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Tijuana course offers refuge from a Mexican urban jungle

By Andrew Resnik,

TIJUANA, Mexico -- If you watch your local news with any regularity, you might have caught this stunt a few weeks back, most likely at the end of the newscast before the anchors said goodbye. A man in a prone position was blasted from a cannon situated on a Tijuana beach. He flew over the jagged metal wall that discourages border crossers, and landed safely on a giant circus net in San Diego.

This stunt is mentioned only to reinforce the point that San Diego and Tijuana are truly sister cities. They share the busiest, most traffic-clogged border in the world. Thousands of Tijuana residents cross it each day to work in San Diego and tourists in San Diego generally find their way to Tijuana if their trip is long enough to accommodate it.

The last five to 10 years have seen unprecedented growth and prosperity in San Diego and around Tijuana, though on the south side of the border the prosperity is less obvious. Development is taking place, the city of several million is growing rapidly but it's still an intensely chaotic metropolis offering a mix of adventure, confusion, comedy, and danger.

Smack dab in the middle of it sits something of an oasis. Tijuana Country Club, or Club Campestre de Tijuana, is a semi-private club and the only game in town. And how about this: The course architect is none other than Alister MacKenzie. That's right, the same guy who cranked out Cypress Point and Augusta, though comparisons to those world-class tracks are not encouraged.

Originally laid out in 1927, Tijuana Country Club got a facelift in 1947 but more or less exists today as MacKenzie first intended. It is a traditional, country-club-style, tree-lined layout, a nice mix of longer and shorter holes, with the front nine offering straightforward shots with parallel fairways and the back nine featuring some more interesting doglegs and generally narrower fairways.

Ernesto Perez Acosta, the club's director of golf, says the vast majority of Tijuana C.C.'s members are, not surprisingly, residents of Tijuana, though a handful come from San Diego. The club offers caddies in addition to electric and hand carts and hosts youth clinics for the Mexican golfers of tomorrow. He adds the back nine is undergoing some upgrades and a recent visit confirmed progress in several areas, particularly the bunkers, is well underway.

"We're reworking the bunkers all throughout the back nine," said Acosta. "We want to bring them back to that MacKenzie style of bunkering."

We'll walk through some of the more distinctive holes in a moment, but first, some thoughts on the overall experience. While Tijuana Country Club is a refuge from one of the more chaotic cities this side of the Middle East, everything is relative. Clutter comes in many forms at Tijuana Country Club, from the ever-present sound of car alarms, to the garish billboards visible from the course, to the views of barbed-wire fences and a water treatment plant. You might hear church bells going off during your backswing or become distracted by graffiti on a distant wall while trying to read a putt.

You'll surely notice the city's curious zoning (or lack thereof) which permits a 30-story residence building to nearly dangle over the right side of a fairway, a certain magnet for sliced drives. And you'll eventually get used to the din of traffic, the engines and horns that eventually fade into urban white noise.

Whether these distractions are a serious problem depends on your outlook. American golfers largely confined to urban munis may not notice much of a difference. Regulars at Pine Valley and Sand Hills, on the other hand, could be appalled. Playing the course at times feels like sitting in a fish bowl, protected from but always aware of the din and clatter just outside the walls.

When you stop and think, though, that you're playing an original MacKenzie design in the heart of Mexico's second largest city, you may likely embrace the urban flavor that is part of the overall experience. It makes for a memorable round.

Course conditioning is generally pretty good. The fairways are a bit firm and suffer from bare spots in places, but this tends to result in longer drives and usually decent lies. As for the holes themselves, No. 2 is an attention grabber. A par 3 playing 228 yards into the wind, players have little choice but to pull out a club that won't spin back on the green. The fourth hole plays from an elevated tee box, offering players their first panoramic view of the city stretching out past the course. No. 9 is a fairly short par 5, a great birdie (or better) opportunity heading into the turn.

The back nine is more hilly and features numerous doglegs, starting with the 10th hole, a long par 4 (461 yards from the tips). No. 13 is a blind dogleg that plays 410 yards, but feels longer. A par here will give you a boost of confidence as you prepare for the last few holes. The 16th and 17th are both par 5s, with 16 playing short but unspeakably narrow, and 17 playing longer (574 yards) and wide. You'll finish, curiously, with a par 3, a 229-yard tempest with a cross breeze, a water hazard, and a couple of greedy bunkers. Margaritas await in the clubhouse, where it tends to be a little quieter.

The Verdict

Considering Tijuana Country Club has no competition in a city of millions, you might understand if the course were in bad condition or the staff didn't offer good service. But this just isn't the case. While not on the level of top American courses, Tijuana C.C. offers a pleasant, old-fashioned golfing experience. The clutter of the city can either be an annoying distraction or an amusing quirk of playing in such an urban setting.

It probably wouldn't make much sense to come here strictly to play golf. The traffic is bad, the course is a little tough to find, and the wait crossing back in from Tijuana to San Diego is always a drag. You might as well just stay in San Diego and walk on at Torrey Pines.

But suppose you were golfing in Mexico for a few days anyway, or suppose on a visit to San Diego your friends or family members wanted to go shopping in Tijuana, and didn't mind if you came along but played golf instead. You'd have a good time, it wouldn't cost you much, and you'd be spared the endless displays of ceramic Tweety Bird dolls and brightly colored blankets available for sale all over the rest of the city.

Rates are $45 on the weekends and $28 on weekdays. Carts are included, but walking is allowed.

Stay & play

Hotel Emporio Tijuana is nice but inexpensive (about $75) and just a few minutes from the Rio Zone, right next to the golf course. It's located at 11553 Blvd. Agua Caliente, Tijuana.

Real Del Mar ((800) 434-2252) is a relaxing full-service resort about 15 minutes south of Tijuana, along the coast. While not necessarily convenient to Tijuana Country Club, it's a good choice to stay after golfing, and gets you ready to play Real Del Mar's course and others further south.

Dining out

Caesar Hotel & Restaurant is where to go if you like Caesar salad, being the birthplace of popular dish. Waiters prepare the salad at your table.

Ave. Revolucion is the popular tourist district, where cantinas, restaurants and shopping opportunities are too numerous, diverse, and fast-changing to mention specifically.

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

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