RIVIERA MAYA, Mexico - It's a mountain bike course recast in green, a bunch of skateboard vert ramps stacked up next to each other. One of those X-Games guys with a name like Skyler and a stoked tattoo to match would have a field day with what lies ahead.
But what's a golfer supposed to do with it?
That's what many a hacker will be asking themselves as they face down the eighth hole on P.B. Dye's brand new Playa Paraiso Golf Club. The closer you get to the green, the more the hills buckle and swale until it looks like you'd have a hard time reaching the flag even if it somehow snowed in Mexico and you had a toboggan and a homing device.
There's undulation. And then there's undulation.
Hit the ball in the wrong slender gully between these hills and you'd have to be Plastic Man to be able to get yourself into any kind of proper stance. This is one of those holes when no one needs to reminded they're playing a Dye course. It's eye striking, inventive, challenging and more than a little crazy.
In other words, it's pure Dye.
You can almost see the diabolical care that went into making this cascading fairway of peaks and dips. Every hill looks perfectly proportioned for the maximum dose of arresting intimidation.
Chip Caswell, P.B. Dye's hand-picked right-hand man on the Playa Paraiso project, laughs when asked how long it took to get No. 8 exactly the way Dye wanted it.
"The first time or the second time?" Caswell said, smiling.
Turns out that P.B. Dye didn't like how the eighth hole came out on first try. So he completely bulldozed it over and started again from scratch.
"Yeah, I was in the bulldozer myself working on that one a little," Dye said, shrugging.
You can see the signs of this hands-on chase for perfection all over Playa Paraiso. A lot of big-name architects are being lured to the Cancun corridor these days with big checks from hoteliers hoping to make a splash. A virtual arms race of famous golf architects has broken out. Jack Nicklaus alone has so many courses here that you could play one every day and run out of vacation before you finished all his tracks.
P.B. Dye is one of the only ones in this group who could have applied for Mexican citizenship for all the time he spent on site, however. Senor Dye actually battled this land. He can tell you stories that will make your blood curl about the Mexican irrigation water eating through his sprinkler heads.
"First time we dealt with water that could eat metal," Dye said, grinning. "That was a little different."
Of course, none of this on-site attention means anything to the golfer if it doesn't come through in the course. At Playa Paraiso, you notice it in the use of the natural cenotes (gaping sink holes where twisted trees grow), the shot-changing contours in the fairways and the attention to details.
Dye's design allows you to build a little confidence in your swing early. The first hole is a wide-open par 4, the second a 155-yard par 3 that requires a clear over a brush area that's actually finer sand than anything you will find on the nearby beaches, providing near perfect lies. In fact, you can get through the first six holes without a lot of score damage.
Well, unless you short plop into the pond with the shooting fountain on No. 6 (only 144 yards from the back tournament tees). One golf writer did on a preview play and his wedge went flying out of his hands into the drink. He swore it was an accident, which prompted a knowing chuckle from Dye.
For Dye wasn't even planning on rattling anyone until No. 7. This is the beginning of a five-hole stretch that leaves no doubt this is the son of Pete Dye, legendary architectural sadist.
"Starting with No. 7, P.B. starts putting you through the grinder," Playa Paraiso Golf Director Greg Bond said, making a headlock motion and punching the air. "It's jab, jab, jab. You'll be feeling it. He'll get you twisted around in that headlock, feeling dizzy."
No. 7's green could give someone a permanent case of Vertigo alone. This three-tiered monster has so many crests and drops that you might be hesitant to navigate it with a SUV, let alone a putter. It doesn't help that is at the end of a 547-yard par 5 that usually plays straight into the wind either.
Then, it's on to No. 8's swales.
Bond figures this 463-yard par 4 could soon become the No. 1-rated handicap hole, once enough players have gone through the course to get a better grasp on the ratings (Playa Paraiso only opened June 22, 2005.)
Dye doesn't repeat anything in this gauntlet, giving every tough hole a distinctive feel. On No. 10, a solitary tree bent completely over rests in a sandy waste area just to the right of the tee. It looks like something out of a Mad Max movie, a lone survivor in a stark land.
"That's our conversation piece," Bond said.
Playa Paraiso is filled with touches like this. On No. 9, you can see the pyramid of the Iberostar Paraiso Maya resort (you were supposed to be able to see the ocean, but they built the pyramid and blocked P.B.'s planned view). There's a tree smack dab in the middle of a bunker blocking the approach to a green (a few golfers on our preview play absolutely despised this tree, others loved the theater). But most of all there are the cenotes.
Dye incorporates these open caverns in the earth into the course, making them obstacles on a few holes.
All this showmanship can almost make you forget that the fairway openings are getting smaller and smaller as the day goes on. By the time you reach No. 14, you're shooting blindly around a bend to a silver of fairway seemingly inspired by the skinniest actress' arm.
Still overall, Playa Paraiso is more theatrical show than score-crushing killer. Dye had the trees thinned out along the fairways, so that if you do stray, you can almost always at least find your ball.
He used his bunkers judiciously rather than just setting out impenetrable minefields. Water only comes into play on a few holes and there's no Dye island green.
Could this be a Dye with a heart? Even a soft, fuzzy side?
"This is a resort course," Dye said. "The average resort player's a guy who golfs maybe a few times a month, squeezing rounds in. You have to keep that guy in mind."
Well, except on No. 8. On that hole, you might just want to hope for rescue from an X-Gamer on a toboggan. Hey, P.B. Dye has to have some fun.
If you're going to golf on a Cancun trip, Playa Paraiso is one of those courses that will live up to the high-end prices.
In an area with plenty of pretenders, this P.B. Dye delivers. Its obstacles are striking, yet they subtly affect your shots rather than requiring a complete revamp of your game. This is a course where the trouble lurks in the angles. A miss hit can put you in the steep dip of a short hill or jammed against a tree.
"You can't play this course without a 60-degree wedge," Bond laughed.
With the course measuring 6,641 yards, Dye couldn't rely on sheer length to create the challenge. Instead it's about creative shot making around creative obstacles. Not coincidently, this is one of the more woman-friendly Dye designs you'll find.
You can almost see the internal battle that must have waged between P.B. Dye the hacker humbler and P.B. Dye the want-to-be inclusive designer played out on the course.
"The golf course isn't that long," Dye said. "You can tear it up."
You can't tell if Dye is upset or happy about this.
Thankfully for the average golfer, the benign P.B. wins out just enough at Playa Paraiso to make any frustration fun.
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 does.
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 Johnsons 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 Illinois. You could be unwittingly roughing it even more than you expected.
P.B. Dye didn't plan on using the cenotes in his design until he saw how distinctive and starkly beautiful these natural formations can be. Then, he routed holes to get them in.
August 1, 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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