CANCUN, Mexico - It's a Ferrari hidden in the back corner of a lot of GEOs, an Alex Rodriguez stuck in the minor leagues, Frank Sinatra forced to perform a duet with Ashlee Simpson. This is the fate of the new Dunes nine at Moon Palace Golf Club, a Jack Nicklaus 27-hole facility.
Dunes is so far superior to its Lake and Jungle nine neighbors that it's almost like coming across an alien. This is Moon Palace's version of the Mayan ruins. Where the heck did that come from?
It's not that the Lake and Jungle nines are bad. But they're no match for the fresh, narrow take of the Dunes.
This is the latest of the three nine-hole tracks at Moon Palace and that shows in everything from the condition of the course to the challenge of the setup. It's obvious the Nicklaus design team took the time to get this one right, learned from mistakes made at the Lake and Jungle courses and went into full show-stopping mode.
Standing on the third tee box, you're suddenly aware of all the possibility in Cancun corridor golf. You're shooting from raised tee to raised green, with plenty of pizzazz on all sides. Sloping sand dunes loom on the left side, with a solitary tree. Reaching the green requires carrying a cenote - a sunken cavern in the earth. Only unlike the cenotes at other area courses such as Playa Paraiso Golf Club, it's not filled with twisted trees.
This Dunes Course cenote is a lagoon, filled with strikingly bluish-green water.
The whole setup is dramatic enough to win an Emmy.
"The Jungle and the Lake courses are nice," said Hugo Donoso, a golfer from Madrid. "But this is ... this is ..."
Donoso threw his arm in the air and gestured around.
The excitable Spaniard felt speechless before he hit his tee shot. After ... well, after tends to bring out a very expansive vocabulary. The kind of expansiveness that pushed Howard Stern to satellite radio.
No. 3 is a long par 3, coming in at 229 yards from the back tees and a still daunting 204 from the blues that most golfers utilize. Combine that with an opening as tight as Mike Tyson's finances and your visual pleasure can quickly turn into your scorecard pain.
"I'm not used to a course like this," Donoso said later. "There's not great room to shoot at."
Team Nicklaus tests your accuracy and then tests it again. This isn't one of those resort courses where you can pull out driver and swing away. Even if he's careful, an average hacker is likely to find himself facing a number of awkward lies in the sand, on a hill, down in a dip. This might get annoying if you had to face 18 straight holes of it.
The advantage of the three-nines setup at Moon Palace is that you combine the Dunes with either of the much more open, traditional Lake or Jungle nines for an 18-hole round where the fury is tempered. Or just play the Dunes nine itself and embrace the challenge for as long as it lasts.
"It's a different type of course," said Julio Viscontti, president of the Cancun Golf Association.
One that apparently produces some reluctance. For on this visit, the superior Dunes was wide open for play while golfers buzzed around the ho-hum Lake and Jungle nines. It takes a little sense of adventure to elect for the Dunes nine, but it's more than worth the plunge.
You get holes like No. 4 where the obstacles come at you machine gun style: lake to clear off the tee, bunker city in a long fairway, little pond right before the green, a hole raised essentially on its own island. Rata-tat-tat-tat!
You'll feel like you pulled off an Indiana Jones escape if you par this No. 4.
Sure, the dodging-the-big-boulder thing was nice, Indy. But you try dealing with Team Nicklaus when they've already satisfied their commitment to the more cautious golfers in a straight forward set of nines and can really let loose.
In many ways, this Dunes nine harkens back to the days when Nicklaus courses caught criticism for only being playable for guys who could play with the Golden Bear.
"It's a little out there," vacationing New York golfer Arthur Dalva said. "I lost six balls."
Dalva shook his head. "Six."
Remember, this is a nine-hole course.
Beauty is a punisher here. There are undulating fairways that look a sheet being fluffed. Greens sneer down at you from the top of ridges.
Plus, for a dunes course, there are an awful lot of water carries. That includes two on No. 9 alone - a No. 1 handicap, 435-yard, par-4 punisher to close your nine that leaves one last bite-mark for the road.
Still, all these tests would ring unsatisfyingly hollow if it wasn't for the dunes. Team Nicklaus uses them to frame the holes, give the course an entirely different look from the others found in Cancun-Riviera Maya. Golfers are wowed as they sweat shots.
"I feel I need to play it again," Donoso said. "To learn and have a better idea of what I'm doing."
This is the nine to play at Moon Palace, a memorable part of any Cancun golf trip. The worst hole at the Dunes is arguably better than the best hole on the Jungle and Lake companion nine. The challenges are well thought out with the wind coming into play on several of the holes.
You need to factor a number of things into almost every shot at the Dunes. Not the least of which being where will a miss-hit hurt you most. To post a decent score, you have to gamble at going for some of the narrow openings at least a few times. But gamble too much and you're all but assured of one hulking ugly number.
This is anything but dumbed down golf. If you don't feel like playing with your brain on this vacation, stay away.
The one worry with the Dunes is that it could become a shadow of its striking self if the course conditioning is not kept up. Its older neighbor Lake and Jungle nines are not in a bad shape, but each has a few run-down areas.
Even though the Dunes has only been open for a short while, the tee box on the eighth hole was torn up with divots on this visit. For a course that depends on its distinctive look as much as the Dunes, this stands as no small concern. Especially with prices for a full 18 at Moon Palace coming in at $250 ($160 after 2 p.m.)
If the Dunes does stay in its current good shape, it's a wonder not to be missed in Cancun golf. Don't fear the Dunes. Embrace it.
Chances are if you're in Cancun, you're staying at an all-inclusive resort. Your hotel choice will largely determine your meal choice.
For golfers staying in the four-hotel Iberostar complex that's linked with Playa Paraiso, the gourmet Mexican restaurant is the best pick for a celebratory dinner. While the fish palace features a small-scale reproduction of the Sistine Chapel ceiling and elegant surroundings, the gourmet Mexican place delivers more consistently tasty dishes.
Even if you're in an all-inclusive hotel, it's worth it to go into the town of Playa Del Carmen one night and try one of the restaurants up on the hill. Here, you'll get authentic and often more creative cuisine.
If you're looking for an experience the equal of luxury hotels in the U.S. and Europe, the Iberostar complex is clearly the best choice. Many places will talk about bringing the high-end experience to the Cancun corridor. Iberostar's complex of four hotels in Riviera Maya actually delivers.
The Iberostar Paraiso Maya offers the best rooms and amenities of all. Staying here you get access to a few restaurants, bars and pools that even the guests at the other three Iberostar hotels do not. Of course, it's also the most expensive of the four options.
Avoid staying at a Howard Johnson or other low-budget U.S. hotel chain here, for the standards of a Howard Johnson in Mexico seem to be lower than those of one in, say, Illinois. You could be unwittingly roughing it even more than you expected.
Green fees at Moon Palace include transport to and from the course, no small perk in a stretched out area where a cab from Cancun to Riviera Maya can set you back $40.
August 23, 2005
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.
Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.
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