Open For Play (2008)
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Riviera Maya Golf: Riviera Cancun GC
By Larry Olmsted
April 19th, 2010 - I love the Rivera Maya as a travel destination, and explained why the region is so charming in my first post on the area.
Now it's time to look at more of the golf.
I already covered the Moon Palace resort, with its 27-hole Nicklaus design that jump-started the high end golf boom in the region. Now Nicklaus has returned and done another course for the same client, but this one is a world apart.
First of all, it is just a daily fee golf course. The Riviera Cancun project has plenty of land, and no doubt is intended to anchor a residential and hotel community, but with the economy pretty much stagnant, especially in Mexico, and the region already overbuilt with mega-resorts, I would guess it will be several years - at least - before anything else happens here. In the meantime that leaves a standalone 18-hole design, and a brand new clubhouse, large and lavish, all run by the Moon Palace folks with the same "all-inclusive" mentality that pervades the area. Pay your greens fees and expect gratis cervezas around the course and a pre or post round lunch included.
The course has been open for over a year, but somehow remains Mexican golf's best kept secret, event though it is closer to Cancun and its hotel room density than any of the other Riviera Maya courses. There were just a few hardy souls poking around the day we played it, but it should not be missed - it is the most serious and non-resort of all the courses here.
Riviera Cancun is very different for the Riviera Maya, with each hole isolated from view, lots and lots of water, a desert feel with long cart boardwalks and abundant virgin waste area. The biggest difference between this and Moon Palace, however, is a sign of the "New Nicklaus" - heavily contoured and very tricky greens. A lot of architects have spent the last few years considering how to handle the ever increasing distance from the technology of modern equipment, and whereas Pete Dye has attacked the USGA for refusing to reign it in and in response is building 8,000-yard plus behemoths, Nicklaus told me his tact is different and that the only way to protect against pro-caliber assault is to toughen the greens. So there is a clear difference between vintage Nicklaus designs with moderate sized and flattish greens and the most recent efforts (including another new Mexican layout, Punta Mita's Bahia course), which feature smaller and rolling greens that are tricky to hold and tricky to putt, dropping off in various directions.
Riviera Cancun is a very nice layout, and a fairly raw, natural golf experience that is also quite a test: on the seventh hole there is a daunting drive over water, then a second aquatic carry to the tough green. Don't expect JN to let up, especially when it comes to his trademark finish, always sticking it to the golfer from the fifteenth on. He does that here, but surprisingly, while the course is near the coast, there are no actual waterfront holes, a shocker considering that Nicklaus' standard Mexican design aesthetic has been to run a few finishing holes along the coast.
All in all, Riviera Cancun would be a shame to miss as part of any golf trip to the region and depending on your personal preference for rugged versus manicured, could be the best layout down here.