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|The Playa Azul Golf and Beach Hotel is located right on the beach, close to the airport. (Tim McDonald/WorldGolf.com)|
COZUMEL, Mexico - Playa Azul Golf Scuba Spa Hotel, on the coast of this sparkling little island, has a lot going for it, but we'll get to most of that later.
What you, as a golfer, are going to be interested in the most are just three little words: free green fees.
When you stay at the Playa Azul, you can play as long as you have light or desire at Cozumel Country Club, though you will have to pay cart fee.
What a concept. Canadian golfers, always eager for a deal, discovered the Playa Azul long ago - right after European golfers abandoned Cozumel to play in fancier parts - and they take full advantage of it.
"Sometimes they'll stay here for three weeks and play every day for 21 straight days, sometimes 36 holes a day," said Martha Nieto, who owns the Playa Azul ("Blue Beach") with her husband, Fernando. "I can't believe they can play that much golf."
I can. I've seen Canadians, heard them talk. I know their ways.
Americans like it as well, since about 90 percent of the hotel's bookings are either Canadian or American.
The key to the deal is having a course that will neither wear you out nor bore you to tears, and the Cozumel Country Club does neither.
"If the golf course wasn't challenging, we'd be in trouble," Nieto said. "Because how many times can you play the same golf course if it isn't challenging?"
It's a good length from the back tees, a touch over 6,700 yards, and it winds around the clubhouse and restaurant at its center, through protected wetlands that hold some interesting Mexican golf course critters.
"Anywhere there's water, there's crocodiles," General Manager Benny Campos said.
The country club was designed by Jack Nicklaus' design firm, with Nicklaus' son Steve doing most of the design work.
Regulars here seem to use driver on only a handful of holes, but, if you're confident with the big stick, I see no reason why it can't be unsheathed more often.
"But, you'd better hit it pretty straight," Campos said. "It's basically either the fairway or the jungle. The course doesn't forgive bad shots."
Because most of the jungle is lateral, on the periphery, the interior of the course is relatively open, though there are some interesting jungle carries, particularly on the back nine.
It's also relatively flat, though the Nicklauses, always known for their fondness of bulldozers, built in some nice movement to the fairways. The course is all-Bermuda, and the greens are excellent, with good slope and undulation, surrounded by closely mown collection areas that usually give you a fair shot at getting up and down.
There are a number of holes that will hold your interest, like the drivable par-4 fourth hole, the ninth, with its split fairways and the par-6 16th, with its marsh layup off the tee.
The closing hole is one of the better ones, with a marsh carry off the tee to a fairway difficult to hit, as it sits at an angle to the tee box; your approach is over another strip of jungle to a tricky green.
The wind, which is typically 10-15 miles an hour, can also make the course play differently from day to day.
The par-5s on Nos. 3, 9 and 14 are all reachable, though the fairways narrow on all three, making for some interesting risk-reward options.
Conditioning at the country club is very good throughout, with a natural jungle feel; there are no houses or condos, and there's only an occasional glimpse of the hotels rising above the mangroves.
The Playa Azul isn't one of those hotels. It's a four-story boutique hotel with soft appealing Spanish architecture.
The Nietos took it over some years ago, fresh from their jobs as professors at a Mexico City university. With little actual hotel management experience, they've turned it into a quiet little gem popular with golfers, families and honeymooners. It reopened under their direction in December 2004.
There were times they had to struggle, occasionally taking over laundry and cooking chores. They had to learn to speak Italian because of the many Italian golfers who visited.
Today, the property has 50 rooms - including 12 suites with whirlpool baths - all of which have views of the Caribbean Sea and its dizzying array of hues.
The rooms also overlook the pool, outdoor bar and cabanas on the beach. There is a dive shop next door, in case you want to explore Cozumel's world-class reefs.
This isn't an all-inclusive resort; the owners encourage you to get out and explore the island, including the shops, restaurants and bars in San Miguel, a short drive away. A breakfast buffet is included, though, in the hotel's open-air restaurant, where you can see and hear the little waves rolling in on this calm side of the island.
The hotel offers golf packages (because "people would not believe the free-green-fee thing," Nieto said) starting at $155 per night from July to September and $150 from September to December. It also has a special express check-in for the duffers: You drop your suitcase, have a drink and head straight to the course.
The hotel has free wireless Internet service and a small conference room. There is also a relatively new spa, offering massages, manicures and facials.
For more information, see www.playa-azul.com.
July 10, 2007
Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald 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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