Puerto Peñasco. Ever hear of it?
Unless you live in Arizona or Southern California, it’s unlikely that you know this beach town—also called Rocky Point—located at the top of the Gulf of California, which separates the Baja Peninsula from the Mexican mainland. There is no commercial airport nearby, meaning you have to drive and deal with crossing the border, which is actually pretty easy.
At four hours away, Phoenix is the closest big city. But four hours—three in the U.S., one in Mexico—also means Rocky Point’s beaches are Phoenix’s closest, so there’s a steady stream of Arizona license plates heading south on scenic Route 85, especially on weekends. (A few tips: You need special auto insurance to drive in Mexico; it’s available in the little towns near the border or from your rental car company. Obey the speed limits in Mexico, which are in kilometers, not miles. And stop at Organ Pipe National Monument, a U.S. National Park, along the way.)
So if it’s not around the corner, there has to be a reason to go, right? Indeed there is, one of the best golf courses you’ve never heard of. It’s from the Nicklauses, father and son, and it’s been open more than 10 years.
The Nicklaus Design at Vidanta Puerto Peñasco is part of the Vidanta resort/time-share property, which is about half an hour from town and also offers two luxury hotels, more than three miles of wide, uncrowded beach, five restaurants and bars, a spa, and numerous pools, hot tubs, and other amenities. The development sits nearly by itself on a peninsula with the gulf on one side and an estuary on the other, so the views are extraordinary: The impression is of being almost alone on the desert-edging-water landscape.
(Note: I recently wrote about Vidanta’s property in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, where there’s a great new Greg Norman course as well as one from Jack Nicklaus. Click here to read that story.)
As for the course, forget what you think you know about Jack’s designs: The real architect here was Nature, not Nicklaus, as little earth was moved. There are no chocolate-drop mounds, few forced carries (although the further back you play, the more the arid landscape intervenes), and very little water. But given the location there is sand, and plenty of it, from sizeable dunes to bunkers and waste areas. My only criticism is that a number of holes could do with fewer bunkers, which would be good for maintenance and aesthetics as well as pace and enjoyment of play. And I’m glad I didn’t play here when it opened since early on many of the sandy areas also featured native scrub and other plantings; most were mercifully removed a few years ago, making the course more fun and accommodating to more players.
Something else I don’t remember from other Nicklaus designs is significant fairway width, the result of playing between existing dunes (which occasionally help keep balls in play). But sometimes that same width is an illusion, with strategically placed bunkers and sharp angles dictating direction. This is a thinker’s course, but with a constant supply of magnificent scenery to help ease an overworked brain.
Another plus for Puerto Peñasco: You’re likely to have it almost all to yourself. You may see a few resort guests out there, and almost certainly some members, many of them ex-pats who live in town and rightfully love their hidden gem. And given that Vidanta is big into time-shares, there will probably be some temporary transplants, folks from colder climates who spend from a few weeks to a few months happily ensconced here. But add all those up and that’s still only a few dozen groups each day, far fewer than a course this good deserves.
There’s a lot happening on-site, including construction of a new hotel wing. In fact, due to strict environmental constraints, your first view of the property might remind you of a work in progress, with unpaved roads and other rough edges. But don’t be fooled: Once inside, the hotels and other features are very high-end.
As is the golf course. It’s a shame more people don’t know it.