Golfers cross the U.S.-Mexico border into Tijuana

The Lungs of Tijuana

Truth and golf can be tough to find in the chaos of a border city

It was a hard lesson to learn. But after about an hour in the car with the woman who was showing me around Tijuana, I realized that stereotypes follow Newton’s third law of motion: For every gross generalization you may hold about a certain group of strangers, they may hold an equally gross one against you.

For Maria, this meant questioning why I was really in her hometown. Maria is not her real name. I’m giving her a pseudonym not because I think she really needs one, but because in Tijuana specifically, and Mexico generally, it just seems smarter to let people who talk freely have some level of anonymity. 

She had picked me up earlier that morning, on an overcast Sunday, in a cramped sedan with a long crack in the windshield, and within five minutes I knew these things about her: She was smart, she was earnest in her love and criticism for the place she called home and she wasn’t quite sure of my intentions there. Maria was a friend of a friend of a friend—an unemployed sociologist by trade and an amateur fixer by necessity, recommended because she had given strangers a tour of the city in which she lives a couple of times before. When and why the first tour happened, I’m still not sure. There was an architect from Africa. A few other professionals from nearly every other continent on Earth. And then me, a guy from Denver asked by a magazine to come play a golf course. Or was I?

“When they first told me about you, I didn’t really know what to think,” Maria said in accented English. “I thought, ‘Is he coming here to play golf or…do something else?’”

She didn’t need to elaborate. If the average American were to be truly honest with themselves about the first things that come to mind when they think “Tijuana,” the resulting mental imagery would be inappropriate for younger viewers. Those stereotypes are not unearned. Tijuana has always been, at least in the American imagination, a place where already rich people go to feel even richer, and where those not quite as rich go to do things that decency, the law or both won’t allow them in their own country. You want a mental image? Think “donkey show.” (Or, better yet, don’t.) Is it real? Did it ever actually happen? Who knows, and don’t strain yourself trying to answer that question, because it’s Tijuana, and what matters is that here it seems possible.

These stereotypes are earned because for much of its earliest recorded history, that’s exactly what Tijuana was there to do: entertain foreigners, most of them American. The reasons why were simple cause and effect. While the temperance movement banned alcohol in the United States, a country where it was already illegal to gamble, there was Tijuana, less than an hour south of San Diego, a quick drive from Los Angeles and the furthest thing from the minds of the people who actually ran the country from Mexico City. The border was barely marked. The town was scarcely populated. What it did have, however, was built to bring tourists joy. 

The San Ysidro Port of Entry is the busiest border crossing in the United States. Local tip: Carry your serape bag at an angle or spend several embarrassing minutes untangling from the gates.

Tijuana’s centerpiece, as far as visitors were concerned, was Agua Caliente, the 655-acre resort complex with a 500-room hotel, tortoiseshell toilet seats in every bathroom, a racetrack and that golf course I was set to play the next morning. A year after the resort was built in 1928, the Los Angeles Times declared, “Its only rival in the world is Monte Carlo.” The course had supposedly been stocked with turf flown in from championship tracks in Europe. It had allegedly been redesigned by Dr. Alister MacKenzie, the mastermind behind Augusta National, Cypress Point and a handful of other instantly recognizable names around the world.

The origins of Tijuana’s founding as a playground for Americans is so tightly wound up in the city’s identity that until only a few decades ago the preferred currency was dollars, not pesos. This is the place still romanticized in retellings of Old Hollywood. It was not the city that Maria and I were currently driving through. That place, as it looked through the crack in her windshield, was what the tour books said it would be: cramped, noisy, dirty and vast. Because between then and now had come the ending of Prohibition, the blossoming of the Vegas Strip, 9/11 and border wait times that stretched on for hours, as well as the replacement of moneyed tourists with a striving middle class, or at least what passes for one in a country like Mexico. 

The story of Tijuana’s rise and fall as a tourist Mecca can be told most succinctly through the golf course. In 1930, Gene Sarazen won the inaugural Agua Caliente Open and with it the world’s largest purse, a $10,000 share of $25,000 total, paid out to him in headline-making style in a wheelbarrow full of silver dollars. Twenty-nine years later, little-known Texan Ernie Vossler won the same tournament and took home less than one-fifth of the cash. A few years after that, the tournament ceased to exist, a fate the golf course almost shared.

Still, throughout all the years of turmoil and change, one thing remained: the stereotype of why people like me came to a place like Tijuana. And now I was being confronted with that stereotype by the woman who was so graciously driving me around in exchange for $200. 

“You thought I came for that?” I asked her. My first instinct was to show her a picture of my wife and son. A wholesome Christmas card, for example. When someone accuses you of traveling a long distance just to buy sex, drugs or something unspeakably darker, it’s only natural to want to argue that you aren’t that kind of person. I managed to resist. The clubs rattling in her trunk seemed like proof enough. And when Maria laughed at my incredulous response, it became clear that she had sussed me out thoroughly enough to know I wasn’t here to make someone’s already bad day even worse. She was joking. Probably.

“I want to begin with the border line at the beach,” she said. So we drove west.

This is the Tijuana you’re used to seeing today. When a journalist writing an article about immigration or the border wall needs an image to serve as a stand-in for the subject, El Parque de la Amistad, or Friendship Park, is what they choose. Maria and I had been looking at the border during the entirety of our drive out of Tijuana. It was just to our right, a long, orderly line of high fence that, post-9/11, had replaced the much less formal version of what had existed before. The road was a four-lane highway that twisted and turned up through the hills. In between the two sides was an imposing metal median. 

We were only a few weeks away from the American presidential election, which is to say only a few weeks away from being blindsided like the rest of the country. Donald Trump’s name didn’t come up once. It didn’t really matter, either. For all of his talk of a wall, it had been his predecessor, Barack Obama, who had deported more people than any other president in American history. Many of those people were Mexican, and the vast majority of them had been sent back through the same border crossing I had walked through earlier that day: San Ysidro, the continent’s busiest. The median, the one that Maria had just pointed out, was the natural result of Obama’s policies. So many men—and they were mostly men—had been sent back to Mexico that the groups that existed to help them were overwhelmed. These men had spent most of their lives in America. They had had families, built businesses. Now they were homeless, hopeless and a nuisance to an entirely different country. Many of the men ended up in the streets. Some were so desperate that they never made it very far past the border. And that meant that suddenly there were these refugees—men to whom their “home” country was now foreign—just crossing the busy highway at all hours of the day, getting hit and dying, causing accidents and necessitating the big, ugly metal median we couldn’t help but notice. 

“For us, this border thing?” said Maria, as if sensing an opportunity to make the sort of rare sweeping statement that also happens to be true. “It’s all the time.”

When we crested the last of the hills, the highway and ocean stretched out before us, and so too did a dystopic vision of the future that was real rather than imaginary. In front of us was the UFO-shaped Plaza Monumental de Tijuana, a bullfighting ring Maria said was constantly under threat of being shut down by animal-rights groups. Beyond that was the Pacific. And to our right, in the middle distance, were roughly a half-dozen helicopters roaming noiselessly only a few hundred feet above the ground. Later on, talking to a friend stationed at nearby Naval Base Coronado, I would learn that this was the place where Navy pilots learned to take off and land. It made sense—an undeveloped stretch south of San Diego not far from the base, but far enough where no one else would be hurt if there was an accident. Still, at the time, in that car with Maria, the choppers looked less like innocent machines hovering in service of some needed practice time for pilots and more like a warning meant for the millions living just south of the field. Don’t even think about it, they seemed to say. We’ve got eyes everywhere.

Friendship Park will change how you feel about borders. It just will. On the morning when we walked around, Maria and I saw roughly 10 separate families, some of whom had thought ahead and brought plastic chairs, sitting next to the metal fence, talking with others on the opposite side. Remove politics from the equation for a moment. Drawing an arbitrary line in the sand and then using weapons to enforce those boundaries is and always will be a little weird. Watching families trying to create some version of normalcy through that fence reinforced the idea that humanity is still trying to figure things out, and making a mess of it as it goes along.

From there Maria and I made a lazy loop back toward the city. We drove along a toll road fronting the ocean that was perfectly maintained and bordered on either side by gated resorts, a place Maria knew most tijuanenses never saw. We drove to a bluff overlooking the city where Maria had once rented a tiny apartment and stood a stone’s throw from homes that looked like palaces, but which cost roughly the same amount as a modest ranch house in San Diego. We drove while Maria listened patiently as I rattled off the few facts I’d learned about Tijuana drug cartels. About how 10 years prior there had been a power struggle among the remaining children of the Arellano Félix family that had dominated the area’s business. About how, in the interim, savage men had tried to seize control, and how that chaos had birthed monsters like the one nicknamed El Pozolero, the Soup Maker, who eventually admitted to liquefying the corpses of 300 of his victims. I told Maria about how the intense battle for power had finally ended with a détente and the elevation of a mild-mannered woman, a cartel first, who had quietly broken the narcos’ glass ceiling and now ran the Tijuana Cartel. Maria barely said a word. Here I was telling a resident of a city of 1.5 million about a crime wave that had about as much relevance to her life as gun violence in Chicago does to a tenured professor living on a leafy block on the North Side. 

“That stuff doesn’t really affect me,” she said. I was glad for it.

We drove as far east as it seemed possible to go and passed the tiny park where a Mexican presidential candidate had once been assassinated. We ate fresh fried-shrimp tacos for less than what it would have cost to have half a meal at McDonald’s and discussed the merits and drawbacks of sopa de marisco, a popular tomato-based seafood stew Maria insisted I try. The merit, according to Maria: It was delicious. The drawback, according to me: It was most certainly not. We declined the many, many opportunities to buy the fruity, shaved-ice diabetes bombs known as raspados that are as ubiquitous as the smog that eventually made my lungs ache. “We are addicted to sugar,” Maria said after seeing what felt like the hundredth roadside vendor. When I called her out later for eating three dulce de leche candies during a pit stop, she protested, “But these are natural!”

Maria talked about growing up the daughter of two architects who longed to leave Mexico City for better professional opportunities but hated to deprive their children of the culture that was everywhere in the capital and nearly nonexistent in Tijuana. In her lifetime Maria had seen that change. Now Tijuana has an annual opera street festival, a reasonably vibrant tech startup scene and that most prominent sign that a city has evolved in both taste and reason: a handful of craft breweries. Still, for all that talk of highbrow culture, the thing Maria seemed most excited by was banda and cumbia, two popular musical styles whose differences seemed impossible for my ignorant ears to discern, but which sent her on a thesis-level tangent on tempo and meter. “This thing, this style of music, comes from, like, the worst of the worst in Mexico,” she said of a song that sounded to me like polka. Maria snapped her fingers and moved as much as the driver’s seat would allow, her black curls bouncing along with the beat. It was the happiest she had looked all day.

Finally, at some point late in the afternoon and after having put over 100 miles on her odometer, Maria took a sharp turn and introduced me to the heart of stereotypical Tijuana: Zona Norte, the city’s red-light district, or what she referred to as “the tolerance zone.” Tolerance because, for a few godforsaken blocks on Calle Primera, prostitution is legal. We drove slowly, because the traffic required we do so. That gave me time to look into the eyes of people who had seen their lives take every conceivable wrong turn. It is certainly possible to find dignity in sex work—the rare scenarios where women, and some men, actually choose their destiny and are satisfied with what it’s brought them. This place was not one of them. I wanted to leave as quickly as possible. Maria felt the same way.

Later, after we had said our goodbyes and she had dropped me off at my hotel, I sat on a busy downtown curbside eating carne asada tacos for dinner. A brick wall of a man walked past me slowly, turned around, then approached again. “Here,” he said, shoving a business card in my hand that featured a pair of women’s lips. “Happy ending, too.” The stereotype persisted. Whether I wanted it or not, things were going to be offered to me because of how I looked and where I happened to be standing, or sitting, at the time.

I finished my meal and headed back the one block to my hotel—a block that apparently was just across the street from the business the brick wall had been promoting. When I came into view, he started waving his hands like a shipwreck survivor trying to flag down a passing freighter. In taking stock of his previous sales strategy, he had apparently decided that his failure had been too much subtlety, a weakness he now sought to remedy. 
“Sex massage!” he yelled at me. 
“Sex massage!” 
I walked into my hotel and went to sleep, thankful for an early tee time.

Club Campestre, Tijuana Mexico
Club Campestre is one of the only open green spaces in TJ, but since the average household income in the city is under $1,000 per month, it remains woefully underutilized.

After a day spent in the never-ending taupe that is Tijuana, it was a shock to walk through the gates of Club Campestre. The man who runs it, a former pro who has played all over the world, described it to me as “the lungs of the city,” and it wasn’t hard to see why. During our drive, Maria and I had passed a total of approximately 800 square feet of grass. Even in a soccer-mad country I saw no fields, only the dirt of baseball infields that extended into the dirt of baseball outfields.

My playing partners and I weren’t really sure what to do or to whom to turn for direction. There was no starter. There was no one on the first tee. The only people we encountered, at least for the first 15 minutes we were there, were two suspicious security guards and a handful of track-suited members who seemed to use the course’s cart paths as a power-walking loop.

Eventually we paid for our rounds and set about warming up. Or trying to. After spending more on three buckets of balls than I had on all of yesterday’s meals, we discovered that the ball machine was padlocked. Getting breakfast proved even harder. We thought we had made our intentions for egg burritos clear until the moment when we opened the four Styrofoam containers and discovered enough beef to feed an Army regiment. Still, the people we did encounter tried to help the best they could. And eventually, when we realized no one really cared when or where we teed off, we did just that.

My playing partners were two men I’d only just met. One was the publisher of this magazine; the other, his friend—who, it was only later revealed to me, once set the 18-hole record at Stanford’s home course. You know, the place where Tiger Woods spent three years of his life. Not coincidentally, I spent the majority of the round admiring his swing and despairing about my own.

Tijuana Country Club had nearly been lost a half-century earlier, when a bad economy had forced its owners to downsize to only nine holes. Playing it, however, there was no indication it had ever been anything other than what it was that day: an 18-hole, fairly straightforward test of golf—well-bunkered, with no water hazards—that happened to be surrounded by some of the largest homes in Tijuana. There we were, wielding drivers on a tee box; only a few steps away, there was someone else, sitting in the living room of their high-rise apartment. 

When Dr. MacKenzie sat down to write a book describing how he laid out a course, he listed 13 principles. Of those, the one violated the most flagrantly in Club Campestre is No. 7: “The course should have beautiful surroundings, and all the artificial features should have so natural an appearance that a stranger is unable to distinguish them from nature itself.” For MacKenzie, this made sense. Experience as a surgeon during the Boer War led him to be appointed head of the British School of Camouflage during World War I, which is as natural a transition to golf architecture as anyone could imagine. 

Blending in meant a great deal to MacKenzie, which is why the instinct to laugh when playing Campestre is almost constant. On one tee box, the proper aiming line was perfectly marked by a pair of golden arches in the distance. On another green, there was no line of sight that didn’t include a giant Heineken billboard. Time and progress had turned the club into a fishbowl. It felt ludicrous to have all that green space in such a cramped, dirty city. Like all luxuries, it also felt incredible. 

But back to that MacKenzie connection for a second. It had been a big reason why the trip had been booked to begin with. The course wasn’t spectacular; its association with such a preeminent name is what made it worthy. And yet later I would discover that almost no one could confirm the great architect had anything to do with the course. Designer Tom Doak, who co-wrote a book about MacKenzie with the legend’s step-grandson, emailed to say he “had never seen any evidence that MacKenzie visited Tijuana.” That step-grandson, an insurance salesman in Boulder, Colorado, concurred: “It is possible he could have driven to Tijuana to do some redesign work, but it is unlikely.” Members of the MacKenzie Society, who spend their free hours scouring available archives for old newspaper articles about the designer, have never found mention of him even traveling to Mexico. Eventually, even the man who now runs Campestre admitted to me that though his club has advertised a link to MacKenzie in the past, he had no official record that the designer had ever visited, let alone helped in the design. I thought what was real about Tijuana and what wasn’t revolved solely around the city’s seamier side. As it turned out, that blurry line even bled over into the sleepy little course at its center.

When the round was complete, my playing partners and I hopped into our car for the trip back home. On the way to the border, we came to an agreement: The course was nice, and cheap enough, that it made sense for anyone living nearby to make the trip down. Two and a half long hours later, when it was finally our turn to actually cross, we had come to an entirely different agreement: There were a whole lot of perfectly wonderful courses in Southern California. And though you might encounter a few traffic jams stateside, at least you wouldn’t be forced to sit through one that was federally mandated.

Finally, we crossed. Almost immediately the world got a lot cleaner, a lot less chaotic and a little less interesting.