The European Tour returns to the exclusive Valderrama Golf Club in southern Spain this week for what has become the traditional season finale played on one of mainland Europe’s most famous and exciting golf courses. The crucial issue of who will finish the season top of the Order of Merit as Europe’s number one player will once again be resolved at this idyllic part of Sotogrande in Andalucia. Valderrama (pictured) has been the host of the presitigious tournament on all but four occasions in the event’s eighteen year history.
1987 saw the launch of the Nabisco Championship on the USPGA Tour, an event that brought together the season’s leading money winners for one last clash. The event is now known as the Tour Championship and has grown into one of the most high profile and eagerly awaited tournaments of the season – next week sees the latest renewal at the East Lake Golf Club near Atlanta.
Impressed by the idea and the way that it captured the imagination of the paying public, the European Tour decided to launch its own version of the event a year later in 1988. Swedish car manufacturer Volvo were excited by the idea and offered to sponsor the inaugural staging of it, thus beginning one of the most enduring relationships between a sponsor and the European Tour since its inception. The format for 1988 was simple – the top 60 players on the Order of Merit would qualify for entry, with the field competing for a total purse of almost £352,000.
Fast forward to 2006, and the format remains almost exactly the same. Volvo continue their sponsorship, but the event has really developed into one of the season’s highlights. Prize money has increased to almost £2.7 million and the event now grants entry to past winners who haven’t qualified automatically, but apart from that there have been no changes at all. Paul Casey, David Howell and Robert Karlsson – all of whom are chasing their first Order of Merit crown this week – will be looking to add their names to an impressive list of former winners.
Bernhard Langer and Colin Montgomerie are both double winners of the showpiece event, with both men electing to share the title in 2002 after a playoff could not seperate them before darkness fell on the final day. Another man chasing this season’s Order of Merit title, Padraig Harrington, won the title in 2001 at a different venue, while fellow Ryder Cup stars Paul McGinley, Darren Clarke and Lee Westwood have also triumphed in the past. When you add the successes of Major champions Sandy Lyle and Nick Faldo then the roll of honour looks very impressive indeed.
Faldo actually won the inaugural staging in 1988 at what was then a relatively unknown golf course. As a schoolboy on a half term break in the south of Spain I was lucky enough to attend the event at Valderrama, which had been renovated in the mid 1980s after it was originally designed by that doyen of course architects Robert Trent Jones in 1971.
Since that week in 1988 Valderrama’s reputation has grown and grown. It has staged every renewal of the Volvo Masters bar a four-year gap between 2001 and 2004, when it was staged at the Montecastillo Golf Club near Jerez. Valderrama also hosted the first two editions of the World Golf Championships in 1999 and 2000, tournaments won by Tiger Woods and Mike Weir.
However, despite staging these WGC events and its synonimity with the Volvo Masters, Valderrama is perhaps most fondly remembered for its staging of the 32nd Ryder Cup in 1997. That renewal resulted in a European victory led by captain Severiano Ballesteros, who said in the build up that Valderrama was a perfect track and the best maintained course he had seen in many a year. To date, it remains the only course on mainland Europe to stage the historic event – a ringing endorsement in itself. Another legend of European golf, Nick Faldo, also paid the course a glowing tribute in 1988. On his way to victory in the Volvo Masters he described the pracitice facilities at Valderrama as the finest in Europe.
Tomorrow the elite of European golf descend once again onto this most famous of European courses looking to write their names into the annals of one of the season’s most glamorous events. The race for the Order of Merit aside, it should prove to be a most memorable few days for European golf fans.