IN THE PUBLIC EYE: Cozumel Country Club in Cozumel, Quintana Roo, Mexico.
THE LAYOUT: The Mayans founded magnificent communities by slicing through the jungle along the Yucatan Peninsula some 1,500 years ago.
Nicklaus Design Group has done much the same in creating a splendid golf course at Cozumel Country Club, clearing away red mangroves and other native flora in the natural wetlands on this island in the Caribbean Sea, just off the Eastern tip of Mexico.
It took five years and more than $12 million to sculpt the acclaimed 6,734-yard, par-72 course in the limestone, coral and saltwater marshes along Cozumel's northwest shore before it finally opened late in 2001.
Explorer Hernan Cortez landed on Cozumel in 1519 and the Mayans began to disappear, with the population dwindling from 40,000 when the Spanish arrived to about 300 in 1570.
Pirates Jean Lafitte and Henry Morgan used the island as a refuge in the 17th century.
It was another 300 years before Nicklaus arrived.
GENERAL MANAGER: Benny Campos, who came to Mexico after serving as head professional at Redhawk Golf Course in Sparks, Nev., near Reno, and at Apple Mountain Golf Resort near Placerville in Northern California.
LOCAL KNOWLEDGE: Tropical Storm Rita soaked the course last month, but after being close for a while before a restricted re-opening, Cozumel Country Clubs expects to be back up to full speed this week.
Because of the omnipresent wind and the lay of the land, Nicklaus Design actually created two nine-hole golf courses. The South Texas Golf Assn. has given the back nine a slope rating of 142 from the tips, while the front nine is rated at only 123.
In addition to the wind, sometimes a breeze and at others a gale, water comes into play on 13 holes at Cozumel Country Club. Be on the lookout for the crocodiles, especially in the ponds in front of the second tee and between the 14th green and 15th tee.
Even more menacing is the finish, despite the fact that the 172-yard, par-3 17th hole is rated as the easiest on the course. That's because the 16th (571 yards, par 5) and 18th (382 yards, par 4) probably are the two most difficult since they generally play into the wind and require long carries over the mangroves.
There is varying terrain at Cozumel Country Club. After playing the first two holes with jungle bordering both sides of the fairway, the golfer reaches a clearing where Nos. 3 and 6 play alongside a large lake.
The 499-yard third hole is a reachable par-5 that tempts the golfer to go for the green in two. The seventh is rated No. 1 on the card, a dogleg left par-4 that measures 407 yards, usually into a wind that blows left to right.
OTHER COURSES IN THE AREA: There are no other courses on Cozumel, but there is plenty more golf on the Mayan Riviera.
Cancun offers the Caesar Park Cancun Golf and Beach Resort plus the Hilton Cancun Beach and Golf Club, and the Melia Cancun Golf Club, an 18-hole par-3 course.
The Golf Club at Moon Palace near Playa del Carmen is a Jack Nicklaus Signature Course, and the Playacar Club de Golf near Xaman-ha was designed by noted architect Robert Von Hagge.
Also on the golf map are Club de Golf de Yucatan in Merida and the 9-hole Puerto Aventuras Club de Golf on the Cozumel-to-Chetumel Highway.
WHERE TO STAY: There are plenty of resort hotels near Cozumel Country Club, including the Presidente Cozumel Resort, the Paradisus Cozumel, Sol Cabanas, the Reef Club, Plaza Las Glorias, Playa Azul Hotel, the Fiesta Americana, El Cid Ceibas, the Iberostar Cozumel and the Melia Cozumel -- most offering stay-and-play packages.
Cozumel Country Club was built with cruise ships in mind, as nearly two million tourists and one million crew members, many who play golf, arrive by sea every year.
Princess, Carnival, Norwegian, Celebrity, Disney and Holland America all have Cozumel on their itineraries and are in port often.
On the web: www.cozumelcountryclub.com.mx
THE LAST RESORT: Troon North Golf Club in Scottsdale, Ariz.
THE LAYOUT: Considered the pioneer in high-end desert golf experiences, the 36-hole Troon North Golf Club remains a coveted destination for any Arizona golf excursion.
The Monument Course was Tom Weiskopf's first golf course design project, along with Jay Moorish in 1990, and the Scottsdale resident returned in 1996 to solo design the Pinnacle Course. Ask the locals, and Monument will get an ever so slight tip of the scale, but the overwhelming sentiment is both courses are among the truly elite layouts in the Phoenix area.
Part of the genius of Weiskopf's designs was his ability to create unique layouts hole after hole on two separate courses in a desert landscape. Of course, the canvas he had to work with was second to none in Arizona. In the shadow of Pinnacle Peak, the courses weave majestically through the rugged landscape of the Sonoran Desert, with enough elevation changes to present unique challenges shot after shot.
At 7,070 yards (72.9/147) from the tips and 7,616 yards (71.6/137) from the gold tees, the Monument course provides a stiff test. There are five tee boxes in all, down to the Jade at 5,099 yards. It's not where you want to cut your teeth as a novice golfer, but it's an honest test for golfers of all levels, and a truly unique overall experience.
GENERAL MANAGER: Mitch Harrell.
LOCAL KNOWLEDGE: There aren't many stressful forced carries, but accuracy is put at a premium because good angles into the small greens are paramount. There are a number of shorter par 4s, and it's wise to consider playing to distances where you can take a full swing with a wedge. Approach shots inside 100 yards will require dealing with a false front or tight landing area on several holes, making anything off the mark difficult to hold the green.
If you're in between clubs, always play to the front of the green. The landing surfaces are hard and good shots aren't always rewarded as the ball rolls out. If you're going to miss your target, don't short-side yourself in a greenside bunker, it will be almost impossible for the amateur golfer to get up and down.
Most important, bring your "A" chipping game and an even better blade because the well maintained greens are fast and the valley pulls putts on the Bentgrass more than the eye can imagine.
The gem of the front nine is the par-5 third. The first of several enticing risk/reward tee shots you'll encounter during the round, "The Monument" is 544 yards from the gold tees. There is plenty of room for a safe drive, as long as you can avoid the massive rock in the middle of the fairway 237 yards out. But a solid drive that carries at least 210 and avoids out of bounds on the right takes the bit out of hole with only a long iron into the green.
Water doesn't come into play until the testy 206-yard downhill par-3 13th. The back nine really gets churning on the par-4 15th, and it's helpful to have a local in your group, or at least one forecaddie happy to share advice.
At 283 yards, it's tempting to pull out the driver and let one rip on "Canyon Pass," but a good poke with your 250-yard club is all that's needed, along with a soft draw and a little good fortune into a small opening that feeds downhill and left into a narrow green. It's an excellent short par-4 that is score-able, but also requires good shot-making. Come up short and you have a dicey half-wedge into a small green that's, say it with us, challenging to hold.
The road back to the clubhouse provides a trio of fun and distinctive challenges that might be the highlight of the Monument experience. The 234-yard downhill par-3 16th is the most visually stunning on the course, and is backed up by a 455-yard par-4 that will require a fairway wood if you don't connect well off the tee.
The 18th hole doesn't appear overly intimidating at 365 yards and water safely pushed off to the left. But pay attention to the pin placement and don't leave your approach short and vulnerable to a massive false front.
OTHER COURSES IN THE AREA: The Phoenix area is chock full of wonderful course options for golfers of every skill level. You can't go wrong with the Troon Golf-managed facilities and there are 11 in the greater Phoenix area. Locals favorites are Ocotillo in Chandler, and Westin Kierland and Talking Stick in Scottsdale.
Your golfing imagination in Scottsdale is limited only by the time of year and your pocketbook. The crown jewel is the TPC Scottsdale Stadium course, home of the Waste Management Phoenix Open. Grayhawk is one of the area's treasures, with the two 18s highlighted by the highly acclaimed Talon course.
Dove Valley Ranch, Cholla, Continental, Eagle Mountain and the Sanctuary Golf Course at Westworld make most Top 10 lists.
WHERE TO STAY: The Four Seasons Resort at Troon North was rated as the No. 25 golf resort in North America by Golf Digest in 2011.
The Sanctuary was rated the No. 1 resort in the country by Conde Naste, and there is no shortage of great lodging options in the area. Copperwynd, The Phoenician and The Hermosa Inn also lead the luxury list.
The Camelback Inn by JW Marriott is also a short drive away.
On the web: www.troonnorthgolf.com
--Troon North report By Derek Harper, The Sports Xchange