Positioned half an hour’s drive south of Loreto international airport, on the east coast of the Baja California Sur peninsula, the Rees Jones-designed Danzante Bay golf course is set within the Villa del Palmar Beach Resort & Spa at The Islands of Loreto and it's laid out around a master-planned community that’s been developed by entrepreneur Owen Perry and his Villa Group.
The 18-hole layout was constructed in two phases; eleven holes were completed in 2016 and the remaining seven holes (the 2nd to the 8th) were brought into use the following year. Depending on choice of tees, the course plays between 4,916 and 7,237 yards, with many holes offering wonderful views across the shimmering waters of the Sea of Cortez.
The property has been spoken of as “part desert, part mountain, part sand dune,” which goes some way to describing the diverse landscape on which the course is laid out. Holes are characterised by generously wide fairways and greens with open entrances, allowing running approach shots if so desired as well as adding infinite variety to playing the game.
The newer holes on the front nine occupy a canyon setting, bringing dry river beds into play, before the routing then returns to the clubhouse. The par five 12th heads towards the beach, followed by a par three that runs along the strand then the par four 14th veers inland to set up a dramatic finale to the round.
The 15th and 16th rise along another ravine, arriving at a fabulous clifftop tee position for the 17th hole – a truly spectacular drop shot par three that plays down to a rocky outcrop, with steep falloffs on three sides of the green into the Sea of Cortez. The long par four 18th then drops back downhill to the clubhouse, where most golfers walking off the home green will be happy to mark a par on their card.
For those looking for a location a bit off the beaten path yet not that far away from connecting to Cabo and the varied courses there -- a side trip to Loreto may be the right formula. Loreto is located on the Sea of Cortez approximately 220 miles north of La Paz. Hats off to developer Owen Perry in bringing to life a marvelous getaway for those not enamored with the hustle and bustle of Cabo.
The course was designed by architect Rees Jones who attempted to provide a varied look with its holes by trying to weave a desert, mountain and sand dune combination. The opening two holes are fairly straightforward and flat-- although the par-5 2nd does provide a bit of a risk/reward dynamic for those seeking to make a bold play on the 2nd shot.
Things pick up considerably with the stellar par-3 3rd. You actually ascend to the tee from the 2nd green and the hole is a variation of the 16th at Cypress Point -- but this time there's no Pacific Ocean just a major canyon that features the green on the far side. Keep this in mind, while the stated yardage is 207 -- the actual effective yardage is at least 10-15 yards longer since the green sits slightly higher than the teeing area. When the pin is cut in the far right corner it takes a herculean approach to cover the entire length and land safely on the putting surface. The hole is easily one of the best par-3's I've played that Rees has created. There is a bailout area to the left for those not so inclined to take the bold route. It's a very fair hole and clearly is one that's etched in your memory banks although many people will often cite the more publicized par-3 17th. More on that hole later.
The holes that follow are good -- but as often happens with many Rees Jones courses the heavy insertion of man's hand becomes noticeable. When you have such stark terrain as the desert it pays to have holes blending in rather than clearly stand apart. In such efforts, there's going to be some tell tale signs of man's fingerprints when the involvement should be minimal without appearing so obvious.
The par-5 5th is a quality hole -- three good shots can set you up for a birdie try. The uphill par-4 6th provides for a slight turn to the right and the approach is well defended. You then reverse course with the long par-4 7th which moves slightly downhill. There's a long bunker that hugs the preferred left side so getting as near as possible without going in is most beneficial. The remaining two holes on the outward side are sufficient but hardly cause the pulse to beat quicker.
The inward half starts in roughly the same location as the 1st. Holes 10 thru 14 are on flattish land. The par-5 10th does feature a desert area that cuts off the fairway. The 11th, a stout par-4 of 437 yards, reverses direction and is a stout challenge as water impacts the drive on the right side. The 12th is a longish par-5 that simply eats up yardage. Having Danzante Bay in the background does add to the visual appeal but the hole's architecture is simply pedestrian.
The par-3 13th could have been an even better hole if the tee had been placed along the edge of Danzante Bay and nearer to the clubhouse. Instead, the hole features a head-on tee location just to the right of the 12th green. The main saving grace is that a back right pin location is quite good.
The par-4 14th runs parallel to the 12th but in a reverse manner. It's a tough hole because of the length but there's nothing really exciting about the architecture.
Then the layout turns abruptly uphill at the 15th and 16th holes. Usually architects try to avoid going straight uphill because the demands for higher handicap players becomes more difficult because they can't carry the ball sufficiently.
After you hole out at the 16th you then take a short cart ride that brings you out towards the 17th tee and the hole that has been photographed countless times. The par-3 17th plays 178 yards and when you stand on any of the elevated tee pads the impact of what you see is hard for your eyes to encapsulate. The Sea of Cortez shimmers in the background and the Islands of Loreto just add to the majesty when land and water spectacularly intersect. The hole is a test -- especially when the wind is blowing at whatever velocity. Jones created a diagonal green -- from lower left to back right and there's a spine in the center of the green that serves as a divider between the two halves. The 17th has a manufactured look and is not as natural looking a hole as the par-3 3rd.
Nonetheless, when you stand on any of tees and gaze intently as one's ball leaves the club -- you hold your breathe and pray you have hit sufficient club. Anything short results is a donation to the Danzante Bay ball fund. Going over the back is just as deadly. Be mindful if you do reach the back bunker -- to exit carefully!
After concluding at the 17th you then take a mini-cab ride to get to the par-4 18th. I can understand why the detour was done to get players to the 17th hole but the rhythm of the round does get chopped up a bit.
The 520 yard concluding hole starts from a mega elevated tee. You see the hotel in the distance with a portion of Danzante Bay jutting into the scene. The hole turns left and for those wishing to shorten the second shot it can be most helpful to ride the left side. Just don't go too far left because a native area is quick to assert itself.
The 2nd shot is equally tested as the green is tilted slightly. Failure to reach the green will require a deft touch to escape with par.
Danzante Bay does use seashore paspalum for the tees and fairways and frankly I have to wonder if the turf will ever be sufficiently firm enough during the bulk of the season. Paspalum is a great surface for its resiliency given the limited amount of rainfall it needs and for the resplendent green color it provides. But, far too often, paspalum is like hitting off a shag carpet -- the lies are good, no doubt, but the kind of firmness that adds to the architecture is missing.
The layout has its moments but there are just enough holes that simply add little to the overall experience. It doesn't help matters that two of the par-4's on the inward side -- require slogging directly uphill.
What will be interesting to see is if any other courses of serious note should come about in the years ahead -- either at this property or elsewhere. Loreto is a wonderful place to break away from the 24/7 world and frankly if you can't unwind when going there then the issue is far more serious than you think.
As of now, the golf encountered does provide its share of key moments, however, for true architectural mavens the visit will have you wondering what might have been with such a property.
M. James Ward