Travel-- Golf in Southern Spain: Ole!
"The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain...and hardly ever on a golf course"
If you're planning a golf vacation to southern Spain and its famed Costa del Sol, you can leave the Gore-Tex rainsuit and umbrella at home. This region of Spain--Europe's most visited holiday destination--is like Arizona: gobs of sunshine and warm temperatures. Sure, it's robust to play overseas on links courses in the rain along a rocky, grey coastline. But sometimes after three or four days of soggy turf, bundled garb, and no-dri golf shoes, one longs for bright clear skies, 80 degree days and the sol--er the sun. That's what the Andalucia region of Spain delivers on an average of 325 days out of the year. Oh yes, and the golf and the accommodations are first-rate as well. In early October of this year, my wife and I traveled to southern Spain with another golfing couple for our debut visit. We came back--all still friends I might add--marveling at the weather, the friendly people, and the fine golf. Let me share with you the highlights.
After arriving in Spain non-stop from Chicago via Iberia Airlines, we picked up our rental van (note: manual transmissions only) at the Malaga airport and headed down the coast to Sotogrande. Our hotel for the majority of our stay was the luxurious Almenara Hotel-Golf, an excellent and most scenic full-service facility. Opened in 1999, the Almenara boasts a handsome design and layout in the style of an Andalucian village. Its amenities are complete, modern and supported by an energetic and guest-oriented staff. No complaints whatsoever. If you're looking for an ideal base for a golf holiday, you can't go wrong by staying here. And the views of the Almenara mountains and the ever-blue Mediterranean are indeed stunning.
The golf course, designed by the former British Ryder Cup player David Thomas (who co-designed The Belfry), is a sporting test of one's game. It's not too difficult yet it's tight and rolling enough to demand one's full attention. And the views of the mountains and the Mediterranean are wonderfully distracting. For comparisons in Michigan, one thinks of Little Traverse Bay in Petoskey. Here, however, there's less movement in the greens. The front nine winds it way down the hillside and then slowly turns back toward the clubhouse on holes eight and nine. The number two handicap hole is the par-four 6th hole which from the back tees measures a stout 411 yards uphill. There's trouble left so the drive must be hit hard and exact. Guarded by a yawning bunker on the left, the narrow green is two-tiered and very quick. Par is a good score.
The back side at Almenara offers more of the same yet water or creek beds must be reckoned with on four or five holes. As such, there's quite a bit of bite in Almenara's inward nine. The toughest 11 handicap hole you'll find might be the par-four 16th hole. Here, water lurks down the entire left side of the hole which doglegs left toward the green, again fronted by a pond. An expertly placed bunker on the right side of the fairway, will snare drivers playing away from the water on the left side. It's a smartly conceived short par-four. Unlike most courses in the area, Almenara is not very walkable. Generally speaking, a buggie (a golf car) will be the preferred mode of transportation.
Just down the road from Almenara is Valderrama, site of the 1997 Ryder Cup and host to this year's WGC-American Express Championship (where Tiger defends). Simply put, Valderrama is one of the world's premier courses. A wonderful design by Robert Trent Jones, impeccable conditions, and terrific views all add up to a memorable round of golf. Make sure you plan ahead for tee-times here because they're in demand. The layout, as one might recall from the Ryder Cup matches, is noted for its gnarled and venerable cork oak trees that number over two thousand. Many hark back to the time of Christopher Columbus. As such, there's a premium placed on accurate driving as Jones masterfully routes the holes through the many cork, olive and pine trees. My playing companion remarked that television doesn't do justice to Valderrama--much as in the case of Augusta National--inasmuch as it flattens out the rolling and undulating nature of the course. Still, it offers a comfortable walking experience with little need to use a buggie.
There's an enchanting quality to Valderrama. It's a testament to not only Jones but Jaime Ortiz-Patino, founder and President of Valderrama. To begin with, it's a quiet, peaceful setting with conditioning fit for a regal garden. But its charm from a playing perspective is in the variety and color of its holes. There's dogleg lefts and rights, long par-fours, reachable par-fives, short par-threes and par-fours and a right dash of water to drown the wayward shot. All the holes blend together perfectly. My personal favorite was the 11th hole, a straightaway par-five with outstanding bunker design that ends with panoramic views of the countryside and sea at the green. In concession to the Ryder Cup and drama, the 17th hole at Valderrama was re-designed by Seve Ballesteros to give it a risk-reward character. A pond fronts the ever-slick green that devilishly slopes back to front toward the water. It's the hole where Tiger spun his ball back into the pond some 70 feet after his third shot had seemingly found the back edge of the green! To be fair, this is a matter of agronomy and too closely shaved slopes and greens than with the overall design. With this sole exception, no hole at Valderrama begs an argument on design. Do yourself a favor: plan ahead and book two rounds here and enjoy a feast of fine golf.
Again, just a short hop down the road one will find the granddaddy of courses in the Costa del Sol, Sotogrande. It was the far-sighted dream of Joe McMicking, a retired U.S. Army colonel who became a successful real estate developer. It was McMicking who saw the tremendous natural assets of Andalucia and envisioned a world-class development and golfer's attraction there. So he hired Robert Trent Jones, the globe's pre-eminent course architect, and asked him to design a course worthy of any in Europe. For sure, Sotogrande which opened in 1965 marked the beginning of the golf development boomlet for the area. Unfortunately, during our visit to Sotogrande half of the greens were temporary due to re-construction of the aprons on the current ones. As such, we elected to do a cart tour of the course. What was surprising to us was that while the course offers a pleasant round of golf it lacks championship qualities. Bunkering was nondescript and modest in demand while the greensites for most part were ho-hum. Our conclusion was that Sotogrande fit the tee for more modest aspirations in 1965 but never aimed at providing a truly memorable and grandiose golf experience. To wit, we couldn't find one hole with an outstanding view of the sea. I guess that's why Ortiz-Patino decided to invite Jones back to Spain and re-work Valderrama in the Ô80s. Something more dramatic and upscale was called for. Nonetheless, without Sotogrande there would be no Valderrama today.
The San Roque Club was our next golf stop and it was a treat. Designed in 1990 by Dave Thomas with help by Tony Jacklin, San Roque makes wonderful use of the rolling, rugged terrain offering splendid views of the mountains and the Mediterranean. In the Strokesaver booklet for the course, Thomas sums up San Roque best by stating: "The basis of this golf course is that it tries to be fair...it is built for amateurs and is aimed at getting them to come back." Indeed, our foursome found it fair and forgiving. It's also a nice walking course although buggies do offer the convenient amenity of a Pro Shot GPS system as well as needed shade for afternoon rounds. We found it in good condition with well-groomed tees, greens and fairways. With four sets of tees, the course can deliver all the challenge one might want. The back side is particularly scenic. You can't go wrong by including San Roque Club in your itinerary.
The last course we played in Spain was selected due to its proximity to the Malaga airport which is only minutes away. Located at the Parador Malaga del Golf resort along the shores of the Mediterranean, the golf course certainly has an interesting history. Designed in 1925 by Tom Simpson, who did famed Turnberry, Cruden Bay and Muirfield in Scotland, Malaga is a highly trafficked layout which has seen better days for overall care and conditioning. In the right hands and with proper resources, it could be re-worked and polished to higher standards. ( The resort itself is very nice, especially considering its seaside locale.) Still, the course is noteworthy for its exotic birds (including wild parrots), huge flowering hedges, and two seaside holes which border a nude beach. As my luck would have it as I was in my pre-shot routine on the par-five 8th hole, I caught sight of Spain's naked version of the actor Ernest Borgnine nearby on the beach. I nearly shanked my next two shots from the sheer horror of it all.
Heading back to the U.S., we all commented how the Costa del Sol, if marketed properly, could claim a chunk of Americans' wallets heading across the Atlantic for golf. Recently Golf Digest ranked the Costa del Sol as the 25th "Greatest Golf Destinations" in the world. Speaking from experience, I'll only argue now for a better ranking than even that. For Michiganders, Iberia Airlines has daily non-stop flights out of Chicago to Madrid with a connecting flight to Malaga. With unlimited sunshine, fine and affordable dining, excellent roads and signage, numerous "must see" tourist attractions and sites, friendly people conversant in English, and wonderful golf, Spain really has it all. Why let Europeans have all the fun? A golf trip to Spain is merely a longer flight to the Solbelt.
(For more information about traveling to Spain, contact the Chicago branch of the Tourist Office of Spain at 312-642-1992 or www.okspain.org)
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