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- Javier Arana
Javier Arana, nicknamed ‘Cisco’ within the family, was the eldest of three sons born to Luis Arana Urigüen and Maria Dolores Ybarra López de Calle. His parents – Luisón and Lola as they were known – were from wealthy Basque Country families which had amassed fortunes from mining activities in the Bilbao region.
Luisón was a keen sportsman, playing in goal for Vizcaya FC when the team won the Copa del Rey cup final against FC Barcelona in 1902, and he was a leading sailor, representing Spain (along with Javier) in the yachting event at the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam. A founding member of Neguri Golf Club in 1911, he became the first president of the Royal Spanish Golf Federation in 1934.
His son Javier began playing the game around the age of ten, practicing on the old Neguri course which was an 11-hole affair that had been laid out close to the family home on the banks of the Gobelas River by two Englishmen; Forrest the first club captain, and Cunningham, the first club professional.
Javier and his younger brother Luis Ignacio developed into very good, competitive players, displaying a keen rivalry both on and off the course. Javier was ebullient and cheerful, with a style of play reflecting his outgoing personality while Luis Ignacio was more reserved and even-headed and his calm temperament probably went a long way towards him enjoying a longer and more successful playing career than his older brother.
Still, Javier was capable of beating anybody on his day. In 1926, he finished runner-up in his first elite competition at the Puerta de Hierro Championships in Madrid (while in the capital to complete his studies in law and philosophy at the University of Duesto) though he did pair up with his friend José Vallejo to win the foursomes event.
His form that year propelled him into the 6-man Spanish national team that played (for only the fourth time) against France in Madrid in a match that was tied 4½-4½ after three foursomes and six singles. Javier would go on to play for Spain a total of twelve times over seventeen years, losing on only three occasions.
He ended the season winning the Biscay Cup – one of the major events on the fledgling Spanish golfing calendar – at his home club Neguri and he would triumph in this tournament another four times between 1929 and 1935. Incredibly, Javier faced his brother Luis Ignacio in eight consecutive finals of the Puerta de Hierro National Cup (starting in 1928), winning five of them.
In addition to these golfing successes, Javier also won the Spanish International Amateur Championship three times (1928, 1933 and 1934), the French International Championship in 1934, along with the Belgian and Portuguese equivalents of this tournament in 1935 and 1940, respectively.
Javier fled Bilbao at the start of the Civil War – the family home at Casa Cisco in Las Arenas fell within an ‘international zone’ established by the authorities and was used to house Soviet airmen based at the nearby Lamiaco airstrip – and enlisted as a staff officer in the Fifth Division of Navarre Brigades, reporting to Lieutenant Colonel González de Menzoza.
His immediate superior had trained as a geographical engineer and was something of a cartography expert so Javier was able to learn all about reading and interpreting maps and these skills were very useful during his subsequent career as a golf course architect. His wartime connections also paid off under the Franco regime, with old military contacts helping to acquire land near the airport when building the course at El Prat, for instance.
The year after the war ended, Javier captained the Spanish team against Portugal in Estoril then travelled later that year to Argentina for 4-month golfing tour of the country, returning at the start of 1941. He played in his last Spanish International Championship a few months later, then finished his international career in fine style, helping Spain beat Portugal 8-4 in 1943.
By that time, the Royal Spanish Golf Federation had appointed Javier as National Officer for Golf Courses and one of his first assignments was to assist the Club de Campo in Madrid by drawing up a project plan to recover from the damage the club’s course had encountered during the civil war, because of its location on the battle lines between the rival factions.
He also advised the neighbouring Real Club de le Puerta de Hierro as it too had almost been completely destroyed during the war. It was at this club he would meet Tom Simpson at the end of 1945, when the renowned English architect arrived to redesign a course that he had made minor modifications to twenty years earlier.
Arana and Simpson then embarked on a design partnership that lasted from December 1945 until May 1948, when the Englishman set off for home. They collaborated during that two and a half year period while still operating largely on an independent basis and, without doubt, Arana could not have been apprenticed to a better master.
They won their first contract to redesign Herbert Fowler’s 1915 layout at Lasarte golf club near San Sebastian and Arana drew up plans before sending them to Simpson (who was restoring the Club de Campo course in Málaga) for approval. Unfortunately, the deal collapsed when land leased by the club changed hands and Javier is said to have donated his design fee to the local parish priest in Lasarte.
Simpson and Arana also visited the Harry Colt-designed course at Pedreña in 1946 to review the design and upkeep of the course, producing a seven-page report which described the layout as one of the best inland courses they had ever seen, though the state of the greens was considered to be far from ideal.
A redesign of the 5th green, a relocation of the 13th green, the addition of bunkers on several holes, the relocation of tees on various holes and the removal of trees to open out vista across the Bay of Santander were the main proposals in a document drafted and signed by Simpson for the execution of Arana.
Arana was then contacted by Genaro De la Riva, the chairman of Sant Cugat in Barcelona, who was a fellow member of the Federation and had played with Javier on the Spanish team a decade earlier. He wanted changes made to the Colt course that had been designed in 1919, asking for four holes to be altered and all the greens upgraded.
On the back of this visit to Catalonia, De la Riva introduced Arana to some businessmen who were replacing a primitive 9-hole holiday facility at Puigcerdà, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, and the course that was eventually built for Real Club de Golf Cerdaña became Javier’s first solo design. It opened for play in July 1948, just after Simpson returned to England.
Arana remodelled the greens at Pedralbes golf club in Barcelona in 1949, converting them from sand to grass, and he also worked on projects in Tangier, Morocco and at the Hotel Reina Cristina golf course at Algeciras on the Bay of Gibraltar before undertaking the design and construction of an 18-hole layout in Barcelona for Real Club de Golf El Prat.
This course opened for play in 1955, hosting the Spanish Open the following year. Sadly, it no longer exists due to the expansion of Barcelona’s airport in the late 1990s which caused the club to relocate to the north of the city and call in Greg Norman’s design team to fashion a new 45-hole golf complex.
As El Prat was being constructed, another major project in Arana’s early career loomed large – the redesign of the course at Club de Campo in Madrid which he had updated only fourteen years earlier. Many ordinary players found it to be long and difficult, featuring large greens and difficult bunkers, but – like El Prat – it hosted the Spanish Open shortly after it debuted.
Javier’s next big project at the end of the 1950s was at Guadalmina in Marbella, when he laid out the initial nine holes of the South course for a new beachfront hotel. Around the same time, he designed a new course at Son Vida on Mallorca, only to have the assignment completed by Fred W. Hawtree, which was a sure sign that Arana didn’t quite hold sway on all new course development in Spain.
After fifty years at Lejona, Javier’s home club Neguri moved to bigger and better premises along the coast. Naturally, he was invited to lay out the course and for this undertaking he waived his fee. It took four years to construct, opening to instant acclaim, though Arana fell out with the club shortly before it opened in 1961 over issues relating to his infrequent site visits.
Arana expanded Guadalmina to eighteen holes and added another nine to Club de Campo as 1963 arrived and in this year he incredibly had thirteen different projects on the go. Not all of them led to completed courses – such as his plans for La Manga del Mar Menor in Murcia or Formentor in Mallorca – as some fell through and others ended up being worked on by another architect, like the extension of Puerta de Hierro by John Harris in Madrid.
One commission that was fulfilled was the Rio Real course in Marbella, which Arana designed for the Los Monteros hotel and its developer, Ignacio Coca, who wanted to create a housing complex that would rival Sotogrande. Arana spent most of 1964 and the following year on site, ensuring that very demanding construction deadlines were met.
Javier appointed his friend Gonzalo Lavin, the former manager at Club de Campo, as an assistant to help look after his next contract at the Real Automóvil Club de España (RACE) outside Madrid and the two of them collaborated closely together for several years, providing a turnkey design and construction service for clients.
While living in Marbella and overseeing the build for the Rio Real course, Javier drew up plans for the design of a new 18-hole layout for Club de Golf Ulzama, near Pamplona, and it opened with only nine holes in play during the summer of 1966. It was eventually doubled in size by Francisco Lopéz-Segalés in 1989, with the routing of the new nine following the original Arana plan.
In 1967, Javier then added another 9-hole circuit to the El Prat layout in Barcelona, where he now lived, while working on what is regarded as his greatest achievement, the El Saler course outside Valencia. Built for the Ministry of Tourism, it was a profitable venture for Arana and Gonzalo, but fee payments from the government were very slow, leading to hostility with contractors who were impatiently waiting to be paid.
El Saler was intended to be Arana’s last job before retirement and he slowed down considerably after it opened, spending more time at home in San Pedro de Ribas, south of Barcelona. He did set out a small, 1,470-metre 9-hole course for Club de Golf Ifach, to the north of Benidorm, then moved once again to Marbella – staying on his boat moored in Puerto Banus – to design his final layout at Club de Golf Aloha.
Before the course was finished, Arana fell seriously ill and Enrique Canales stepped in to see the project through to completion. Javier was taken back to Barcelona, where he died of cancer in January 1975.
Javier only ever built ten courses during a 30-year design career – his architectural vocation was never his main source of income so he never had to push for work – but those layouts have collectively hosted more than a hundred top amateur and professional competitions since the mid-1950s, including more than 20 Spanish Opens, 40 professional tournaments and 60 national and international amateur events.
In The Golf Courses of Javier Arana by Alfonso Erhardt Ybarra, the author has this to say about the architect’s design philosophy:
“One of the standout features of Arana’s designs is their deceptive simplicity: they harbour complex situations for the game, none of which is visible at first glance. This, again, reflects Simpson’s influence: ‘The vital thing about a hole is that it must either be more difficult than it looks or look more difficult than it is. It must never be what it looks.’
It would be inaccurate to suppose that Arana got some sort of perverse enjoyment from devising complicated puzzles, but the fact was that when his courses opened they attracted a torrent of criticism – partly because so many Spanish golfers were terribly bad at the game and partly because Javier’s innovations exponentially raised the complexity of a given venue when compared to the local frame of reference it replaced.
In counterpoint to the problems posed to the low-handicap player, the fact is Arana’s designs are in keeping with the features popularised by Robert Trent Jones: ‘Hard par, easy bogey.’ Perhaps it is this trait of Arana’s courses that has earned the appreciation of players of all levels. And this element may have been vital in inhibiting course proprietors from touching up Arana’s original concepts – this again exhibits the value of his legacy.
There was only one fixed rule in all Arana’s designs which incidentally represented one of his few absolutely invariable hallmarks: having a par-three at the seventeenth… His designs always feature a short hole in the second or third as a way of upsetting the balance of the match from the outset and another par three at the 17th as a sort of ‘tiebreaker’ when the match is closely run.
Arana took care that the fairways were not completely flat (and they) exhibit a profusion of doglegs and tees that are usually orientated at an angle. As with his fairways, in the design of his greens Arana kept faith with Simpson’s teachings. The central idea is that they be orientated at an angle to the fairway, conferring an advantage on the player who has successfully placed his ball on the appropriate side.
Javier’s posthumous work – the Aloha Golf Club in Marbella – is perhaps the best compendium of the different style of green he essayed over the course of his architectural career. The variety is immense and an intriguing challenge is guaranteed. The course is an admirable combination of tiers, tilted planes, ripples and undulations, a higher front than the rear with internal contour and even some flat greens.
His fairway sand traps were few and usually quite large to simplify maintenance and maximise visibility from the tee. Around the green, Arana seldom used more than three bunkers, always generously sized. For greens at an angle with the fairways, he would use a single bunker. For the rest, he would place bunkers at both sides of the green, but especially narrowing its entrance.
Other hazards, such as streams and lakes, are rare on Arana’s courses. Spatial and budgetary constraints at the time his courses were built precluded the inclusion of artificial hazards driven by aesthetic or strategic concerns. In any event, Arana’s austere spirit was no friend to artificial devices that might deprive his designs of the naturalness for which he so ardently spoke. Whenever his layout does in fact include a water hazard, it almost invariably serves some functional need to integrate the natural components of the land occupied by the golf course.”
From a Golf magazine obituary written by Pepe Gancedo:
“From these lines, Javier, I would like to speak on your behalf. I would like to speak to many players, club captains, management officers and what have you. I would like to say what you no longer can say. And, forgive me, Javier, but I have to say it in a shout:
DON’T YOU DARE TOUCH THAT BUNKER!
LEAVE THAT TREE JUST WHERE IT IS!
DON’T MOVE THAT TEE!
I shout now and will do so always whenever some fool makes so bold as to change your design, the design of the master, because I know every detail of your work was thought through and through a thousand times before it was made a reality, and altered yet again an infinity of times whenever you were not quite happy with the result.
Anyone who truly knows what a golf course is…anyone who senses what I feel when I set foot on any of your tees – that the hole is talking to me, tempting me, pushing me this way and that, making suggestions or threats – anyone who really knows what golf is all about, will join me in my shout to defend your work.
We shall do the best we can, because there is always some brute drawing charcoal spectacles and moustaches to deface a Madonna painted by Murillo. Javier, thank you for everything and may God keep you in his glory.”