Location: Sotogrande, Spain
Designer: Robert Trent Jones
One of the most legendary courses in Europe remains an unknown quantity to many. Golf World adds some detail.
Valderrama Golf Club’s short life has been one well lived. Little over four decades old, and only 30 years in its present incarnation, it has rarely lacked drama, intrigue or allure. Such cachet has, in association with a golf course manicured to fabled levels, made Real Club Valderrama arguably the most sought-after green fee ticket in Continental Europe. Not always the very best course on the Continent – although this magazine selected Valderrama Golf Club as its No.1 in mainland Europe in every one of its biennial rankings up to 2009 – but very often the most coveted. And even as the lustre of yesteryear fades slightly in the memory, it emphatically retains an aura in a way very few can. Golf’s superstars may no longer annually negotiate a route between the notorious cork oaks and the club may be steered in a lower-profile manner, but a game here remains one to anticipate immensely then savour intensely.
Its stature is down to the zeal and finance of one man, Jaime Ortiz-Patino. The Bolivian industrialist acquired the humble Los Aves course – initially known as Sotogrande New by virtue of its juxtaposition to Sotogrande Old – in 1985 and promptly engaged Robert Trent Jones to revise the course. The overhaul was, in accordance with the conventional characteristics of a billionaire owner, impressively swift and ruthless. Within three years, and with a new name, the course hosted the first of its 14 Volvo Masters. Legend has it that when a cow wandered on to a fairway prior to the tournament, Patino shot it.
Conditioning beyond compare
Quickly renowned for its immaculate conditioning, it had little trouble in attracting the well-heeled of the Costa del Sol; membership was under 300, but they were happily writing out cheques for over £750,000 in today’s money to join. Valderrama might have been coveted, but Patino was not finished. Attending the 1991 Ryder Cup at Kiawah Island, he resolved to bring the matches to Spain. Within six years it was there, despite a strong bid from less famous but equally prosperous Las Brisas along Spain’s coast. Patino’s persistence was rewarded with a Spanish captain, Tiger Woods’ first Ryder Cup, and a dramatic one-point win for the home side. The only thing his money and influence could not arrange was fine weather. Amex World Championships (won by Tiger and Mike Weir) followed, as did further Volvo Masters and Andalucia Masters; the legend was established.
But such a steep ascent is often followed by decline and with Patino’s advancing years meaning his hand was not as firmly on the tiller, Valderrama lost a little of its sheen. The grapevine had murmured for some time that Valderrama was not all it had been when he passed away in 2013. In fact, a mini renaissance had begun well before Patino’s final months. Kyle Phillips, who honed his trade under the tutelage of Trent Jones, was engaged in 2009 to make technical revisions over a three-year period and his work (see right) was followed by a return to impeccable conditioning of its halcyon days. The past three years has seen further investment, so visit Valderrama now and you can do so confident you will enjoy one of Europe’s premier experiences. Accordingly, it moved back into the top five of our Continental European 2015 ranking and to this golfer at least, it is one of only three with an opportunity to topple our new number one, Morfontaine.
Demanding but nor gargantuan
The aura of a short but grand history is immediately felt on arrival at the club in the Sotogrande hills. It is announced by a huge mosaic of Valderrama’s emblem and there is, pleasingly, no fussy entrance examination to pass and soon you are strolling in front of a neat clubhouse that extols classic Spanish architecture while eyeing a practice ground described as the best in Europe by Sir Nick Faldo. The expansive, tiered grass range is punctuated by pyramids of balls (Pro V1s, naturally) and is colourfully decorated by pristine flower beds as well as flags from around the world fluttering atop tall white poles. The prominence of the range, rather than being tucked away out of sight, reminds us this is a golf club rather than a resort.
Valderrama’s reputation suggests you are wise to assiduously warm up on the range before play. And while it is unquestionably demanding, it is not in the category of, say, Les Bordes. At around 7,000 yards it is not gargantuan by modern standards – and that is off the rarely-used Blacks. Off the Whites it is 6,500 and the yellows a shade over 6,000. But there is only one par 5 on front nine, and two coming in. Only three par 4s are over 400 yards. It is consistently testing in line with RTJ’s ‘Hard par, easy bogey’ motto. Yet ‘doubles’ are easy to run up too, for the greens and their surrounds make it very easy to take four when you had two in mind. Chipping is made difficult due to the deep-pile carpet of ‘first cut’ rough which is followed by a thicker outer rim that is a magnet to hosels. In contrast, the aprons can be so tightly mown they make even sure-handed chippers anxious… while ensuring anything short is rapidly escorted away from the green.
Deviously subtle greens
The greens are as slick as you might imagine, so fail to detect the subtle borrows and your ball is carried wickedly wide of the hole. And then there are the infamous cork oaks. There are as many as 5,000 of them, narrowing your target to legendary small degrees of forgiveness. They are everywhere; along the fairways, in the fairways, in bunkers, and in your mind. You must adapt to survive. Valderrama necessitates finesse not force. It requires position and precision; imagination over perspiration. Programme your mind accordingly and it can be sweet-talked into mutual agreement, if not quite submission. Trying to achieve this equilibrium is one of Europe’s greatest golf experiences. A rare gratification is derived from the creativity required to manufacture shots in a way usually confined to seaside golf, such as punching a 5-wood under branches and running it up to the green. This is also millionaire’s golf: the trees offer isolation to every hole and there is only bird song to be heard.
The myriad ways to play each hole add to the fun. The 8th is a lightning rod; some might deem it unfair, others will relish cracking the code. It is only 297 yards off yellows, but rather than ‘having
a cut with the driver’, it needs two iron shots to a tiny target surrounded by oaks and with ‘El Bunker’ wrapped round the green like a mother protecting a baby. It is one of many easy-to-recall holes in an appealing blend of long par 4s, all-world par 5s and enchanting par 3s. It begins exactly as you would expect, a tight avenue down which to drive from progressively lower tees that resemble a row of snooker tables, but all sitting higher than the fairway and therefore inviting launch pads. Reach for the driver, though, and not for the last time in the day it is a decision you may soon lament. The 2nd finds ‘El Arbol’ (The Tree) in a fairway that cambers left and turns right, thus it is easy to be nudged out of position by something merely vaguely offline. The gap between the top of the trees either side of the fairway is slender and the further left your drive slides, the smaller the gap becomes on the angle. Then comes the cute 3rd, played down to a green that appears no bigger than a saucer for a tea cup and must be found with a long iron or more. Next is the splendid par-5 4th (see left). After this fine start, only the witless or obstinate will not have deciphered the tactics required here and adapted accordingly.
Gorgeous short holes follow at the 6th and 12th, before a spectacular par 3 at 15, played over the tree-tops and down to rolling, open terrain akin to Augusta’s. Stellar two-shotters arrive at the classy 7th, the sporty yet bewildering 8th, and the idiosyncratic 10th, ‘El Lago’, which initially plays downhill but swings around the water that lurks to the right and climbs steeply to an elevated green. Distinctive par 5s unfold at the 11th – which has a different ‘look’, an uphill hole littered with sand a la Chart Hills and a tiny green with a tremendous ‘top of the world’ feel a la Penha Longha – then the much-modified 17th (see left).It ends with a fairway that is almost ‘S’ shape, so it is easy to be blocked out for the well-known uphill approach. At 456 yards it is a three-shotter for almost all.
Awkward, challenging and dramatic, it is everything Patino wanted Valderrama to be when its life began 30 years ago.
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