Jack Nicklaus, Bing Crosby, Seve Ballesteros and even General Franco have walked Las Brisas’ fairways. Golf World Top 100 has as well to check on Kyle Phillips’ renovation.
In the first days of southern Spain’s golf revolution half a century ago, a distinguished American architect led the way. Robert Trent Jones Snr was the prominent designer of the time, so was an obvious choice to add gravitas and lustre to Andalucia’s fledgling development.
Having already created stand out American courses such as Peachtree, Winged Foot, Congressional and Baltusrol, RTJ made his debut in Spain with Sotogrande Old in the mid 1960s.
Within a decade he had created what was to become Spain’s number one, Valderrama, higher up in the foothills of the Sierra Almenara. And in between those standard bearers, he laid out Las Brisas near Marbella.
In addition to sharing the same original designer and their geographical proximity, the trio are also all staples in our Continental Europe Top 100 Courses ranking. A fourth common link is that they have all been recently renovated.
We usually think of restorations being carried out on classics from the turn of the last century, yet these are relatively modern courses. However, it is now 50 years since RTJ built these Costa del Sol courses, so it is natural that they would now need an upgrade. Indeed, it would be amazing if the clubs decided they did not. While Valderrama’s is an on-going project, Sotogrande Old’s was completed at the start of 2017.
The latter was played by the European Institute of Golf Course Architects while holding its annual conference last year in Marbella, with the second game at Las Brisas. Incidentally, the majority of those attending preferred this. Sotogrande handled theirs largely in-house but Valderrama are advised by Kyle Phillips, and it was the RTJ protege who Las Brisas tasked with overseeing their work.
“We wanted to maximise the use of the land, we wanted to update the course because of modern-day equipment, but we wanted to respect the RTJ design as our members have a lot of emotional feelings for it and that’s why we thought Kyle was perfect for the job,” Las Brisas’ urbane general manager Paul Munoz tells Golf World Top 100.
With more than 1,200 members drawn from 30 countries, pleasing everyone with a significant renovation was not going to be easy. Especially as this is a club with members who hold powerful roles outside its premises. Founded in 1968 by José Banus, it was originally named ‘Nueva Andalucia’.
The Madrid visionary created 36 holes back then, with a par-56 course complementing the championship course, as well as hotels and a marina.
Las Brisas was instantly touched by stardust. In 1970 Prince Rainier, Princess Grace of Monaco and Karim Aga Khan attended the inauguration gala and were entertained by a young Julio Iglesias.
Since then, a variety of notables have walked its fairways, from Bing Crosby to General Franco. It has hosted two World Cups, Jack Nicklaus and Johnny Miller winning in 1973, Australians Peter Fowler and Wayne Grady in 1989. It has also hosted numerous tournaments, most memorably when Nick Faldo edged out Seve Ballesteros in the 1987 Spanish Open.
All those glittering names will have savoured an experience that is part golf course and part arboretum. It has always been so, because Banus commissioned Englishman Gerald Huggan to work with RTJ to create an environment with the feel of a botanical garden.
Huggan was a landscaper with expertise in subtropical plants and had just returned from Kenya where he had designed the Nairobi gardens. He brought plants and trees in from all corners of the world to introduce colour to the course. These rare species flourished in the warm Costa del Sol climate alongside various species of native palms and trees.
The flora doesn’t just decorate Las Brisas, it also defines its playing field, because the whole site is tightly mown. You will only lose your ball here if it finds water, or the middle of a bush.
The holes on this smooth, rolling site are instead protected by 10 lakes, two streams and extensive bunkering – but most notably by super-slick, generally raised greens that feature significant movement.
Be assured that even the most sure-handed chipper and most dextrous putter will have to focus hard here. Las Brisas might be pretty, but it is indubitably challenging. This combination led feted Ryder Cup captain Paul Azinger to state “There is not a single bad hole in Las Brisas. It is one of the finest courses on which I have been able to play.”
Yet the club knew it had to act to maintain its status as one of the best golf courses in Spain. At the very least, Las Brisas needed a facelift after five decades of wear and tear. However, two contrasting advances in golf club technology and in the residences surrounding the course made it necessary to dig below the surface.
So, after Phillips’ initial work on the front nine was well received, the club felt confident enough to make deeper incisions on the back nine. This has resulted in far more than superficial improvement. Incorporating new tees, repositioned green complexes, new bunkers and fundamental changes to the actual routing.
At 10 and 11 the greens have been pulled forward slightly to allow for softer slopes surrounding the complex on the par 4, and for it to sit closer to the lake edge on the short hole that follows. The first set of bunkers have been removed on the par-5 12th and three added further down. A rebuilt green has been moved to encourage long hitters to have a dart in two, yet with the water looming large.
Both 13 and 14 have been moved away from surrounding residences into the centre of the site, with olive trees transplanted to act as a shield. So, the best line in on the latter, a stiff, strategic two-shotter, is now from close to the new right-side drive bunker, allowing a view up angled green.
It is now the most significant work is unveiled. Houses on the right and its acute dog-leg had long been a problem on the 15th, so its drive has been straightened, with the landing area now just beyond the old 15th’s green site.
Now a par 5, the slightly uphill approach to a green that sits beautifully in the hillside plays beyond the existing pond to a large lay-up area left of the old 16th green. This lengthening also allows the course to return to a par 72.
The 16th, the course’s shortest hole, now plays downhill towards the clubhouse with the existing lake right of the green, while the tough par-4 17th plays in the opposite direction to the old hole.
After your drive over the crest of the hill, the landing area being the same as for the old hole,the approach plays down to a large, undulating green beyond a creek among olive trees. The strong uphill closer has seen its green move slightly left and forward, connecting it and its bunkers more smoothly with the hillside.
Anyone with previous experience of the course would agree the last five holes are now decidedly better sequenced. The green-tee walks are reduced and the variety and aesthetic value of the individual holes have been markedly increased.
The work saw Las Brisas move up 16 places in our Continental Top 100 last year, and the potential is there for a further rise.
It is a private club but does offer limited visitor green fees. There has never been a better time to experience a sympathetically updated version of an RTJ original. This is a course that played a key role in the development of Spanish golf.
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