This is Peace, Man

Gary Player’s wizardry at Costa Baja helps the Mexican city of La Paz escape Cabo’s long shadow

Gary Player, fully clad in white, is holding court on the elevated tee at Costa Baja’s par-four seventh hole, his unabashed gusto and energy radiating into a captivated crowd of more than 100 invited VIPs and homeowners. With the glassy Sea of Cortez glistening in the background, the 75-year-old golf great bounds about, hitting precise drives to the green nearly 300 yards downhill, recalling anecdotes about life in professional golf, and demonstrating some of the 1,000 sit-ups he does every day. His show is part standup comedy, part golf demo and part motivational speech, intertwined with passionate social, environmental and, especially, health commentary.

This evening’s entertainment caps off Player’s final inspection of Costa Baja, a resort development situated just north of La Paz, the capital of Mexico’s Baja California Sur. The nine-time major winner’s enthusiasm about the project reflects growing sentiment that the vibrant, 400-year-old city of more than 200,000 is fast becoming a formidable golf destination, poised to rival Cabo San Lucas, just two hours south. Within a few miles of La Paz, three high-profile golf, resort and real estate developments have recently taken form, and Costa Baja, which opened this November, represents one of them.

It also represents one of more than 300 courses Player has designed around the world. After his performance on the tee, we asked him about the project and quickly discovered his passions extend well beyond the Baja Peninsula and the game of golf.

How did you approach Costa Baja’s design?

I want it to be a tonic. I want it to be beautiful. Golf architects are making the greens way too undulating. Too many courses have unplayable greens and the quickest way to upset a guest is with difficult greens. We want them to enjoy the game. They struggle as it is, so give them a chance. You try to create a contrast. This is peace, man. You’ve got a combination of Scottsdale on one side and the ocean on the other. We’ve got holes shooting down the mountains, way down, almost a thousand feet.

What was your first reaction to the site?

We have some Mexicans here who really know how to grind those rocks! This is some serious landscaping. It was a tough course to build.

How does the Costa Baja experience compare to other courses you’ve built?

We’ve done 300 courses around the world and many in this kind of terrain. It’s turned out fantastic. Look at the views guests will have from their verandas overlooking the golf course. In this valley there’s going to be all sorts of bougainvillea, flowers and cactus. Guests will experience silence in the morning with a cup of coffee in their hands. From the other window they see this beautiful bay. It’s amazing. This is really a paradise.

Do you still play in tournaments?

A few. Several weeks ago I won one at the age of 75, which was the 165th I’ve won in six decades. I don’t know if anyone has ever done that. I play some tournament golf and I’m very involved with a lot of companies like SAP, Verizon and Coca-Cola.

And when you’re not playing?

Mainly designing golf courses. We’re probably the most active course-design company in the world today–one of two, anyway. I also have a very large ranch in South Africa where I raise Thoroughbred racehorses, cattle, sheep and crocs. It’s a very big business.

What sets you apart from other architects?

Most guys say they don’t want to travel to China or India, but I get on that plane like it’s a bus ride. We’re doing very well because we’ve built courses people can enjoy, but the big thing is, I’m doing courses that cost less and are far more environmentally friendly. On my ranch in South Africa I have my own golf course that will be the golf course of the future. My brother is the world’s number-one conservationist and he said, build a course that uses 40% of water, 40% of machinery, 40% of labor and 40% of overall cost. When a course usually costs $2 million, I do it for 40%. Now that’s the future.

Conservation is obviously a big part of your design philosophy.

We’re all running out of water fast, big time, and the schools are not doing enough to teach children about conservation. America alone wastes more than one trillion gallons of water in a year just from leaks in houses. All these big aquifers in places like Oklahoma and Texas are starting to dry up.

Does it feel paradoxical for you to build golf courses that notoriously use so much water?

That’s why we’re going that route. They’re all going to go that route. There’s going to be no choice. I’ve got news for these architects– the way we’re designing golf courses now is coming to an end. It should come to an end.

So you see a lot of problems with water consumption in the future?

Absolutely. This oil spill in the Gulf Coast is a dreadful, dreadful thing. I’m an environmentalist and I see the birds covered in oil and I want to cry. That oil spill is a speck in the ocean, but where do you think China, India, Africa, Mexico and most of these countries are putting their sewage? In the ocean. Where do you think the atomic waste from any country with nuclear energy goes? In the ocean. America put 100 million tons of DDT in the ocean when it was declared outlawed. I just read this book, Diet for a New America. The author says you can’t eat a piece of fish anywhere in the world that isn’t contaminated. And you’ve got to see a movie, The Cove. You see the courage these Americans had to go into Japan and expose how they’re killing these whales. They’re crucifying the ocean.

Your interests obviously extend beyond golf.

I’m interested in a lot of things, but the great love of my life has been golf because it was a talent that was loaned to me. It’s loaned to me long term, but it’s something that I’m aware of because a lot of champions woke up and couldn’t play. Tom Watson never won for 10 years and he’s a superstar. Ballesteros suddenly couldn’t play. Ian Baker-Finch suddenly couldn’t play. Duval was number one in the world and suddenly couldn’t play. There’s no guarantee. But I’m most happy on my ranch.

Do you ever see yourself slowing down?

No. If I ever slow down I’ll die. I don’t believe in retirement.