Golf excellence along the Spanish Mediterranean

August 23, 2012
David Brice, Golf International, Inc.

David Brice, CEO of Golf International, reviews destinations on PGATOUR.COM that can be experienced by purchasing a package with Golf international, a leading provider of high-end international golf travel. For more information about this trip or any other of Golf International's destination trips, click here.

Golf was introduced to Spain more than 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 proceeded methodically, building into the impressive inventory of today, numbering almost 350 golf courses in all. Spain has earned golf bragging rights, not only for the number of courses within its borders, but also for the consistently high caliber of the vast majority of them. It should be no surprise to learn that Spain is today considered as the Golf Headquarters of Continental Europe.

Valderrama was responsible for bringing the 1997 Ryder Cup to Spain.
A name synonymous with excellence the world over, Valderrama is Golf Royalty.
Valderrama's famous cork oaks are an important part of its defense arsenal.
El Saler is the pride and joy of Valencia and one of Spain's top courses.
El Saler's rough of pure, juicy ice-plant, is best avoided.
PGA Catalunya is pushing hard for the top position in the rankings.
PGA Catalunya's Stadium Course perhaps the most important addition to Spanish golf of the last decade.
Catalunya's Tour Course will be a little kinder to the less accomplished players.
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Golf courses exist in practically every corner of the country, but it's the balmy, southern shores that have proved the most conducive to high quality golf development and nowhere more so than along Spain's Mediterranean coastline. Renowned for its fascinating history, rich culture, art, architecture and gastronomy, golf has only added to the many other attractions of sunny Southern Spain.

The entire length of this coast enjoys the perfect, year-round climate, making the game of golf a 12 month a year activity and the demand for more and better courses has always been greatest here. Wherever you find the heaviest concentrations of very good courses, the chances of also discovering a few truly extraordinary layouts only increases and Spain's Mediterranean Coast doesn't disappoint -- not only does it boast some of the best courses in the country, but also some of the top-ranked courses in Europe.

It took the 1997 Ryder Cup to focus the 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, unfamiliar with European golf, who doubted the wisdom of the choice, but there should not have been -- Valderrama already possessed very impressive credentials.

Consistently ranked as Europe's number one course for each of the previous dozen years, Valderrama had also been the regular venue for the European Tour's flagship, grand finale event of each season, The Volvo Masters, but still doubts persisted. After those Ryder Cup Matches of 1997, 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 courses of Scotland and Ireland -- Spanish golf had arrived.

Today, Valderrama still sits atop the European course rankings, a success that 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 names such as Sotogrande, La Reserva, San Roque and Finca Cortesin are among the would be challengers for Top Gun status.

Despite the threats, Valderrama remains the exceptional course it has always been, ranking alongside Augusta National, Pebble Beach, St. Andrews Old Course, Royal County Down, Ballybunion and Muirfield -- it's a part of golf's Royal Family and should be at the very top of every visitor's must play list. Visitor times are extremely limited and 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.

Valencia, the charming coastal city that gave the world one of Spain's best known rice dishes, Paella, is located approximately half way between Malaga on the Costa del Sol and Barcelona, near the French border. The area surrounding Valencia offers some excellent courses, including outstanding El Saler, ranked number 3 in Spain and among Europe's best dozen layouts.

Situated just a brief 20 minute drive from Valencia's fascinating Old Town, El Saler may not have the same name recognition as Valderrama, but that does not belie the fact that for many years this gem has been the main contender for Valderrama's number one position.

El Saler is a handsome good-looker of a course that comes in two halves. The first half is a true links course, as pure as any you might find in Scotland, complete with serious sand dunes and a beach-side location where the wind literally howls in off the Mediterranean. The only difference with Scotland is that the temperatures are pleasant and rain is a rarity. The second half runs inland, through a beautifully mature, woodland setting, where El Saler manages to maintain the same high level of challenge, demanding two entirely different playing strategies.

If like me, you have never been a great fan of this kind of dual personality course, reserve your judgment on El Saler until you have completed your round -- this is the first combo course I have ever been impressed with, and I was extremely 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. El Saler is quite literally a course that demands both accuracy and the ability to use every club in the bag.

This is one of those very rare courses with no weak holes, presenting a very tough test from the first tee until you eventually drag yourself off of the final green, battle worn and weary. But beneath the scars there will definitely be a strong sense of pride if you finish with a decent 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. If you are up to the challenge, go for it, it's likely to be a long wait before 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, it's one more Mediterranean layout for the memory book. Barely a teen-ager, The Stadium Course opened to accolades from the European golf fraternity in 1999 and hasn't looked back since. Currently vying with Valderrama for the title of Spain's Top Course and already listed among Europe's best 5, this is a course with a rise to the very top of the rankings. Play this beauty once and you will only agree.

Measuring a healthy 7,250 yards from the back tees, this is a layout designed 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, augmented 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 more than worthy of its championship ranking and is a layout that will be most appreciated by the accomplished player, but mere mortals have not been forgotten. The Stadium Course's younger sibling, The Tour Course, measures a full 750 yards shorter and although a mini-thriller in its own right is very approachable by the average player, though 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 way in its more than 120 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 being fine tuned and as excellent as it is today, you know that by tomorrow it's likely to be even better.

For more ideas and suggestions on how to enjoy the very best of Spain, both on the courses and off, contact the Spain golf experts at Golf International by calling toll-free, 1 (800) 833-1389 or, click here.

©2012 David Brice / Golf International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Golf International -- Providers of quality golf travel arrangements since 1988.