Sotogrande Spain - Between a Rock and a Hard Place
For seasoned revellers familiar with the Costa del Sol, the name Sotogrande has long been synonymous with a style and sophistication somehow detached from the thumping mecca of Marbella and Puerto Banus, half-an-hour or so along the coast. The glistening yachts in the resorts marina may be every bit as outrageous, and the sumptuous villas hidden behind carefully tended fusions of hibiscus remain out of reach to all but a lucky few, but there is a certain modesty about the place which sets a seductive tone.
In his heyday, Tony Jacklin was the touring pro at Sotogrande, with a home overlooking Robert Trent
Jones' original 18-hole championship course, which the American designed in 1964. That association would be instrumental in getting the word about that this particular Mediterranean retreat, riddled as it is with pine, cork, eucalyptus and lemon trees, was a place worth knowing, and a steady stream of celebrity traffic has since guaranteed Sotogrande's reputation as a chic summer magnet.
It's probably fair to say that most who spend their time here, however, do so blissfully unaware that Jones' first venture into Europe is still ranked among his finest work; for the golfer, the opportunity to enjoy the expansive palm-lined fairways of the Sotogrande Golf Club (or, to acknowledge its Royal moniker, the Real Club de Golf) is just one of many good reasons to travel to this idyllic corner of Spain.
Twenty-two miles east of Gibraltar, the Sotogrande of today remains a sporting oasis in a world apart from the giddy Eldorado stereotype most would interpret as the Costa del Sol, and a host of new courses within striking distance (notably the linksy-styled Alcadesia. Golf Club and the European Tour qualifying venue, San Roque Club) have only strengthened its position as a sort of 'destination within a destination'. For those who dream of following in the footsteps of the game's cognoscenti, the prized attraction is, of course, Valderrama, perennially ranked the No.1 course in continental Europe, and scene of Europe's 1997 Ryder Cup victory.
Jimmy Patino's beloved creation started life as the Las Aves course on the original Sotogrande estate, designed again by Mr Jones. Since Patino took over in the early eighties, renaming the club VALDERRAMA, he has spared no expense in transforming the master architects work into the championship showpiece it is today. An obsession for detail that would make Volkswagen engineers blanch has inevitably brought comparisons with Augusta National (there's even a 9-hole par-three course maintained to the same exacting standards), and for everyone who plays here that sense of exclusivity accompanies the round, courtesy of a discreet personal greenkeeper who fixes ball-marks, replaces divots and rakes the Andalucian marble dust which, naturally, constitutes the sand in the bunkers.
Leaving aside the ongoing debate over the merits of the 17th (the only hole on the course not designed by Jones), and in particular the injustice it paid Tiger Woods in last year's World Golf Championship event, there is little more that needs or can be said more about Valderrama, although the clubhouse restaurant - which is open to the public - gets rather less press than it deserves. Suffice to say that as far as the golf goes, Patino's baby represents the definitive Spanish inquisition. The only time you'll ever step foot on Augusta is in your dreams, but a game here can be yours as long as you enter into the (very) necessary pre-emptive correspondence with the secretary, or book your holiday through one of the specialist tour operators with the right contacts.
Rumour has it that Patino has plans for a second 18-hole course and a luxury hotel, to be built in the hills to the north above Valderrama. In the mean time, the latest property to be unveiled on this exclusive estate is the Almenara Hotel and Golf Club, a £10 million development which features a compelling Dave Thomas design that is surely likely to become one of the most talked about courses in Spain.
Given the company which his course would be keeping, Thomas was under some pressure to come up with a design that would both complement and add to the experience of golf at Sotogrande. And how he has delivered.
With the benefit of several spectacular changes in elevation, Almenara presents perhaps the most intriguing mix of holes to be found in these parts, and it is a credit to the quality of the engineering and the condition in which the course is maintained that the greens here won't be bettered anywhere along the coast. A snaking downhill par-five sets you on a challenging journey of twists and turns, following pristine Bermuda fairways through avenues of cork, oak and jasmine. This is target golf with the emphasis on (a) keeping it straight off the tee, and (b) having at least a vague idea of your landing distances with your iron shots to give yourself a chance of finding the fast and contoured greens.
Almenara is an ambitious design, and on difficult terrain there are inevitably one or two holes born out of convenience. But with contrast and imagination, Thomas holds your attention magnificently, particularly over the back nine, where what margin for error there was over the opening holes virtually disappears altogether. The closing stretch from the 14th is pure theatre, with two vast lakes putting the sting in the tail. Guests staying in the luxurious villas and apartments which circle the clubhouse overlooking the property naturally have the option of playing at all of Sotogrande's courses built into their package, but for those in search of some fun in the sun, it's a fair bet in this writer's opinion that Almenara will prove itself to be the star attraction.
Notwithstanding the quality of the golf and accommodation to be enjoyed at (and neighbouring) Sotogrande, it is perhaps the sheer convenience of reaching this particular corner of Spain that makes it such a perfect short-haul destination. With flight times a little over two hours into Gibraltar, a typical 'long-weekend' itinerary can have you on an early Friday morning flight, and teeing it up on the course by noon.
Those with rather more time on their hands, and who choose to venture towards Marbella itself, should also pencil in a game at Las Brisas (again from the Trent Jones drawing board), Aloha and Torreqlabrada, the latter a particularly quirky layout, though positively mundane compared to the outrageous Monte Mayor (see 'Planet Golf), which you will find gloriously concealed in the hills inland from Marbella.
But that's another story.
Golf Today Course Directory - Spain