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Golf in Ixtapa and Zihuatenejo

"They don't eat anybody," Sergio L—pez Garcia, the club pro, reassured me. He stopped his cart to watch an eight-footer floating on the lake; it bore the casual menace of the berg that sank Titanic. "The only time they're dangerous is in the summer months, when they lay their eggs at the base of the palm trees."

Created in the 1970s as part of the original city of Ixtapa, Campo de Golf Palma Real is named for the stands of mature palms that define the holes and offer shade for the players. Designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr., the course is traditionally laid out, with broad fairways, short rough and slow, grainy greens.

The course rewards length over precision off the tee. It is also one of the most scenic places to play in North America, a rare parlay of mountain and sea. On the 350-yard fifteenth, a par four, an elevated tee stares straight at the Pacific. To the right are the Sierra Madres; to the left, the mother of all sand traps, the beach.

It's fitting that an area with fraternal twin cities should feature two very different championship courses. The area's younger layout, the Club de Golf Marina Ixtapa, is part of an upscale development that broke earth in the early nineties. A brackish lagoon was opened to the ocean, resulting in a network of saltwater inlets ideal for pleasure craft--and for a modern links course where water comes into play on thirteen holes.

Designed by Robert von Hagge, the course has relatively little vegetation; the palm trees are still young and stunted. But no shortage of hazards awaits, among them the water and the ubiquitous gators. There is also a profusion of gravelly sand traps guarding the greens, and von Hagge's signature moguls lining the fairways, some of them ten or twelve feet high. If your ball stops along the side of one of these humps, you may forget that you ever had a balance point.

At 6,781 yards, the Marina course runs about a hundred yards shorter than the Campo de Golf. Its undulating greens play faster and hold better, and cup placements are fair. "If I hid the pin, they'd shoot ten every hole and take six hours," former pro Oscar Fernandez said of his recreational clientele. Even so, low-handicap players often shoot in the low nineties here, especially on days when they are hitting--or thinking--less than straight.

Take the 609-yard par-fifth eighteenth. Water runs along the entire left side of the fairway, with clusters of humps along the right. The passage between the two hazards can narrow to fifteen yards. Even a long hitter will need three shots to reach the green. The second shot, typically a three-wood, is especially tricky; too bold an approach will find the large sand traps that front the putting surface just as the hole doglegs left. Most players aim to lay up on a plateau to the right, even though that leaves them a long seven-iron to the green, against the sea breeze. Fernandez estimated that perhaps two in twenty players make par on the eighteenth. "When they made six, I'd say, 'You made your par.'"

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