of holes with different backdrops. There's nothing boring about El Camaleon. It forces you to pay attention, but it's fair. If you manage your game and have reasonable control over your shots, you can have success. If you spray it, however, make sure you've got several sleeves of golf balls. Wayward shots are not likely to be found.

If you find yourself in the latter category – going through a sleeve or more per nine – you might want to check out the Jim McLean Golf School at El Camaleon Golf Club. The Mayakoba location is the first and only Jim McLean Golf Academy in Mexico. The school features a teaching station with two bays, the latest technology in golf analysis computer software as well as highly personalized instruction programs crafted by certified Jim McLean Master Instructors.

Naturally, practice facilities are also outstanding, including an extensive short-game area, complete with practice putting greens, practice bunker and pitching green.

Guests will also enjoy the dining at El Camaleon's clubhouse, which serves up fresh pico-de gallo, avocadoes, fresh seafood, burgers and quesadillas.

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Mayakoba resort's El Camaleon course - hole 7Mayakoba resort's El Camaleon course - hole 15Mayakoba resort's El Camaleon course - hole 16

Mike Bailey is a senior staff writer based in Houston. Focusing primarily on golf in the United States, Canada, the Caribbean and Latin America with an occasional trio to Europe and beyond, he contributes course reviews, travel stories and features as well as the occasional equipment review. An award-winning writer and past president of Texas Golf Writers Association, he has more than 25 years in the golf industry. Before accepting his current position in 2008, he was on staff at PGA Magazine, The Golfweek Group and AvidGolfer Magazine. Follow Mike on Twitter at @MikeBaileyGA and Instagram at @MikeStefanBailey.

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

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • misspelled

    Connie wrote on: Feb 28, 2011

    The word is 'cenote', not 'cenota'.