In 1975 Robert Trent Jones first laid out the course, which was originally known as Los Aves. It is located prominently on a hill above the old Andalucian village of Sotogrande. The layout remained relatively anonymous until 1985 when Jamie and his mates recalled Trent Jones to subtly reshape Valderrama and the club has not looked back since.
Many golfers will be familiar with Valderrama from TV coverage. The club has hosted a plethora of championships, including the Volvo Masters and the legendary 1997 Ryder Cup, which saw a narrow one point European victory under the captaincy of none other than Seve Ballesteros.
The closing holes are always described as tough with a capital “T” but if you choose your tee sensibly from the off, it’s an eminently playable course for golfers of most abilities (the maximum handicap allowed at Valderrama is 24 for men 32 for ladies). The 17th hole is naturally the most memorable. It’s called Los Gabiones and was once just a long par five until the water was installed just in front of the green. Now it’s a question of shall we lay up or should we go for it?
Jaime Ortiz-Patino, the owner and honorary president at Valderrama, died in a hospital in Marbella in January 2013. The legendary figure played a key role in bringing the 1997 Ryder Cup to Spain. “Valderrama is his masterpiece, his legacy,” commented Jose-Maria Olazabal. “He wanted to make it a very special place, and he did it. He put Valderrama and that part of Andalucia on the map.”
In June 2014, Ortiz-Patino would have been extremely proud. A few days before his abdication, His Majesty King Juan Carlos of Spain, granted Valderrama the Royal title. Club de golf Valderrama was duly renamed to Real Club Valderrama.
Robert Trent Jones' design philosophy of "hard par, easy bogey" works well at Valderrama, although in the end it is quite a difficult course. The defining characteristic of the course, as you soon find out, is the over 2,000 old cork oak trees that are everywhere.
Valderrama excels on its short par four holes such as the eighth (296 meters), tenth (333 meters) and thirteenth (341 meters). Each requires you to hit to the appropriate side of the fairway in order to have a clean approach to the small, elevated, well-bunkered greens.
The tenth hole is a 333 meter sweeping dog-leg par four that requires your tee shot to land on the left side of the fairway to avoid the big cork tree that guards the hole on the right. There is a pond right of the fairway and shots on the right side of the fairway tend to run down the severe slope and feed into the water. In this regard, I found Valderrama to be similar to Merion, in that you have to be in the correct position on each fairway or your approach shot is much more difficult. I am not suggesting the two have a similar visual feel, simply that the way you have to approach playing each course is similar, with precision in putting a shot where you want to being of paramount importance.
Valderrama doesn't offer a let-up throughout the round and certainly not on the eighteenth hole. The cork trees are a constant presence on the course right up until the end. The eighteenth is a 397-meter dog-leg left. If you can cut the corner and hit over the cork trees on the left you will have a shorter shot to the green. The hole offers a safe option playing to the right, but your remaining shot to the green will be much longer. A pull off the tee is deadly since the rough and waste area left of the trees penalize such a shot.
I liked Valderrama a lot. It is one of the best conditioned courses I have played and I was blessed with a charming and experienced caddy (Vincente) who helped me by suggesting shot shapes and types throughout the round.
I would describe the course as a cross between Augusta (its conditioning, bunker style and the terrain) and Harbour Town (the overhanging trees and narrow fairways). Rather than finding the trees to be a gimmick, I thought it was a good design characteristic. I had to punch five irons and hybrid clubs, had to hit wedges over tress and attempt to use all clubs to start the ball low, land on the green and then stop. Or I had to try to hit a big hook or slice, mostly without success. It can certainly be frustrating to hit a fairway and not have a clear second shot; but the decision to hit over, under or around a tree is part of Valderrama's charm.
John Sabino is the author of How to Play the World’s Most Exclusive Golf Clubs
Lovely course but nowhere near as tough as they make out. The rough has been cut back and you rarely get an impossible lie. Greens are quick and the toughest thing about what is a second shot course. Les Bordes in a different league of difficulty.
Without a doubt the single most famous course in Spain. Unfortunately during my recent visit the course was closed for maintenance, however, to my benefit they were kind enough to take me on an extensive tour of the course so I could take photos and do a bit of studying, to prepare to play it another day.
For a keen student of golf course architecture having the chance to walk and carefully observe a course is every bit as interesting as playing it, though of course not quite as fun. Since this was my first visit to Valderrama I had heard many stories about the course. These ranging from stories of how it’s not the best course in Spain to it being the best course people have ever seen. One thing is for certain, in terms of maintenance and preparation it’s easily arguably on par with the best courses in the US which is something that can rarely be said about courses in Europe. That aspect of the course is top notch. Now obviously they have the budget to maintain it at this very high level as well which most certainly helps.
One of the comments I had heard in recent years was how narrow the course is due to the cork trees. I’d like to make a couple comments on my impressions here. Firstly there is no doubt that some holes feel rather tight. The reality is Valderrama does a significant amount of tree trimming and even removal each year. The cork trees are such an integral part of the course it would be tough to imagine what it would be like with out them. They certainly add an eerie, majestic charm. For my eye there are several places where I could envision more width being preferred that being said I couldn’t imagine the course without these trees and you won’t often here me say that as in general I’m not a fan of trees impinging on the playability or playing alleys of golf courses. A big question is would you think twice before removing Cypress trees from Cypress Point….I guess I would.
That being said it’s no surprise that one of my favorite holes visually was the par 5, 11th which was totally open with a sort of skyline green or so it appeared from the approach area with the exception of some background trees which I would argue to remove.
In terms of the routing, I’m sure it’s one of RTJ best efforts. What is questionable would be the usage of raised greens. For my liking there are a few too many, this of course always makes for a great and challenging test for the big events like the Spanish Open to push and challenge the very best players. It might be torture for high single and double-digit hcper’s.
Make no mistake, Valderrama is there to challenge the best players and that it does as good as any other course. If you ever get the chance to play, I’d say jump on it, bare down and bring on your A game, you will need every bit of it.
As to the question of whether or not it’s the best course in Spain, I would suggest (without having seen Sotogrande) that it’s either 1 or 2 and competes only with El Saler for this honor. It’s also most certainly Top 10 in Europe.
One thing is for sure, a thorough walk around this course certainly helps build the anticipation of one day hopefully being able to experience trying to pull off all those challenging shots. I imagine it to be the kind of course where you just add about 10 shots to your handicap (for single hcp’ers) and attempt to play as smart and conservatively as you can. I’d rate it 6-balls based on my extensive tour.
The 1st green sits below towering cork trees which will rebound any shot which is not going straight at the green. They protect the flag from all wandering golf balls and remind you from the get-go that this course will separate the men from the boys. While sitting in the “Spike Bar” before/after your round, you’ll see photographs of the players who have won at Valderrama – and then realize the correlation with being able to hit the ball straight (thank you Monty!). The 4th hole is an iconic par 5 which currently is undergoing a project to expand the green behind the rocks. The club wants to create more available pin-positions, but also to entice more players to go for the green in 2 shots. I support the project as the hole is just over 520 yards but the risk with currently going for the green is far too great – maybe compliments to RTJ for that original decision.
The par 3 6th could quite possibly be the most beautiful par 3 I’ve seen outside of Swinley Forest. It’s framed by trees with 6 bunkers running around the green. Pine Valley eat your heart out. The 8th hole is just 290 yards but it’s called “El Bunker” for a reason. Again, the smart play is an iron off the tee which will leave you with an approach shot to a tiny elevated green with enormous cork trees over-hanging the green with El Bunker wrapping it’s way around the putting surface. One of the golf’s greatest holes.
The back-nine starts with a roll-coaster 10th hole. A hugely sloped fairway secretly takes your ball diagonally towards a massive water hazard which you don’t really see from the tee, and then climbs back up to a well protected green. Valderrama continually demonstrates that you don’t need to have length to separate the shot-makers from the one-dimensional golfer. The Spanish professionals of the last few decades all have common characteristics, namely “imagination” and “touch”. Their imagination graces the halls at this club and it’s courses like this that helped them hone their skills before taking on the professionals of the world.
There are significant changes in elevation on the 11th (uphill par 5), the 12th (downhill par 3), the 14th (uphill par 4), the 15th (long downhill par 3), each of which are lined with cork trees that offer an individual experience at Valderrama and makes the holes extremely memorable. Each hole is so uniquely crafted that you can immediately recall the layout. The routing of the course is magnificent. You might only appreciate the changes in direction and the design variety when looking at an aerial view. When RTJ brought his skills to the South of Spain in 1975, he left us with a golf course which architects will visit for decades to come and will witness how to create excitement.
Like all great match-play/Ryder Cup venues, holes 15 through 17 are a tough stretch and could be where the matches end up. The 17th hole at Valderrama has a legacy which just a handful of par 5s around the world can boast. We all remember the torment that each gladiator faced as they pondered their second shot with the pond silently waiting for its prey. Hopes of a successful journey can be bashed by a murderous green which escorts Titleist products to a slow watery grave. The holes at this venue are famous and it’s an honour to have seen them with my own eyes. I consider myself lucky to have experienced this Spanish jewel and watch it sparkle in all its European glory.