PLAYA DEL CARMEN, MEXICO | Before I took off for my trip to the Mayakoba Golf Classic — my first ever excursion south of the American border — I received a reminder of why the fall season on the PGA Tour is so important to those who play it.
As I opened a coconut water and waited in terminal 3 of the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., airport, Ryan Armour stood next to me. He looks like your average guy about to get on JetBlue flight 1795, but the 42-year-old is headed to Cancun for another imperative start in his late-blooming career. Armour won the Sanderson Farms Championship last fall and finished 37th in the FedEx Cup. He’s off to another strong start this year with three made cuts in as many events, but he could definitely use a high finish to make things more comfortable moving toward 2019.
But here he is, a couple of rows behind me, selecting which complimentary snack he would like. Not all players fly on private jets. This is their job and El Camaleon Golf Club is about to be Armour’s office.
And don’t be surprised if he plays well. Armour changed his accommodations so he could stay at an all-inclusive resort rather than the traditional setup, something he is looking forward to the same way I am.
“I like staying at the all-inclusive resorts in the area because you don’t have to wait for dinner,” Armour explains as he waits with me at the baggage claim. “You just go right up to the buffet and eat.”
I guess we aren’t that different after all, except for the golf part.
Following the short flight from Fort Lauderdale and a painless trip through customs, you arrive to a sea of names being held up on clipboards — I quickly found my man Gil and soon we were off on the 45-minute drive from Cancun International to Playa Del Carmen. I even got a nice Spanish lesson and returned the favor by teaching Gil how to say “waves” in English.
Cancun is home to a dense forest of tropical trees with roads, resorts and other locales cutting through the lush terrain. Some differences from the U.S. include road signs with a much bolder font, many speed bumps lining the highway and the occasional tequila factory on the side of the road.
No drivers will pass by Mayakoba without noticing the shiny silver sign in front of the property and the many palm trees that accompany it. I am lucky enough to stay at the Ocean Riviera Paradise, a gorgeous resort next door. I’ve been to a lot of hotels in my life, but I’ve never received a blue lemonade drink upon checking in.
I came hungry, and that’s a good thing. The resort features 21 restaurants, only one of which requires a reservation. You are welcome to walk into any of them and head right to the buffet — my first meal included a delectable paella and a side of guacamole, both Mexican staples. The resort isn’t short on entertainment and includes a casino, nightclub, a pool and too many others to mention.
My second reminder of the day for why the fall season on the PGA Tour matters so much came a short time later when I arrived at the media center.
The first press conference of the day featured a panel of Mexican players in the field, headlined by Abraham Ancer. The Oklahoma University product just became the first Mexican to break into the top 100 of the world, and the local media is absolutely ecstatic about it. There were at least 30 cameramen and another 40 reporters jammed into the press conference area — the group was greeted with applause and received another round of approval when the press conference ended. One can only imagine what the response would be if Ancer, Carlos Ortiz or another Mexican player gets into contention.
The golf course is a pretty one, and I’m looking forward to seeing all of it. From what I’ve seen so far, it is a great course for ball-strikers; its long, narrow holes cut out of the jungle and not a tremendous amount of trouble. The wind always plays a factor here and hitting the ball solidly will be a huge factor.
It’s clear the tournament matters a lot to the local community. There are signs posted in the airport and along the roadside promoting the tournament’s star players, Rickie Fowler and Jordan Spieth. The field is fairly deep this year and there will surely be some interest in the likes of Cameron Champ and U.S. Amateur winner Viktor Hovlan.
There’s good energy to the event early in the week and I’m excited to see what lies ahead in my first trip to Mexico.