2006 - The Sol of golf

Along Costa del Sol, the adult playground that spans the roughly 95 miles of Spain’s southern coastline, one sometimes comes across signs promoting the region’s golf courses. They call it “Costa del Golf,” which as a marketing slogan probably won’t win any awards, but is nonetheless noteworthy in a region that has so much else to offer, including the beaches that always have been the area’s calling card. Southern Spain is booming – one could barely hit a lob wedge without clanking one of the ubiquitous mechanical cranes putting the finishing touches on yet another luxury hotel – and golf is one of the anchors of the tourism-driven economy. There are more than 80 courses in this region of Andalucia, most of them at the resorts that line the N340 highway between Sotogrande and Málaga.

At La Cala Resort near Marbella, one can stand on the elevated 16th tee of Campo America, formerly known as the North Course, and look over a sea of golf holes – 54 plus a six-hole par-3 course. Just on the other side of the street is a David Leadbetter Golf Academy.

Not far away, at freshly minted Flamingos Golf Resort, an Italian-influenced hotel with a hillside setting that affords spectacular views of the Mediterranean less than a mile away, one golf course was in place and heavy machinery was at work building two more when I visited last year. Near the clubhouse at La Reserva Golf Club, a striking new Cabell Robinson design in Sotogrande, it appeared a whole town was being built en masse as six huge cranes blocked out the sky.

You think the U.S. has experienced a housing boom in recent years? Go to Costa del Sol.

Our group’s Spanish hosts were eager to showcase the new courses and resorts, but we began at one of the region’s staples, the Old Course at San Roque Club. The Old Course annually hosts the PGA European Tour’s Spanish Open, and we had been invited to play in the pro-am. Great gig, right? But I was uneasy at the possibility of drawing a European Tour star as a pro partner, particularly one such as Spanish hero Miguel Angel Jimenez, and spending the day having my shaky game scrutinized by a large crowd.

As it turned out, Stephen Gallacher, nephew of former Ryder Cup captain Bernard Gallacher, drew the short straw and was stuck with our group. To my relief, Gallacher and his caddie were waiting alone for us at the first tee, and his easy, unassuming manner made him an ideal partner.

Gallacher told us San Roque is one of the more popular courses among European Tour players, and it’s easy to see why. The Old Course – a misnomer really, as it’s only 15 years old – has the comfortable feel that one might find at a classic New England layout.

The New Course at San Roque, by comparison, hardly could be more different. We played it the day after the pro-am, and it proved to be a radical, ultimately unsatisfying design filled with blind tee shots and, during our visit, patchy turf conditions. This course, opened in 2003, was crying out for some nurturing, perhaps even a redesign. My only fond memory of it is driving the par-4 12th green by playing the shot off a hill on the left side of the fairway and watching it careen down the slope to the front of the green a little more than 300 yards away – where I proceeded to three-putt.

If you go to Costa del Sol, take pains to play San Roque’s Old Course, but give the New some time to mature.

We walked the courses whenever possible, reasoning that we shouldn’t pass up the rare opportunities for exercise. This was my first trip to Spain, and it quickly was evident the Spaniards have no intention of taking a backseat to the French or Italians on gastronomic matters. We weren’t there long before we found ourselves joking about the Spaniards’ fondness for snacks of jamon y quesa – ham and cheese – but they have a lot more in their culinary playbook. The dinners start late and the servers come at you in waves, making for satisfying, if sometimes exhausting, meals.

La Reserva also can be an endurance test for visitors, but it’s more than worth the trouble. We played it on a chilly morning with a stiff, three-club wind in our faces for the first six holes, and the sharp shifts in elevation that define the course made club selection even more difficult.

It’s a great piece of property, exploited well by Robinson. Two-year-old La Reserva seems likely to be regarded as a fine addition to the strong portfolio of courses in Sotogrande, which boasts Valderrama, Sotogrande Golf Club and San Roque.

One of the striking features of the region is the juxtaposition of these courses and resorts with villages that seem to date to the beginning of time. After playing La Reserva we drove to Casares, a “pueblo blanco,” or white village, that sits on a hillside about 20 minutes from Marbella.

There are many of these villages in this mountainous region, and they seem to teeter on the cliffs and plunge down the slopes.

We walked the quiet, narrow streets of Casares to the cemetery on top of the hill, where Gibraltar, and Morocco beyond it, were plainly visible. On the way down less than a half-hour later, the streets quickly had filled with townspeople, as seemingly the whole village had turned out for a funeral at a church in the middle of town.

As we made our way out of Casares, down the hill and along E-15 through the coastal towns of Marbella and Estepona, the road was lined with cranes at work on condominium towers and hotels, continually shaping the modern counterpart to the ancient white villages.

On the Costa del Golf, business plainly is booming.

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