Located just 45 minutes south of downtown San Diego, the Real Del Mar Golf Resort is sometimes overlooked by Americans who trek across the U.S. border into Mexico to escape exorbitant green fees, five-hour rounds and hovering marshals. This narrow, 6,400-yard canyon course is tucked between the mountains and is barely visible from the coastal toll road. There is a “Real Del Mar” sign posted along the highway for drivers headed south toward Ensenada, but road signs are easy to miss when stunning views of the Pacific Ocean are the main attraction.
So on a recent Sunday morning in March, Jin Woo Choi didn’t mind dealing with a little early morning fog as he took his warm up swings.
“What’s not to like about this place?” said Choi, a resident of Tijuana and part of a group of Korean golfers who frequent. “It’s a seaside course. It’s challenging, it’s not too expensive and it’s wide open.”
Miguel Valls, another course regular who lives in Tijuana, is convinced Real Del Mar is the best golfing bargain in all of Baja.
“The green fees [$55 on Saturday, $40 on Sunday] are half the price of every other course around here,’’ said Valls, originally from Valencia, Spain. “Sure, it’s a little more difficult than some other courses because it’s so narrow. But that’s part of the challenge, right?”
And Real Del Mar is certainly a challenge, especially for players who spray their tee shots or tug their approach shots. Sean Thomas, who belongs to a private club in Oceanside, is a long hitter who loves to unleash his driver whenever he can. But Thomas had been warned about the tight fairways of Real Del Mar, so he put a 22-degree hybrid in his bag for the road trip and wound up hitting it off nearly every tee.
“The challenge is obviously the narrowness and I don’t think there’s any divine routing here,” he said. “This one of those courses that if you’re a short hitter, you’re going to be in play more than a long hitter because of the contour of the holes.”
But even if you lose a few balls in the thick vegetation surrounding the fairways, you’ll likely keep your bag stocked by finding lost balls from other wayward hitters. And since you don’t have other players breathing down your neck every hole, there’s plenty of time to search for your drive in thick brush or just enjoy the wildlife.
The course is less than 10 miles from downtown Tijuana, but it has the feel of a natural wildlife preserve. Eagles, hawks, owls, herons soar overhead and marshals are replaced by coyotes and lynx.
“I really loved the naturalness and remoteness of Real Del Mar,” Thomas said. “It’s also pretty appealing to play a round in less than four hours. If you play on a weekend in San Diego, you’re looking at six hours for a round, which I don’t find fun.”
Opened in 1993 and designed by Pedro Guereca Gurrola, Real Del Mar also features seven lakes and more danger than just also features seven lakes, 47 bunkers and 600 palm trees. Because of its affordable green fees, the course has become popular with ex-pats who live in along the coast between Tijuana and Rosarito Beach.
The four par 5s are all difficult to score on because the slender fairways don’t allow players much margin for error on a lay-up shot. But the toughest of the par 5s is the 526-yard 17th hole, which dog legs to the right and is appropriately named “Alcatraz.” Off the tee, there is trouble on the left side with several tall trees and plants that site on top of a hill. On the right side, a small river follows the edge of the fairway, making the second shot terribly demanding. If you’re still in play for your third shot, you’re faced with an island green.
The prettiest hole is No. 6, a downhill par 3 that measures 200 yards from the blue tees and features a stunning view of the Pacific Ocean and the Coronado Islands in the distance. No. 18 is another downhill par 3 with a lake in front and sand traps surrounding the green.
Carlos Calderon, Real Del Mar’s director of golf, said there are plans to renovate the course, which was pounded by a series of winter storms.
“Plans are underway to renovate the bunkers, restore the lakes that have been invaded with wild plants,” Calderon said. “We’re also going to cut the high grass around the fairways and greens, so it will be easier to find your unplayable balls.”
Upgrades are also planned for the 75-suite hotel, snack bar and clubhouse.
Real Del Mar Golf Resort: For more information on Real Del Mar, visit http://www.realdelmargolfresort.com or call 800-803-6038 from the United States or 01 800 788 1023 from Mexico. Resort rates on suites begin at $119 a night and studios at $89 per night. Green fees on Tuesdays and Thursdays are just $25.
Story by Dave McKibben