Situated right next door to Valderrama, three 9-hole courses comprise the golfing facilities at the 148-bedroomed hotel and residential complex at Almenera. “Pinos” (Pines) and “Alcornoques” (Cork) are the preferred loops for most golfers, though the “Lagos” (Lakes) nine does have many admirers too.
Dave Thomas laid out the 27-holes at Almenera in the late 1990s and he made a fine job of routing a series of tight fairways over hilly terrain, incorporating trademark mounding, bunkering and generously proportioned green sites into the modern design.
Five of the holes on the “Lagos” course contain water hazards but there are as many such holes on the “Alcornoques” nine so if golfers wish to avoid playing over and around water in an 18-hole round here, the lake-free “Pinos” will have to be played twice!
The original, uphill final “Alcornoques” hole has been shortened by over 150 yards from a rather unfair par five to a manageable par four (the 4th hole increasing by 25 yards to a par five to maintain a par of 36 for the nine holes) which is a far more satisfactory way to end a round now.
Unfortunately, I decided to stay and play at the Almenara resort and frankly I wish I had left my clubs at home and instead sat by the pool all day reading Fifty Shades of Grey.
Maybe I should rephrase that, it’s not that Almenara is bad. The hotel is actually lovely and the courses are very pretty. They are just incredibly, impossibly, improbably hard. Admittedly, I was there at the very start of September, which might not be its best month, but I was still tempted to throw my clubs into the lake by the end of each hole and that hardly makes for a pleasant holiday weekend.
Let’s put it this way – twice during my round we found a man selling bags of golf balls on the tee box. Why? Because so many people have lost every ball in their bag by the time they’ve got through half a dozen holes that he can make a small fortune from flogging you 25 balls for €1 each. Then, 6 or 7 holes later, he knows he can flog you another 25 because you will have lost the first lot!
On paper it’s not a hard course. It’s one of those typically Spanish resort affairs with three loops of 9. I played The Lakes and The Pines courses on three consecutive days, combining for a par 72. The problem is that with the southern Spanish sun beating down it makes it incredibly difficult to keep your ball anywhere near a playable fairway surface, even after a good shot.
The holes are generally quite tight, with out of bounds on both sides to accommodate the numerous lakes, forests and holiday villas, but the fairways are all cambered into the trouble. So, a well-driven shot will simply run off to the side and disappear, never to be seen again. It makes for an incredibly frustrating round because you have to be perfect, and lucky, not to lose a ball. I striped a couple of drives right down the middle but rather than finding them sitting plum for my next shot, they had disappeared. Every. Single. Time.
I’ve never lost so many balls in my life. In the end the money I forked out on balls was more expensive that the flight to Gibraltar. Okay, I’m not the best golfer in the world (I play off about 18) but these days I normally make it round just a ball or two lighter. Not 30!
I started on The Lakes each day and the long par 4 first with a slight dogleg left isn’t too difficult for an opening hole. However, the tight out of bounds left does encourage you to aim right, which falls away drastically onto the second hole. There is also a golf ball eating squirrel on that 2nd hole, evidently, because despite being the only part of the course with some open rough I never found my ball on any of the three occasions I played. Nor did my playing partners find theirs. Gone to the Almenara Golf Gods.
The second didn’t prove to be any kinder, despite being a relatively straightforward par 3. A slight hook, heavily accentuated by the strong winds one day lost another couple of balls, whilst on the other days I chose to aim right just because there was space over there and I wasn’t risking it again. A special mention must be made here to my playing partner, who managed to achieve some spectacular crazy golf, Happy Gilmore style, on this hole. After horrendously shanking it 45 degrees off the tee he hit a rock, ricocheted off, landed on the concrete path and then hopped 165 yards all the way down the hill to the green edge. He then chipped in from about 30 feet for a birdie!
The third is a very pretty par 4, downhill with out of bounds on the right and left and a lake to the right of the green and the last third of the fairway. A drive down the middle, however, just runs into the lake because the fairway slopes that way. Next time round I tried a 3 wood to leave it short and hit a longer iron. I didn’t lose the ball but it makes it a tough par 4 with a small green to hit on a long iron.
The 5th is an interesting hole, with a tee box high above the fairway and a right angle dogleg. In fairness, there is a lot of room here to thump a wayward drive, but even of you make the apex it’s still a 200 yard uphill shot to the green. I’m not complaining about a hole being difficult, but it’s hardly fair when the next hole is a bloody nightmare.
The 6th is a short par 4 which skirts around a lake. I say ‘lake’. By the time we were there it had all but dried up, leaving behind a chasm so large the like hasn’t been seen since Moses parted the Red Sea. Anyway, I looked at the course guide, picked a spot and fired a nicely judged 3 wood over some trees, hoping to cut off the apex slightly and find the fairway for a 100 yard chip in. Did that happen? No. Instead my ball disappeared, I assume by the edge of the lake, which is far, far further left into the fairway than the course guide suggests.
My partners had decided to play it safer with some nicely judged irons into the middle of the fairway. Did that work? No. The fairway, for reasons known only to the designer, is sloped away from the lake, running any ball hit ‘safely’ into another lake on the other side. So attack the hole with a Tiger line and lose it in the lake. Play it safe and aim short for the fairway and lose it in the other lake. What is the best way to play this hole? I have no idea. Maybe just use a putter.
Admittedly, the signature hole of the par 3 seventh is actually a lovely short hole. We did lose balls, but only because we are rubbish and deserved to lose them with poor shots. It wasn’t because the designer was perverse. Though, one could argue that the anger generated by the previous few holes affected our swings.
The 9th isn’t too bad a hole, though on one occasion the groundsman sat to the left of the fairway waiting for me to take a tee shot and, I don’t know about anyone else, but children and groundsmen are like fairway magnets to me. The minute I see one I end up drilling the ball right at them, no matter how much I try not to.
Onto The Pines loop. I originally suspected this was named after the prodigious pine forest all round it, but I soon discovered it was a lament for the lost golf balls you’d be pining over.
1st hole is a long, downhill par 5, right in front of the massive clubhouse terrace. I teed up on the first day and really got ahold of it. Right down the middle. Slight fade, but a nice looking shot. My partners were impressed, with lots of “Good shots” all round. I could tell the punters on the terrace thought I was some kind of golf pro as well, which always makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside. The trouble was that when it landed it bounced, once, twice, then rolled and then rolled and then started to roll to the left as the slope took it…and rolled right off the course. I never found it.
Twice more I played this hole and to be honest I was so flummoxed about what to do with it I pretty much duffed the next two attempts. If your very best shot results in a lost ball it’s hard to know where to go.
2nd Hole we lost more balls. Sometimes I don’t even know how I lost them. They seemed like they were in the middle of the fairway, but the Almenara Golf Gods sent out their thieving squirrels again because I never found them.
3rd hole we lost balls, despite all doing some course management and teeing off with an iron to minimize the risk. Anywhere on the fairway and it just runs off to the left due to the slope and on the left is out of bounds covered by dense trees and bushes.
The 8th hole I liked. I pared it twice. I have no idea how.
The 9th hole gave me a birdie on the first day after a monumental iron shot into the green and three feet from the hole. Of course, this meant that I was rubbish on this hole for the subsequent two rounds. Why is it that the pressure of repeating a good performance always destroys my game?!
Back to the clubhouse broken and dejected. To be fair, the terrace, with some pretty outstanding views and good beer, did go some way to making up for the terrible rounds. And when you factor in the lovely hotel rooms, the comfy beds, the good breakfasts, the pretty amazing swimming pool and the spa, it’s a lovely place to spend a few days. Just bring a lot of golf balls. Or better still leave the clubs at home and get your sado-masochistic kicks from Christian Grey as he defiles young Ana.