Course Review: El Camaleón GC, Mayan Riviera, Mexico

Course Review: El Camaleón GC

Mayan Riviera, Mexico

Designer: Greg Norman


You’ll be hearing more about El Camaleón soon, even if you have never heard tell of the course to this point. That’s largely because the course, which opened last year, will hold the first PGA Tour tournament run outside of Canada and the U.S. next month.

But as anyone who follows golf is aware, there’s a difference between great professional golf and great courses that host professional golf. Hosting a PGA Tour event is hardly a stamp of quality as far as golf goes, though there are some significant exceptions.

Thankfully, Norman’s effort in the Mayan Riviera, about a half hour south of Cancun, leans more to the quality side. Though there is no room for questions of intent in golf design, and a course can’t be forgiven just because it is built on lacklustre ground, it is clear that the choice of land for El Camaleón presented difficulties and advantages. First of all, the land is flat, with only a few feet of elevation from one end of the property to the other. Secondly, the land had to be routed around four hotel developments (one, the Fairmont, is now open, with three more to come). That’s the bad news.

The good is the variation in property — from jungle to mangrove (a dense forest that survives on standing water) to beach and back again. Along the way there’s plenty of exposed limestone, an interest element that creates some of the best holes.

So El Camaleón is a mixed bag, pretty much following the land and the preference one has for the style of golf used throughout. The course starts out strongly, with a long par five with a wide landing area, subtle mounding on the left side and jungle on the right. In the middle of the fairway, around 290 yards out, rests a large cenote, an underground cave of religious significance to the Mayan people. Apparently this one wasn’t supposed to be part of the initial design; Norman’s team found it when the fairway collapsed during construction. Thankfully, Norman’s team had the foresight to let it remain in place, creating a feared hazard that adds an unusual aesthetic look. Though the property is flat, Norman uses deep flashed sand bunkers throughout, but should be commended for his use of on-grade greens that add to the natural look of much of the golf course.

Four of the best holes on the course come right at the start — the opener, the short par three second, and the [photopress:hole7.jpg,full,alignright]long third and fourth. That’s the point where the course moves into the mangrove and became less appealing visually, though certainly more difficult for golfers. Water abounds on the fifth and sixth holes, which had similarities in look and strategy. They are followed by long cart ride to the seventh, a strong short par three with the ocean ever present in the background. Since the wind seems to always blow at El Camaleón, this short hole, with a green canted steeply at the back, the 7th actually presents plenty of interesting shot options. It is a fun hole, something that can be occasionally in short supply at El Camaleón.

Once you hit the back nine, on similar land to the opening holes, Norman plays once again to his strengths. The 10th is the best par three on the course, clocking in at slightly more than 200 yards with a deep water-filled canal running along the right side. That’s followed by a heroic tee shot over the canal on the short par four 11th, and then the tough, long 12th, with its lime stone walls following the length of the right side. It is at that point that the course goes back into the mangrove and doesn’t really head back to its strengths until the 18th, a fine long closer with nice strategic bunkering in both the fairway and green.

So what doesn’t work? On the flat mangrove holes, Norman relies on the same strategic tricks several times. Subtle doglegs often bend left, forcing players to attempt to keep the ball on the right side of narrow, mangrove-lined fairways. These holes (#5, #6, #13, #14) have distinct similarities and no real room for recovery if the tee shot isn’t hit appropriately. Secondly, the two most picturesque holes (the ocean side par threes), come at exactly the same point on the front and back portions of the round.

[photopress:hole10.jpg,full,alignleft]But there’s plenty to like at El Camaleón. Norman has demonstrated he can create a subtle design, though he still struggles when the land isn’t ideal. Fortunately, there’s plenty of strong land and holes at El Camaleón, though they mainly come early on the front and back nines. I’m sure it will function well as a PGA Tour venue, placing a premium on moving shots from right to left. And those wanting to test a PGA Tour venue won’t come away disappointed.

That said, the new Fairmont that is attached to the course is an exceptional mix of European styling, comfortable rooms and a unique concept. The resort isn’t one big hotel, as is the case with most Mexican retreats; rather, it is a series of small building with four rooms in each scattered among the canals. It is more environmentally friendly than most resorts, and is set almost a mile back from the beach. Those staying at the hotel then travel to and from various locations in either a golf cart or by boat. The design creates a boutique feel in a major hotel. It was a wonderful concept — and will be part of four hotels that make up Mayakoba, currently under development by Spanish company OHL. A second golf course, set farther away from the beach, will also be built in coming years.


El Camaleón GC

Green fee: $250 (less for those staying at Fairmont and there is a twilight time after 1:30)

Hotel: Fairmont Mayakoba

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Robert Thompson

A bestselling author and award-winning columnist, Robert Thompson has been writing about business and sports, and particularly golf, for almost two decades. His reporting and commentary on golf has appeared in Golf Magazine, the Globe and Mail, T&L Golf and many other media outlets. Currently Robert is a columnist with Global Golf Post, golf analyst for Global News and Shaw Communications, and Senior Writer to ScoreGolf. The Going for the Green blog was launched in 2004.

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