Golfing on the Costa Del Sol
There are some holes in golf that make your heart race inanticipation well before you reach them. They are the ones that create edge-of-theseat drama for TV viewers.
Often they are the penultimate hole. The 17th at St Andrews - the infamous Road Hole where the lurking bunker derailed David Duval's Open Championship hopes when battling Tiger Woods in 2000 - is one famous example. The par-3 17th at Sawgrass in Florida, with its notorious island green and baying crowd, another.
In the 1997 Ryder Cup, it was Valderrama's par-5 17th that gripped the attention of the golfing world. Several tempted to take on a long approach shot over the guarding lake to the pin had their joy at hitting the green cut short when the ball spun back on the wicked slope and disappeared into the water. TigerWoods even managed to putt his ball into the lake. All of which earned it the nickname "Valderdrama".
The slope has since been softened and the green extended slightly, to make it a fairer challenge. But the hole is still a daunting prospect, and one that prayed on my mind for the entire round until I reached it when I finally got the chance to play the course in June.
It was during a competition for international media. Teams comprised four players from each nation. I was captain of England and my partner (actually an Aussie!) and I were pitted against two Germans. Conditions could not have been better. Gorgeous blue skies were matched by fairways so perfectly groomed it seemed a shame to spoil them with divots and greens smooth enough for a snooker match.
The match was a close affair right up until the 17th, with us just ahead. My drive found the wide fairway. Deciding against going for glory, I laid up in front of the lake, then hit the green with my third shot while the others all found trouble. I was left with a tricky 25-foot putt, and had visions of emulating Tiger's putt into the lake. Instead, my ball agonisingly lipped out just as it seemed I would get an unlikely birdie. However, the par was good enough for us to win the match and secure fourth place for the team. Back in Marbella that evening, we helped the victorious Irish celebrate their deserved overall win with much alcohol.
Valderrama is one of nine courses designed by Robert Trent Jones senior along the Costa del Sol. This 100-mile-long coastal strip of Spain's southernmost region, Andalucia, tempts golfers with more than 60 courses, many by top architects. Unsurprisingly, it proclaims itself as the Costa del Golf on roadside signs.
And it is no idle boast. This is the Mediterranean's top golf holiday area, underlined by Andulucia being named Europe's Established Golf Destination of the Year for 2009 in the IAGTO Awards, the golf industry's Oscars. The gala awards ceremony came during the International Golf Travel Market, golf's main business forum, in Marbella last year. With provincial capital Malaga the host of IGTM this year, it highlights how serious Andalucia is at maintaining its position - not only with golfers but also with holidaymakers in general.
Huge investment is underway in its infrastructure, with a new terminal and second runway opening in 2010 at Malaga Airport, a new high-speed train now connecting Malaga with Madrid, and new motorways.
New golf facilities continue to open, too. Finca Cortesin opened to great acclaim near Estepona in 2007 and is now the home of the renamed Volvo World Matchplay Championship, taking over from Wentworth. England's Ross Fisher won the inaugural event there at the beginning of November. One of the longest courses in Europe, at 7,438 yards, the course was designed by Cabell Robinson - who was on RTJ senior's design team for Valderrama - and takes golfers on a rollercoaster ride with sweeping views from several tees.
Golf first arrived here in 1925 with the opening of the Golf Parador Malaga by the Spanish royal family. But the Costa golf boom didn't begin until the 1960s and 1970s, taking off in the 1980s.
Valderrama is the undoubted star of the area, although strictly speaking it is not part of the Costa del Sol as it lies just across the border from Malaga province in Cadiz. Named Europe's third-best course in the recent Top 100 survey by GolfWorld magazine it is in the exclusive, 5,000-acre Sotogrande estate, which includes expensive houses and several other top-drawer courses set among cork oak trees. Tee times are limited for non-members, and green fees are high. But the experience is magical and well worthwhile. It may not currently host a PGATour event - it was host course for the Volvo Masters until the event's final staging in 2008 - but it oozes quality and refinement. You also feel close to nature.A certified Audubon Co-operative Sanctuary, Valderrama has 40 acres of wildlife sanctuaries.
Of Sotogrande's other golfing gems, the San Roque Club boasts the San Roque Old course by Dave Thomas and Tony Jacklin and the more recent San Roque New, designed by Perry Dye and Seve Ballesteros. Its evocative clubhouse exudes an old Spanish hacienda feel, while that of the 27-hole Almenara Golf Club has an elevated terrace where golfers can relax after a game and take in the sweeping vista to the sea. The Cabell Robinson designed La Reserva, which opened in 2003, is already regarded a classic.
Gibraltar is close to Sotogrande, and the Rock is framed by several holes of Alcaidesa's picturesque Links course, perched above a sweeping beach at the western end of the Costa del Sol.
Spain's largest golf complex, La Cala, is set in a 1,000-acre leisure and residential estate east of Marbella. Its longest layout, the 6,766-yard, par-73 America course, is complemented by the tight Asia course and the newest of the trio, the exhilarating Europa course. I only managed to play a few holes before unseasonal rain forced an early retirement in June, but I am returning to La Cala this winter.
The resort also boasts a David Leadbetter teaching academy, a six-hole par-3 practice course and an on-site, five-star spa resort hotel. All three courses are Cabell Robinson designs, as is the nearby Santana Golf & Country Club course, built on a former avocado plantation.
Besides Valderrama, Trent Jones Sr was also responsible for other courses including Las Brisas and the Los Lagos and Los Olivos layouts at Mijas Golf International, just inland from lively Fuengirola.
Just along the coast, near Benalmadena, is former Spanish Open venue Torrequebrada. This hilly course has wonderful panoramic sea views and is the home course of Spanish Ryder Cup star Miguel Angel Jimenez. Another hilly layout is the Seve-designed Alhaurin, which has an adjacent hotel.
From Mijas to Marbella, a cluster of courses includes two 1960s creations still popular today - Golf Rio Real and Santa Maria Golf & Country Club - and the newer, parklandstyle Santa Clara course.
The so-called "Golf Valley", near Marbella, has some of the Costa del Sol's highest concentration of golf facilities.
Among them are La Quinta, which has 27 holes laid out on undulating terrain alongside the five-star Westin La Quinta hotel, and another RTJ layout, Los Naranjos.
Monte Mayor's challenging layout is set among trees high on slopes between Marbella and Estepona and is one of the area's most spectacular. Also west of Marbella are courses including the Flamingos Golf & Resort complex, the original course now augmented by the much longer, par-73 Gran Flamingo course. Gary Player's tranquil El Paraiso is nearby.
But wherever you stay on the Costa del Sol you are close to great golf.
Costa del Sol GOLF facts
The Costa del Sol has a perfect year-round golfing climate, with
an average 321 sunny days per year.
Malaga is well-served by direct flights from several UK airports . Among airlines, Monarch (www.monarch.co.uk) operates from airports including Gatwick and Luton with fares, including taxes, starting from £46.50 one way and £76.99 return. Seats can be pre-booked at £7.50 each way, with extra-legroom seats available for £20.
Late winter and early spring are peak season. Green fees start from as low as €30 and average €85. In summer, prices can be reduced by as much as 50%.
Tour operators offering Costa del Sol golf packages include Premier Iberian (0845 600 3391, www.premieriberian.com). It offers three nights’ bed and breakfast at the NH Sotogrande hotel with two rounds of golf at Almenara from £155. Seven nights’ B&B at La Cala with four rounds on its courses costs from £433 between December 1 and January 31, 2010, including a 25% early booking discount for bookings at least 30 days in advance. Flights are not included. Other operators include Your Golf Travel (0800 043 6644, www.yourgolftravel.com), Golf Breaks (0800 279 7988, www.golfbreaks.com), Driveline Golf (0870 330 1056, www.drivelinegolf.com), Golf Amigos (0141 644 0999, www.golfamigos.co.uk), and Leisure Link Golf Holidays (01277 247520, www.leisurelinkgolf.com).
- La Cala Resort www.lacala.com
- Finca Cortesin Golf Resort www.fincacortesin.com
- La Quinta Golf & Country Club www.laquintagolf.com
- Valderrama www.valderrama.com
- La Reserva www.sotogrande.com
- San Roque Club www.sanroqueclub.com
- La Cala Resort www.lacala.com
- NH Almenara www.hotelalmenara.com
- Westin La Quinta www.westinlaquinta.com
- Golf Parador Malaga www.parador.es
All prices and details were correct when published, please check before visiting the Costa Del Sol.