Fergus Bisset enjoyed a stunning few days at Sotogrande in southern Spain, playing La Reserva, Valderrama and Club de Golf Sotogrande.
Around the world, there are certain golfing focal points that are on most golf fanatics’ must visit wish-lists. St Andrews in the UK for instance, Pinehurst in the USA of course… On continental Europe, for me, the name that sticks out is Sotogrande on Spain’s Costa del Sol. Despite 15 years as a golf journalist I’d never made it there to sample the tremendous golf, famous hospitality and wonderful food I’d heard so much about. So, when I was offered the chance to visit this spring, I jumped at the chance.
Flying British Airways into Gibraltar from Heathrow, an interesting experience in itself, it’s then a fairly short drive to Sotogrande, no more than 20 minutes away. We were staying in Sotogrande’s marvellous Villa Oasis; a luxurious property on the resort’s Calle Granada. This opulent villa is designed to showcase the type of lifestyle residents of, and visitors to, this marvellous resort might enjoy. If Villa Oasis is anything to go by – it’s pretty incredible. Open and airy and beautifully furnished inside and out, this place is special.
The finish is impeccable and the facilities of the highest quality. There’s a private spa, a gym, a grand piano, sculptures, fountains, an outdoor pool, multiple seating areas, a hot tub, a wine cellar, a cinema room… Basically, it’s very luxurious and an exceptional treat to stay in. In fact, I was rather overwhelmed that it was my base for a few days and I slept like a baby on night one contemplating the type of golf courses we would experience that might reflect the refined elegance of our Sototgrande accommodation.
There are amazing properties across the Sotogrande resort but among the more incredible projects in the pipeline right now is The Seven at La Reserva de Sotogrande. These are seven unique villas each designed by one of the world’s leading architects. There’s more info on this on the website here but below is an image of one of the designs…
First stop on our golfing tour was Real Club de Golf Sotogrande. Opened for play in 1964, the course at Real Club de Golf Sotogrande was the first in Europe to be designed by acclaimed course architect Robert Trent Jones. It has been recently renovated with guidance from Roger Rulewich, Trent Jones’s right-hand man for 35 years and his partner David Fleury.
Both club and course have a traditional, classic feel to them. The clubhouse exudes old school style. From the architecture itself to the retro leather bags in the professional’s shop, everything is done with a touch of class. But it’s also a relaxed place and there’s a great feeling of serenity to be found here.
The course itself is among the best presented I’ve ever had the privilege to play on. Fairways are firm yet springy with surrounding areas perfectly maintained, in and around the beautiful mature cork, oak and pine trees. The bunkers were perfect and absolutely consistent, but it was the greens that really stood out. Extremely fast but supremely true, they were receptive to a well-struck shot and just a joy to putt on.
The layout reflects the classic nature of the club to which it belongs. It delivers a fair but solid test. The fairways are relatively wide and it’s really around the greens that the difficulty lies. A good touch and inventive short game are required to score well here.
The track offers great variety and a selection of holes asking different questions in terms of strategy and ball flight. There are distinct sections to the course and that gives it tremendous character. The first few holes are fairly open and relatively flat, providing a gentle introduction to the round. The holes then become more undulating with some real crackers to negotiate, like the downhill dog-leg 7th where the approach is played to a narrow green protected by a water hazard to the right side.
On the back nine, after a pause for a cerveza and chicken sandwich at the halfway hut, the holes move towards a great stretch played around and over a couple of sizeable water hazards. This section has a slightly more modern, stadium-like feel to it. The final hole is a tough one back up towards the elegant clubhouse. Sitting on the veranda looking out across the course and the excellent practice facilities, we reflected on a highly enjoyable and memorable round. Our group comprised players of varying standards and we agreed that the layout at Real Club de Golfe Sotogrande is one that can be enjoyed by all, from the scratch player to the higher handicappers.
Back at our opulent base camp, we were treated to a superb supper showcasing the local cuisine. Fabulous cured meats, salads and then an amazing main dish of king prawns with a squid ink rice dish on the side. Suitably refuelled and after another excellent night’s sleep we were ready to take on the next challenge. And it was set to be quite a challenge. The wind had whipped up to around 30mph and we were off to Valderrama!
Site of the 1997 Ryder Cup and numerous further professional competitions, Valderrama is one of the world’s iconic golf courses and I was hugely excited to play it. I may be a cynical old hack, but I must confess that the hairs stood up on the back of my neck as we pulled into the car park.
Like Sotogrande, Valderrama delivers a real feeling of class and prestige, from the welcome in the car park, to the forecaddies in white overalls, the pyramids of balls on the driving range to the cocktails on the terrace. This is a very special place.
But as a golf course, it’s actually very different to its near neighbour and that’s one of the things that makes a golfing trip to Sotogrande so absorbing – the variety between these courses that are all but next door to one another.
Yes, the course at Valderrama was, like Sotogrande, designed by Robert Trent Jones but it’s set over a very different piece of ground. Valderrama is more undulating and rugged and undoubtedly tougher for the average player. The beautiful old cork trees that line the fairways and surround the greens demand the player to be extremely precise. I don’t feel it’s an exaggeration to say that it’s impossible for an amateur golfer to make it round the 18 holes of Valderrama without being impeded by a tree in some way at some point. The greens are fairly small and well protected, they are also fast, firm and undulating: Only accurate shots will be rewarded.
But the test is in no way unfair, and even if you don’t quite get to grips with the challenge, you won’t be left feeling beaten up – it’s quite simply a very good examination of golf.
Remembering past tournaments played at Valderrama, most holes felt familiar to me on the way round, despite it being my first visit. But I really started to get goose bumps on two of the par-5s – the 4th and 17th. Both offer great risk/reward opportunities with water protecting the green – the latter has witnessed so many moments of drama over the years with the carry over water and the shaved slope to the front of the putting surface. I recalled Seve and Monty having a conversation in the fairway before the Scot went on to claim a half with Scott Hoch in the Ryder Cup. I also remembered Graeme McDowell’s incredible albatross in the Volvo Masters. In the end I was delighted with my three-putt bogey!
Back in the Andalusian-style clubhouse it was time to sum up the day… Here it is: One of the classic golfing experiences from start to finish. Great hospitality and a return to a more elegant age of exclusive golf – not only with the style of the course but also the concept of how a day should pan out…. Put your phone away, immerse yourself in the place and the game, speak to your playing partners and forget the outside world for a few hours. The course is just brilliant and beautiful to boot with the wonderful old trees and evidence of the club’s notable environmental efforts throughout. Each hole offers something different, but all deliver sheer quality. It’s a joy to play, even if you play poorly (which I can confirm.)
Back to the sumptuous Villa Oasis (no more than a 10-minute shuttle drive) some of the party decided to relax in the salubrious private spa downstairs. Others, the less health conscious of us, elected to sample a fine bottle of Rioja in the courtyard-style garden looking out at the flowing fountain, as chef prepared the barbecue for an Argentinian-style feast… A fairly bearable hour or two!
That feast was rather impressive with delicious beef, chicken, pork, vegetables and other delicacies cooked to perfection by a husband and wife team from Buenos Aires who now live in the area. A couple more glasses of Rioja and bed called – one more day and one more course to sample. I was tired but feeling incredibly relaxed and lucky to be somewhere so utterly amazing!
Day three of our trip saw us travel the very short distance to Sotogrande Resort’s La Reserva Club. Opened for play in 2003 and designed by acclaimed golf course architect Cabell B. Robinson, La Reserva, for me, continued the theme of exceptional variety at Sotogrande. This is a more modern style course but set on the hillside, making use of brilliant topography. Unlike Valderrama and Sotogrande, this is one where you need to take a buggy – we had walked the first two tracks, but the changes in elevation and distances between green and tee at La Reserva means a buggy is necessary.
It’s also, perhaps a more forgiving course – certainly than Valderrama. The fairways are generous and the greens are large. Above all, this is a fun track to play with a number of highly memorable holes. From the outset, it’s clear the test here will be tricky but manageable – the 1st offers a nice opening tee shot, downhill to a wide fairway turning to the left. But the second asks for a strong shot to carry all the way to the green over water. It’s indicative of the challenge to come – Find the sizeable fairways and take advantage, miss the fairways and take your medicine, play for position and try to recover. The hero shot is not the way!
As it was for all the courses we played, we tackled La Reserva in a stiff breeze and this added to the test. But we were greatly aided by a new playing partner in this regard as he possessed not only a good deal of local knowledge, but also a tremendous amount of skill. We were lucky enough to be joined by nine-time European Tour winner and two-time Ryder Cup player Manuel Pinero. He’s an ambassador for La Reserva and has an academy at the club.
Aside from being a hugely talented golfer with an old-school touch and flair that is less of a feature in today’s professional game, Manuel is also a very nice person who is happy to give out pointers and to tell tales of his days on the professional tours. We enjoyed an incredible round, watching him play brilliant wind-cheating drives and sumptuous touch shots with this Wilson R90 wedge, that dates from the late 1930s, whilst listening to stories of Seve, Trevino, Watson et al. Brilliant.
La Reserva will welcome a Ladies European Tour event in May and it will provide a great stage for the players. Although all the courses we played had their own distinct character, a consistent factor was the quality of the playing surfaces. La Reserva boasts springy fairways, excellent greens and defined surrounds.
The clubhouse at La Reserva deserves a special mention – beautifully appointed and decorated with delightful communal areas, cavernous locker rooms and a brilliant restaurant in L’Olive.
Also at La Reserva Club are myriad other activities to interest non-golfers. There’s tennis, horse-riding, yoga and mountain biking. Reopening in 2019, there’s also the incredible Beach Club which delivers Spain’s only private beach – a seaside oasis transferred to the Andalusian hills. It’s pretty cool.
The fact there is so much besides golf is a message that Sotogrande is keen to get across, and one that was very much on evidence through this trip. As we strolled along the edge of the marina that evening and dipped into the superb KE restaurant there, we reflected that this is very much more than just a golfing destination. There is something for everybody, and that allows those who do want to play golf the chance to do so guilt-free, knowing that significant others, children or parents will find something to suit their tastes while the golfers stride the fairways. Whether it’s water sport, hill trekking, pampering, shopping, tennis, shooting, mountain biking, eating – Sotogrande has it all, and it delivers it with that exceptional touch of class throughout. One for the must-visit list? For sure.
British Airways to Gibraltar
Villa Oasis Sotogrande
Real Club de Golf Sotogrande
Real Club Valderrama
La Reserva Club
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