Once the ribbon is cut, the tinsel dispersed, and the ceremonial shots struck, the daily operation of a new golf course isn’t simply a rote matter of rolling out the green carpet.
Rather, the process of creating and maintaining peak course conditions and high customer expectations is a learning curve of continual education for maiden-breaking grounds.
At postcard perfect TPC Danzante Bay, situated amid the islands of Loreto and Sea of Cortez on the east coast of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula, the challenges of echoing the idyllic course and Villa del Palmar resort setting can be drawn from design and build evolution, to grounds’ maintenance and staff education.
Opened incrementally across 2014-17, the Rees Jones-designed course debuted in full bloom a few weeks shy of 2018. Routed through mountain, desert, valley and seaside terrain, the new kid on the Mexico block has received namely sterling reviews for its diverse topography and mellow vibe.
“This is a jewel in the desert, it’s not a well-tracked place like Cabo,” says Danny Garcia, head golf professional and director of golf at TPC Danzante Bay. “We’re kind of hidden in the Gigante Mountains here in Danzante Bay. With the islands around us, it’s almost like a place out of a fantasy.”
For Garcia, fantasy meets reality when educating a golf-nascent staff from square one.
South of the Border, golf is almost entirely a game for the affluent or vacationer, meaning that in remote locales like Loreto, cultivating a learned labor force is tricky.
“It’s like raising a baby,” Garcia half-smiles. “When I got here, nobody really knew anything about the game. So, I initially started working with the two staff members that they gave me, along with a girl that’s a cashier. It can still be a challenge, because when I tell things to my (now larger) staff, they can have no clue what I’m talking about. But that does make things fun in a way; just explaining everything from the dress codes to the etiquette.”
Garcia has taken it upon himself to provide crash course education of Golf 101 to his crew. “The staff I have now, I tell them they need to know everything I know – as soon as possible,” he says.
From showing golf videos, explaining pro leaderboards and tournaments, detailing differences in equipment and taking resort staff members up to view TPC Danzante Bay’s, cliffhanging par-3 17th, Garcia has made efforts to coach staff members ranging from grounds crew to resort housekeepers. As TPC Danzante Bay grows in full, the head pro aims for the present and future labor force to echo the cultivation.
“A year from now, the course will be more mature, and all our employees will be better versed on ‘What is Golf,’” Garcia says. “Part of my agenda here is to teach all our employees across the resort about the game. Golf is kind of a closed culture here in Mexico, where you either have private clubs or you have resorts. And what I’m also trying to do is bring in the local kids from the fisherman’s villages, to bring them up here, teach them the game and teach them the etiquettes.”
Along with helping staff to improve their English, Garcia is concurrently swinging to kick-start the region’s laid-back milieu. “The culture here is very low key. There isn’t anything to get too excited about,” he says. “But, for example, when I have to tell one of my guys to set up the range right now and I come back outside and he’s having coffee, it’s like I have to explain the importance of now.”
From crew to construct, TPC Danzante Bay’s unique, four-year buildout required a vision as singular as its terrain.
Randy Ruth, director of construction of TPC Danzante Bay and Villa del Palmar, has been building golf courses for 35 years, including the last 20 in Mexico. He’s been involved in over 100 course projects, but sees TPC Danzante Bay as the jewel in his portfolio.
“This course has everything, between the dunes, arroyos and valleys,” Ruth says. “But with the mountains and oceans here – you usually don’t get both in one course. I’ve done a lot of courses, but this is the best.”
Originally envisioned as a nine-hole layout to complement the region’s fishing scene, the extended construction timeline provided levity to the project.
“Normally, you’d build 18 holes in a year to a year-and-a-half. I liked having more time. They paid me by the month,” Ruth laughs.
Adds Garcia: “I’ve heard Rees comment that he was allowed to take his time with this course. And in that time, he worked with the land and progressively went from six and seven holes, up to nine, then 11 and now 18. So, I’ve done a lot of scorecards.”
In Ruth’s experience, working closely with both the design team and course crew proved crucial in the build.
“I always like to bring the superintendent in long before you start planting grass,” Ruth explains. “Like, on our second hole, we have these steep slopes, and I’d go out there with the super and ask how high I could go with these slopes so that he and his crew could still mow and maintain. It’s all a team deal.”
Garcia also found team coalescence a critical element prior to TPC Danzante Bay’s debut.
“This grass does very well if it’s kept under control,” Garcia says. “Initially, I told the superintendent that I wanted the bunkers to be a bit ‘rougher,’ with more of a beard. But with this type of Paspalum grass, I found out that it gets very knotty, with balls and sections, so if the ball didn’t sit on top of the knot, it would sink down and be hell to get it out.”
Opportunity to test the course with the architect was an added factor in crafting prime playability.
“Rees finally said he thought we should shave down both the fairway grass and that grass around the bunkers, and I agreed,” Garcia continues. “It was too penal. For resort players, the last thing I want to do is have people to come out here and get the heck beat out of them.”
On several TPC Danzante Bay holes, routing is matched with a weather-proofing aesthetic.
“The big thing here is hurricanes or a tropical storm,” Ruth says. “And that’s why we’ve got our arroyos filled with rock – it’s there to slow the water down. That water doesn’t hurt you as much as the velocity of the water. That’s what really does all the damage. So that’s why on seven of our holes you see all that rock; I had all that rock and needed to do something with it. It may not look like it, but there are a lot of holes in that rock where the water can go into the ground and slow down.”
For Ruth, construction of the home hole required being a rock star.
“We had a tremendous amount of rock,” he says. “On the 18th hole, we had a 60-meter cut. It took us a year to get the permits to dynamite, so, in the meantime, I used excavators with big hammers and just kept breaking.”
The lone golf course in The Villa Group’s nine property portfolio across five of Mexico’s resort destinations, TPC Danzante Bay’s level of success may soon dictate the construction of additional golf courses owned by Villa, including one new course currently in its initial design stages at the group’s property in Puerto Vallarta.
“I think people should come here with high expectations,” Garcia says. “There have been a lot challenges, but just to bring the course to where it is now is unbelievable. And that extends to impressing the importance of customer service, letting the staff know that we need to treat the guy who’s here maybe once a month the same as a guy who comes here five times a week.”