Tale of the Whale & More at St. Regis Punta Mita

By: Joel Zuckerman


It was an extremely rare sight, if you stopped and thought about it for a second. There was Hale Irwin, the World Golf Hall-of-Fame member and most dominating player in Champions Tour history, raking a bunker himself. It's not only uncommon to see a man who's played over 1,000 tournaments combined on both the PGA and Champions tours - obviously in the company of a professional caddie in every instance - raking his own sand.

Aerial Shot of Tail of the Whale

But the fact was that Hale was raking the bunker for somebody else. In this case, a sky-high handicapper, a Mexican journalist who was so flustered in the moment that after finally managing to extricate the ball from the cavernous fairway bunker moments earlier forgot about his custodial duties. So Hale went down into the sandy maw, and took care of it on his partner's behalf.

So it goes at the extraordinary St. Regis Punta Mita, an idyllic retreat on Mexico's dazzlingly beautiful west coast, perhaps 45 minutes from Puerto Vallarta. Everybody's in a good mood, everyone's having a fine time, and if smoothing a little sand will make the day a little smoother for a fellow golfer, it's a miniscule price to pay. We were all fortunate to be there.

Phillip Ferrari is the director of golf at Club de Golf Punta Mita, a 36-hole facility featuring two Jack Nicklaus signature designs, which serve both a private membership and the privileged guests of both the Four Seasons and St. Regis hotels on property. "Our original course is Pacifico, which debuted about 12 years ago, and the Bahia course came along a decade later, and is just two years old."

Technically speaking, there are actually 37 holes at Punta Mita, and the "add-on" hole is among the most distinctive in the world, giving the resort property its golf imprimatur. On the Pacifico scorecard it's known somewhat clinically as Hole 3-B. But the lyrical name for this natural-island par-3 is "Tail of the Whale." While the hole is only available to play when the tide is low, it's sporadic usage is far outweighed by a spectacular locale and the exhilaration of finding dry land the tee shot is launched over azure ocean waters.

Among golf's best-known island-green par-3s, the most famous is at the TPC Sawgrass's Stadium course near Jacksonville, where the petite 17th bedevils tourists and Tour pros alike. But it's a manmade creation (actually woman-made, to be totally accurate, as Alice Dye provided the idea to husband Pete, the architect of record) and furthermore, one can walk, albeit circuitously, to the putting surface. So technically, it's not an island.

Closer in spirit to Punta Mita's "Tail of the Whale," though far more kitschy and contrived, is the "floating green" at the Coeur d'Alene Resort in Idaho. This technical marvel is anchored out in the facility's namesake lake, tugged around daily on a cable-and-winch system to allow it to play anywhere from 100 to 200 yards, depending on the tee box selected or where the superintendent locates it. It sounds as cheesy as a Wisconsin dairy, but it's a gorgeous hole, obviously very dramatic, and because the green is quite large Coeur d'Alene's representation is a far easier tee shot than the one at Sawgrass.

But the iteration at Punta Mita has them both beat. The green is medium-sized but fronted by rocky outcroppings and flanked by sand. More than one tee shot we witnessed seemed destined for short-grass glory, only to be buffeted by the sea breezes en route and then violently rejected off the coral surrounds like the NBA's Dwight Howard swatting a lay-up into the 10th row. Playing nearly 200 yards from the tips, and still no trifle at 180 from the whites (or even 175 from the red tees, so ladies, unsheathe your drivers), hitting this green and taking the chauffeured amphibious vehicle out for a birdie try and, hopefully, a par at worst, is one of the game's great thrills.

Even though the Punta Mita courses were built 10 years apart, Nicklaus isn't embracing the concept of "kindler and gentler" as he approaches his dotage. While Pacifico features manageable fairway bunkers and greens that aren't overly severe, the newer Bahia course is far more penal.

Typically Beautiful Hole at Pacifico

"If you short-side yourself on Pacifico, an adept short game will allow you to save par," continues Ferrari, who has been on the job for three years. "But on Bahia, due to the deepness of the bunkering and the difficulty of the greens, it's almost definitely going to cost at least a stroke."

Some of the greens on the Bahia Course are borderline vicious. The par-3 fifth in particular has to be amongst the most penal greens in the Western Hemisphere. "Bizarre," is the word used by Hale Irwin. The yardage is manageable, just 173 yards from the tips and 144 from the blues, but it's shaped like a "Z," and the back edge must be nearly 30 feet higher than the front. Mis-club on the tee shot, and let the fun begin.

There are areas where one simply cannot putt the ball on other parts of the fifth green due to the encroachment of the fringe and its odd shape. And trying to find the right level, be it uphill or down, is a recipe for a three-putt, at minimum.

Equally confounding is the par-3 ninth, where a front pin will often turn a golf round into a game of volleyball, as a player attempts to either putt or chip the ball from the surrounding swales onto the putting surface, but will sometimes result in the ball returning to the players feet or trundling off the far side of the green.

"There's a lot of contouring on those greens, and there's not much in the way of flatter platforms on the fairways. Add in the deep bunkering, and it's a much more difficult golf course than Pacifico," says Irwin, a three-time U.S. Open winner. "The shots into the green are far less predictable. You don't know where the ball is going to end up."

Both courses are incredibly scenic, but Pacifico is rife with coconut trees and swaying palms, fairly wide-open in terms of landing areas in concession to the ocean breezes. The finisher is a lovely, beachside par-4, well within sight and sound of the pounding surf, some 445 yards from the tips, but more manageable at 415 and 390 yards as one moves up to other blocks. But only one Pacifico hole truly captures the imagination above all others, and that's the aforementioned 3-B.

The golf courses are an important amenity to the resort, but no more so than 13 miles of beachfront (much of it quite rocky, sad to say), the trio of infinity pools in the large garden area, tennis courts, and a well-equipped gym just across the way from a fantastic 10,000-square-foot spa called Remede.

There are also a variety of great restaurants on property, including Las Marietas, an open-air eatery with zillion-dollar views of the crashing ocean surf. If the food was inedible - which couldn't be further from the truth - it would still be a worthwhile venue due to the spectacular scenery. But the cuisine, including a sumptuous breakfast buffet, is delightful as are the offerings at some of the other eateries, such as Sea Breeze and the Carolina Restaurant.

"One of the great things about our location is that we are far enough from Puerto Vallarta to have a real sense of separation, but if a guest wants to enjoy the sights and attractions in town, it's a short enough drive to easily spend the day or evening," explains Ferrari.

Las Marietas Restaurant & Family Pool

There are 120 beautifully appointed guest rooms and suites on property, most tricked out with plasma TVs in the bedroom and bathroom, showers both indoors and out, and a lovely private porch with golf course and ocean views. The overall service component is excellent, although calling for golf cart transportation to traverse the resort's acreage was a hit-and-miss proposition. More tellingly, however, in-room dining cut the normal 30-minute delivery window in half for breakfast one morning when time ran short and our tee time beckoned. The hotel staff is gracious and accommodating, and prides themselves on pampering guests.

Hale Irwin has been traipsing around the world as a pro golfer since 1968, so how would one even begin to tally up the breadth and scope of the various accommodations he's seen? "I've been here for three full days, and the sunsets are just spectacular. The amenities are fantastic. This is probably as nice a resort as I've ever seen in Mexico, be it in Cabo San Lucas, Cancun, or wherever.

"And in all my worldwide travels, this St. Regis Punta Mita property is certainly in the top echelon of what I've experienced. It's so much more than a hotel - it's so private, so contained, with wonderful service and a very secluded, personalized feel."

Joel Zuckerman, called "One of the Southeast's most respected and sought-after golf writers" by Golfer's Guide Magazine, is an award-winning travel writer based in Savannah, Ga., and Park City, Utah. He has written five books, including the epic "Pete Dye Golf Courses" in 2008. Joel's course reviews, player profiles, essays and features have appeared in more that 100 publications internationally, including Sports Illustrated, Golf, Continental Magazine, Travel & Leisure Golf, Sky Magazine, Golf Connoisseur, Golfweek, Estates West, Millionaire and Golf International. For more of Joel, visit www.vagabondgolfer.com.


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