Situated in the Albufera Nature Park on the shores of the Mediterranean, not far from Valencia lies El Saler, or Campo de Golf El Saler to be precise. Javier Arana designed El Saler and it opened for play in 1968 to a rapturous standing ovation. In fact, shortly after the course opened, it was acclaimed the No.1 layout in Continental Europe.
Arana built only ten Spanish courses in a design career spanning thirty years, from 1946 to 1975. El Saler, the ninth course that he constructed in a very high-class portfolio, is widely regarded as his crowning glory.
The course is routed across extremely varied terrain with some holes flanked by umbrella pines and others by towering sand dunes with the aquamarine Gulf of Valencia never far away. It’s a very long and challenging course – somewhat links-like in places – and it measures 6,355 metres from the tips.
Well, it’s long and challenging for most people, unless your name is Bernhard Langer. Langer loves El Saler; he posted a course record score of 62 here during the last round of the 1984 Spanish Open… a remarkable 10 under par.
Actually, the two-time Masters champion returned to El Saler five years later to claim his second Spanish Open title, holding off a strong challenge from Spain’s José Maria Cañizares and Englishman Paul Carrigill to lift the trophy again. The Spanish Open has since been hosted by El Saler in 2001 (Robert Karlsson winning with a score of 277) and in 2013, when Raphaël Jacquelin claimed his fourth European Tour title in a record equalling sudden-death playoff that lasted two hours and took nine holes to complete.
Javier Arana has done a wonderful job, fitting the course to the terrain in a very natural and pleasing way. The raised and invariably elevated greens are tricky to locate and they are conditioned quite superbly. El Saler is quite rightly at the top of any visiting golfer’s agenda… it’s got everything going for it.
The following edited extract is from “The golf courses of Javier Arana” by Alfonso Erhardt Ybarra and is reproduced here with kind permission from the author:
The El Saler project brought together a cluster of unique, unrepeatable circumstances that enabled Javier to work without fear of interference. The Ministry of Information and Tourism had no interest whatever in getting involved in the architect’s role, so Javier enjoyed complete freedom. The oblong-shaped plot purchased by the ministry from Valencia city council ran to about seventy hectares. It was a dream property for any golf course architect, bounded by the beach for an entire kilometre and combining an open area of gently rolling sand dunes with Mediterranean pine forest standing on flat ground.
Javier had worked at El Prat and Neguri on ground sharing several of the characteristics of El Saler. In all three cases, the property features an open seaside area combined with a pine forest further inland; and, at the earlier two courses, the front nine adjoins the seashore, while the back nine threads its way among the pines. At El Saler, however, Javier found a different solution, interspersing seaside holes with forest holes throughout the front and back nines. The outcome is a splendid routing that exploits the natural setting to the full, with each loop masterfully combining the sand dunes, the pinewood and the transition between the two.
One of the key features of the of the routing is the ever-present use of triangulation; no two consecutive holes are orientated in the same direction, so the player must continually adapt his game to the prevailing wind conditions, hole by hole. Although El Saler has some brilliant holes, one of the vital features of the course is the solid nature of the whole, with no holes letting down the experience. As Simpson [Javier’s one-time architectural partner] said: ‘It is not individually great holes that make a great golf course. It is rather the relationship that exists between one hole and another’.
The greens at El Saler are without a doubt the finest that Arana has left to us and only the most skilled putters will come away unscathed. They are generally vast in size, at over 700 square metres each, and an average forty metres long. This size lends the course immense versatility, since holes play very differently depending on the placement of the pin, albeit at the cost of demanding greater accuracy from approach shots if overly long putts are to be avoided. Arana used various resources to create challenging green surfaces: false fronts, tiers, convex greens and small promontories surrounded by minor slopes of closely mown grass.
Another highlight is the presence of more than a hundred bunkers, contrasting with Arana’s philosophy of not having more than about fifty. The average size of each sand trap is far smaller than the rest of Javier’s courses, particularly within the area of influence of the greens, where he aimed to emulate British ‘pot bunkers’.
One might say El Saler is a compendium of Javier’s design philosophy, in that it encompasses all his hallmarks as a golf course architect. But the solutions to which he usually resorted are used in subtle ways, with no monotonous resemblance among holes or any sense of repetition. The result is a course that barely lets the player catch breath from the first hole to the last.
If you would like to find out more or purchase “The golf courses of Javier Arana” then click the link.
My trip to El Saler last week was the fifth of nine still-existing Javier Arana courses that I’ve visited. Hopefully, I’ll get to see another two of his layouts next year if an intended golfing excursion to Madrid comes off. El Saler’s considered to be the architect’s crowning glory by many but would it endear itself to me?
First off, the tee sheet was absolutely rammed with four balls for an ordinary weekday in November so if that’s normally the case then this place obviously takes a hammering from visiting golfers. Unfortunately, the scorecard states a suggested playing time of 4 hours 57 minutes for a 4-ball group so be prepared for a slow round.
With such a high-yield cash cow to milk you can understand why conditioning may have been questioned in the past but I couldn’t find fault anywhere on the main playing corridors. Trees and scrub to the side of fairways could be cleared (especially on the back nine) but playing surfaces from tee to green were very well tended.
An aerial photograph in The Golf Courses of Javier Arana book shows how open the layout was when it first opened more than fifty years ago, with fairways bounded by sandy waste areas containing trees in small numbers. These trees have now matured on the inland holes to give greater definition and offer more seclusion on the early holes of both nines.
The layout’s characterized by the absolutely massive bunkers that line many of the fairways and surround the huge greens – those who think Ganton or Woodhall Spa has too many deep sand pits will no doubt throw up their hands in horror when they see the scale of similar hazards here! If you’re in any way imprecise with your approach play then you’ll invariably have to play a sand shot to recover your position.
I loved the first four tree-lined holes, culminating with the long diagonal step in the green on the par three 4th (a feature repeated in a more exaggerated fashion on holes 5 and 8), then the course steps up another gear for the remainder of the front nine when things open out and fairways become firmer underfoot as they play out along the coastline.
The opening six holes on the back nine are routed through a landscape of pine forest which is, at times, quite reminiscent of Neguri (though, as earlier mentioned, the vegetation framing some of the holes could be substantially thinned out) before the final three links holes are routed around the large practice area.
Earlier reviewers make no comment about this facility but, for me, it’s a total eyesore on holes 16 and 18, detracting greatly from the playing experience at the end of the round. Thankfully, the high wire fence and players inside are hidden from view at the brilliant par three 17th but it would be great to have something like low dunes completely screen this area on the other two holes.
There’s no doubt this is one of the very best pay and play tracks on the continent of Europe but whether it’s got what it takes to make the quantum leap into a World Top 100 is another matter altogether. No matter what, it’s a wonderful place to play and highly recommended for anybody interested in golf course design.
El Saler is different from other courses in Spain: for a start there are no lakes and no par 5 finish over water. You can see plenty of water - the beautiful blue Mediterranean Sea - but like many seaside links courses in Britain the sea doesn't come into play. Is this a links? It’s next to the sea, the soil is sandy and free draining, it plays through dunes, the main defence is the wind. The grass is different though and doesn’t create the firm turf that links are famous for.
The course starts with a gentle par 4 playing through the pine trees, but it’s not until the 5th when you get your first glimpse of the sea as you play a par 5 which slopes down to the shore. This hole plays into the prevailing wind and allows you to play a low running shot, but when I played it was downwind and after two good shots I was putting for eagle. 6 and 7 play away and then back down to the sea, but 8 is a real highlight, a medium length par 4 along the beach to a green partly hidden between two dunes. A pulled approach and you could easily be stepping between sunbathers in bikinis to retrieve your ball. 9 is another cracker – a short par 3 to a small elevated green, when the Spanish Open was here I watched the pros struggling to hold the green downwind, when I played it was straight into the wind and required a pure strike to find El Saler’s answer to the postage stamp.
Visually, the back nine is less picturesque than the front nine as it mainly plays through the pines, but it’s still a real challenge, with the fairway bunkering a real feature. The finish is then excellent: 17 is a stunning par 3 playing towards a green nestled in the dunes and heavily guarded by bunkers, then 18 is a long tough par 4 running parallel to the beach.
I love the way the architect blended together the inland and seaside holes. This course has so much character, but coupled with a breeze it really offers a challenge to even the top pros. It’s quite a long course, but there is plenty of run on the fairways. I went there with my driver on fire, but found myself hitting hybrid off many of the tees to avoid the fairway bunkers. The holes play in all directions, so dealing with crosswinds is as much a challenge as playing into the wind. This is right up there, when you add in the sun, the paella and the fantastic city of Valencia it doesn't get much better.
This is an excellent golf course. It is a links course right beside the sea with plenty of open sandy areas but it is different to links courses in Ireland and Britain because the grass that grows here is a tougher more wiry grass. If you slightly miss hit an iron the club can catch on the grass whereas back home the club tends to bounce into the ball. El Saler has a marvelous mixture of holes starting with tree lined early holes but opening out on the 5th tee. The back nine has the same mixture with lots of big pine trees shaping holes and wide open expanses as well. A feature of teh course is the huge greens with ery back undulations and steeps. You are told wherer te flag is on each green and this is important to try and stop having a lot of very long putts. From the very start it is a course full if interesting and challenging golf holes. Javier Arana designed a nice mix of short challenging par 4s and long tough brutes. The 18th is probably the toughest of them all, a very long hole with the sea and waste land all along the right and a green perched near the clubhouse and hotel some distance away.
The par 3s are excellent with a good mix of length, style and direction.
I would thoroughly recommend this course, no wonder the Spanish Open used to be played here. The hotel was excellent as well.
Tim - I'm delighted to read this excellent review. You're spot on with your observations. This course is completely underrated and has gone from strength to strength in recent years. I consider it the #1 course in Spain, and the recognition among the World Top 100 is long overdue. El Saler is outstanding and so unique.
I have heard that the course was difficult to appreciate because its conditioning was not very good. I found the course to be in excellent shape when I played it.
The course has an interesting routing that starts out in a pine forest with unique Arregle Piques trees. The first four holes play in the trees: then, beginning at the fifth hole you start to approach the Mediterranean and get the links feel of the course. Arana designed some interesting and challenging greens with many contours.
The third is a world-class par five with a blind tee shot and a double dog-leg left that plays to a narrow green. The green has deep bunkers on both sides and two trees protecting the front of the green. The fairway slopes left to right. This hole is ranked as one of the 500 best in the world according to George Peper's book of the same title. The difficult green is oblong and protected by deep bunkers on both the left and right. It is a very good strategic hole with a narrow fairway from tee to green that requires precision the entire way.
The eighth is a very good short par four that plays along the Mediterranean. There is a sand dune about twenty feet high to the right of the green. The fairway snakes along to the right and then to the left prior to getting to the multi-tiered green that is sighted between the big sand dune on the right and the sand dunes protecting the ocean on the left.
El Saler is worth a visit, particularly because it is near the beautiful and fun city of Valencia, which is one of my favorites in Europe.
John Sabino is the author of How to Play the World’s Most Exclusive Golf Clubs
A golf course has to be pretty solid and you have to be fairly excited to see it in order to be inspired to drive 3 hours one way while on vacation to play it. Sure most people wouldn’t do this I guess (besides American golf fanatics, as I imagine they are used to that). This is exactly what I did. El Saler didn’t disappoint.
I think my first comment would be how surprised I am to see a routing this interesting existing on essentially a resort pay and play course in Spain. This course is a perfectly subtle myriad of pine forest, sand dunes and sea. There is a lot to like about El Saler. Excellent and very interesting green complexes and surrounds. Fantastic bunkering, and even though there are more than 100 of them on the course not a single one feels out of place. In some cases they most certainly dictate play and strategy but in nearly every case they work. The shaping is excellent in the author’s opinion. Some of them feel like they could be sitting on courses like Woodhall Spa or Ganton. Others have a distinctive feel that you are Down Under on one of the great Sand Belt courses.
El Saler for me would be the kind of course I would love to play on a daily basis, especially when the wind is up, otherwise it might be a little warm. It’s a joy to walk and very much a walking course, which is also quite rare in Spain from my experience, especially with regards to the resort courses.
A glorious matrimony of land and sea. While the legendary Javier Arana was preparing the nuptial of natural topology and coastal sand dunes in 1968, he took advantage of undulating land to deliver an entertaining routing that seamlessly brings you through pine forests and out to the ocean’s edge.
El Saler is unlike any other course in Spain. While many Spanish courses have views of the ocean from elevated platforms, El Saler reaches out and grabs the beach, leaving its footprints in the sand.
The solid opening stretch weaves you through the forest and begins the journey to the sea. Holes 5 through 8 and 16 through 18 behold the sounds of the sea, existing in a windswept exposed state and could easily be mistaken for any venue on the Open rotation.
The genius of the routing is that Arana was building a golf course within the boundaries of a nature park with significant environmental restrictions.
While there are mouth-watering sand dunes available along the coast outside of the club’s boundaries, the land is sadly not available for golf development. It’s understandable that the holes along the sea get much of the attention; however those with an educated eye will see the wonder of those holes winding their way through the Mediterranean pine forest.
His use of trees and bunkers to frame your line of sight is admirable. The green-sites are works of art throughout the property with fabulous shaping, most notably the natural undulations of the 8th and 17th greens. The holes just sit on the land that was given to the architect more than any other I’ve seen in recent years.
The simplicity of its creation makes El Saler a world class piece of architecture worthy of global acclaim. The course demands shot-making skill and imagination, rather than power - rendering a tear in my eye as I wondered how Seve played the course.
While other courses were struggling with conditioning, I was delighted to see that El Saler is getting appropriate investment and oversight ensuring top quality playing canvases.
Many of the holes are among the Top 500 holes in the World (eg: par 3 17th) and you can feel it as you walk around a very unique layout. The bunkers are works of art and always feel in the right place, which is a testament to their creator as there are more than 100 of them on the course.
The design of the sand traps are a dangerous mix of beauty and deception, and often reminded me of the pot bunkers in the British Isles or the murderous pits at Ganton. In my humble opinion, El Saler is not only the #1 course in Spain, but it’s a glaring omission from the Top 100 courses in the World.