La Manga may be in Spain but it’s as British as fish ‘n chips, a pint of best, or your local club.
Which is why, since it opened for play in 1972, it has consistently been one of, if not the most popular destination on the Iberian peninsular for travelling British golfers.
My host on a recent visit to La Manga Club (LMC), was its recently appointed non-executive Chairman, turnaround guru PY Gerbeau, who lives in London, but played ice hockey for France. The question is: can he do for LMC what he famously did for Euro-Disney, namely turn a financially creaking enterprise into a roaring success?
Back in the early 1970s, another entrepreneur, Gregory Peters from California, the original ‘Man of La Manga’, had a vision for a brand new golf and property- based resort next to the Mar Menor lagoon in Murcia. He masterminded the building of two courses, the North and South on the 1,400-acre site, and by the mid-1970s La Manga was hosting five Spanish Opens in succession, won by the likes of Arnold Palmer and Bernard Gallacher.
And new homes, 90% of which were bought by Brits, funded the enterprise. This was the dawn of the golden age of golf developments worldwide. Sotogrande on the Costa del Sol, Quinta do Lago in the Algarve, and Kiawah Island in South Carolina bought into the same holy trinity of championship courses, grand hotels and even grander villas, all driving business toward each other.
The people came. As well as the two courses, La Manga built a magnificent 28-court tennis facility, a vast spa and fitness centre up on the hill, and eight football pitches which attracted the likes of Chelsea, Liverpool and Celtic for offseason training camps.
Boys being boys, the club and its main hotel, the Principe Felipe, gained a slightly racy reputation, which did no harm at all in the eyes of British golfers. Seve became associated with the club; the resort was on a roll.
The 1990s were a boom time for La Manga. Investment from the shipping powerhouse, P&O, funded the remodeling of the South course by Arnold Palmer, and the completion of the West course, courtesy of Dave Thomas. Awards showered down.
At the end of 2004, P&O announced it was selling out to the Spanish MedGroup. By this time upwards of 2,000 homes had been built, and owners and visitors alike could see no end to their good fortune. Then, in 2007/8, the global house came tumbling down.
Spain in general, and Spanish resorts in particular, found themselves with too many unsold properties, in a country struggling badly economically. Prices in many parts of southern Spain came off 65%. La Manga officially say their home prices only suffered by 35%. Whatever – the banks moved in to pick up some of the pieces. Five years on, La Manga Club has new leadership, new investment and a new determination to re-establish itself as Spain’s pre-eminent golf and sporting destination. Under Gary Silcock, once of the Belfry, there’s a brand new David Leadbetter Golf Academy, the first in mainland Spain, as well as revamped practice facilities. “La Manga Club is now, undisputedly, the top choice for golf coaching and tuition in Spain,” suggests Silcock.
The current financial woes at Arcos Gardens, another southern Spanish facility much loved by the golfing federations, adds weight to his assertion.
So what of the courses themselves?
The design of the South makes it one of the best tracks in Spain, arguably right up there with PGA Catalunya and Valderrama. The upkeep needs a tweak here and there, but this is basically a 7,107-yard, tough, world-class challenge. The undulating North is a tad more forgiving and probably better suited to mid- and high-handicappers.
The West is something of a marmite course – you either love it or hate it. The doglegs are severe and sightlines downright confusing. You’ll need your ‘A’ game to enjoy it, and since I brought my ‘Z’ game, I didn’t. I played with PY who strikes the ball as if hitting an ice hockey slap shot on goal – a mightily effective technique, which I just might try. Anyway, it’s not his favourite course either, but Gary Silcock rates it up with the South as an outstanding if quirky challenge.
The North and South share a lovable old clubhouse which is probably due for demolition in due course, but since most players are already staying on site, it really isn't a problem. Elsewhere, there are good tapas, pizza, Mexican and Asian-themed restaurants, and many boutiques, shops and bars.
The spa is well away from the hotel, and aimed at serious fitness types rather than recreational spa junkies, while other sporting facilities, from tennis to football, cricket, water sports, cycling and even bowling are simply first class.
I have a small problem with the Hotel Principe Felipe calling itself a 5-star. It isn’t. It’s a comfortable, unpretentious 4- star, which is after all, what most of us want in a golf hotel. Plus, there are banks, supermarkets, shops, a medical centre and even a dentist on site. And all of this is close to Murcia and Alicante airports, each with a host of cheap flights from a variety of British airports.
Which brings us to the property offering. There’s one new phase currently being built, Las Mimosas, in the heart of the resort, with attractive, high-spec, four-bedroom villas starting at €490,000 (£403,000) or so. But the real story is in the variety and price of the resale properties on offer.
€235,000 (£194,000) is the asking price of a three-bedroom El Rancho townhouse, close to one of many swimming pools, while just €120,000 (£99,000) gets you a choice of apartments in the Bellaluz and Los Miradores communities. The tricky part is that the resort has an inventory of unsold properties to unwind before prices can go back up again. Still, at these prices, with golf this good, perhaps that’s a secondary consideration.
So how does PY see the future? “It’s my job to restructure the financial side of the enterprise, which we’ve done,” he says. “Now we need to join up the dots – get the sporting, hospitality and real estate elements here at LMC all going in the same direction. There’ve been a few problems coming out of the crash, but now, with a new hotel General Manager, and Golf Director, everyone’s pulling together. A new era at La Manga is just beginning.” I think he’s right.
So is LMC is good destination for a golf holiday? Absolutely – terrific facilities at good prices, only a two and a half hour cheap flight away. As to whether it’s a good time to buy there, the equation is more complicated. The Spanish market is currently flatlining, but if you’re more interested in the golf and overall lifestyle package than the investment potential, it’s definitely worth a look. There are certainly bargains to be had.