Golf was introduced to Spain almost 120 years ago when the country's very first golf course was opened on the Spanish island of Gran Canaria in 1891. Since those early days, the development of a truly national golf infrastructure has progressed methodically, building into an impressive inventory, which today approaches 350 golf courses in all. Spain has earned golf bragging rights, not only for the number of courses within its borders, but perhaps more importantly, for the consistently high quality of the vast majority of these layouts. It should be no surprise that Spain is today considered as Europe's unofficial, Golf Headquarters.
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Golf courses exist in practically every corner of the country, but it's the south that has proved the most conducive to high quality golf development and nowhere more so than along Spain's Mediterranean coastline, already renowned for its fascinating history, rich culture, art and gastronomy Golf has only added to the many other attractions of Southern Spain.
The entire length of this coast enjoys an ideal, year round climate, making the Royal and Ancient Game, a 12 month a year activity and the demand for more and better courses has always been greatest here. Wherever you find the heaviest concentration of very good courses, the chances of also finding a few truly excellent layouts only increases and the Mediterranean coast, boasts not only some of the best in the country, but also some of the top ranked courses in Europe.
It took the 1997 Ryder Cup to focus the golfing world's attention on Spain's outstanding golf when a golf club sitting on the Costa del Sol, named Valderrama, was selected to host the event. This would be the very first time that any course outside of Britain and the USA had been honored as the venue and there were many who doubted the wisdom of the choice, but there should not have been -- Valderrama already possessed very impressive credentials.
Valderrama had been consistently ranked as Europe's number one course for each of the previous dozen years and was the regular host of The European Tour's flagship, grand finale event of the season, The Volvo Masters, but still the Doubting Thomas's questioned the decision. At the end of those Ryder Cup matches, players and spectators alike were in awe of the magnificence of Valderrama and Spanish golf was being discussed in the same breath as golf on the finest links layouts of Scotland and Ireland -- Spanish golf had arrived.
Valderrama remains at the very top of Europe's course rankings and its success has only raised the bar for other Spanish courses. Nowhere has this been more apparent than among Valderrama's neighbors on the Costa del Sol where several pretenders to the throne have come to light, both established layouts and brand new designs.
Despite the threats, Valderrama remains an exceptional course, ranking alongside St. Andrews Old Course, Royal County Down, Ballybunion, Turnberry and Muirfield in both prestige and the challenge it provides -- it's a part of golf's Royal Family and deserves to be at the very top of every visitors must play list. Visitor times are extremely limited and the demand to play this champion of champions far exceeds their availability, but with a little professional help from a company like Golf International, everything is possible, just book as far ahead as possible.
El Saler, located just 20 minutes from the heart of Valencia's Old Town, may not have the same name recognition as Valderrama, but that does not belie the fact that for many years this gem has been Valderrama's main contender for Top Gun status.
This is a handsome good looker of a course that comes in two halves -- half is true links as pure as any you might find in Scotland. Complete with serious sand dunes and running alongside a beach where the wind quite literally howls in off the Mediterranean and quite erratically, the only difference with Scotland is that temperatures are pleasantly mild and rain is a rarity. The other half runs inland through a beautifully mature, woodland setting, where El Saler manages to maintain the level of challenge, which demands two entirely different strategies.
If like me, you have never been a great fan of this kind of combination course, reserve your judgment on El Saler until after you have played it, because this is the first combo I have ever been impressed with and I was very impressed. The greens are superbly contoured, filled with movement and always well protected with shrewdly positioned bunkers, encroaching trees, prickly bushes and all too often, sticky ice-plant, one of the most difficult roughs most of us will ever be confronted with. This is quite literally, a course that demands both accuracy and the ability to use every club in the bag -- and each one in a multitude of different ways.
This is one of those rare courses with no weak holes, presenting a very tough golf test from the very first tee, until you eventually drag yourself off of the final green, battle worn and certainly weary. But beneath the scars there will definitely be a sense of pride if you finish with a good scorecard -- even for those who may not, there will still be a feeling of privilege in having had the honor of playing such a formidable track. Best left to the serious golf aficionado, with a low handicap, less accomplished players might find El Saler to be more frustrating than pleasurable, so be warned. But if you are up to the challenge, go for it -- it might be a long wait until you come across such a beautiful monster again.
My pick of the crop course on the Costa Brava can only be PGA Catalunya's Stadium Course, another handsome beast with very sharp teeth and one more Mediterranean layout for the memory book. Barely a teen-ager, The Stadium opened to accolades from the European golfing fraternity in 1999 and hasn't looked back since. Currently ranked number 7 among Europe's Top 100 Courses listing, it's clear this is a course with a mission and that mission is to rise even higher in the rankings -- play it once and you can only agree.
Measuring a healthy 7,250 yards from the back tees, this is a layout built to host important international tournaments and every big hitter will only delight at the opportunity to spread their shoulders and let it rip. Be wary, unless the muscle is accompanied by accuracy and a fair share of both strategy and good course management, length can become more of a detriment than an advantage. The wide, rolling fairways are tempting, but they are flanked by treacherous rough, only complicated by a couple of lakes that come into play on four holes.
The greens are uncommonly well protected by an honor guard of shrewdly placed and always hungry bunkers, supplemented occasionally by water, wild slopes and often severe undulations. Holding these greens can become a Mission Impossible unless you have a really good short game and a clear strategy in mind for every shot. This is where the thinking golfer can have a real advantage over the mindless long hitter.
There's no doubt The Stadium Course is worthy of its championship ranking and a layout that will be most appreciated by the accomplished player, but mere mortals have not been forgotten. The younger sibling, Tour Course, measures a full 750 yards shorter and although a mini-thriller in its own right, is still no walk in the park. Just bring along your sense of humor, remembering that golf is only a game and you are all but assured of a fun round.
Spanish golf has come a long, long way in its more than 100 year existence and there is no place in the world that has better courses. The wonderful thing is that rather than resting on its laurels, golf in Spain is continually improving and as excellent as it is today, you know that tomorrow it's likely to be even better.
For more ideas and suggestions on how to enjoy the best of Spain, whether golf is to be included or not, click here.
©2009 David Brice / Golf International, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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