There are a great number of golf clubs in the USA that only allow members and their guests to play their course but thankfully, in Europe, the vast majority of courses are accessible, even if a hefty green fee has to be paid.
There are a small number of golf establishments though that seem to thrive on their exclusivity (think Queenwood or Skibo Castle in the UK, for example) and La Zagaleta on the Costa del Sol is one of the few Spanish clubs that exclude pay and play golfers – in fact, they take great delight by stating “never could so few enjoy so much.”
Situated within a gated residential estate where properties are in the millionaire bracket, the La Zagaleta course (now called the Old course) was constructed in the early 1990s by American Brad Benz and he moved a fair amount of earth when establishing the rolling fairways that are routed over the mountain landscape here, above Benahavís.
A second 18-hole layout, Los Barrancos (now called the New), opened in 2007 and it will be interesting to see if this Steve Marnoch/Jonathan Gaunt co-design can match the high standards set by the original course.
Architect Bradford Benz commented as follows:
“When I first saw the La Zagaleta project site I was a bit overwhelmed in that there appeared to be scarcely more than a few square meters here and there where the natural topography was not excessive. Slope severity was likely to be a problem. However, we persevered and over time and many walks throughout the dense brush I recognized a pattern was beginning to reveal some important clues.
Where I saw sizeable trees there was minimal
groundcover vegetation except for low-growing grasses which were ideal. The
soils appeared quite fertile. The practicality of what appeared to be a
daunting design and golf course construction challenge became less formidable.
From that point and onward naturally appearing sites for putting greens and tee
sites were identified and constructed followed by both sand and grass bunkers.
The routing of the golf course was found naturally by walking the property over
and over again. In time everything fell neatly into place.”
In 2016-17, architect Marc Westenborg renovated the Old course at La Zagaleta, replacing cool season creeping bent grasses on tees and fairways with Bermuda. Irrigation and drainage systems were upgraded and most of the course bunkers were reworked or renovated to add a little more style and flair. The 6th green was also redesigned.
Yesterday I had the great experience of playing and having lunch at La Zagaleta. I had hear a lot about the course and the property, but it is never as precise as when you get to experience not only the course, the crew service, the exclusivity but the silence during play and the challenge the course puts in front of you.
The first say I have is that it looks a lot more narrow than what it actually is and this might be due to elevated tee shots to valleys and some trees on both sides of tee boxes which are actually very very small and it is great because due to little amount of rounds they don’t need them to be bigger!
The experience starts with your name being checked at the Security Gate which makes you see not many are set to get in! Then as you drive to the Club House the views start to appear and the size of the homes is quite above the regular standards but with very good taste and a wide variety of architectonic styles. Then at the Club House each Member has his parking spot assigned and we the guests will be headed to the ones without one. The walk to the Club House begins the journey and once you are checked in, a nice coffee and croissant at the terrace facing 9th and 18th gets you started for the ride.
Practice facility is small, not longer than 200yds and with a roof to protect you from rain (does it really rain here?) or heat. Some wedges and 7 irons is enough to get you ready, you will need your tee shots to be arrows and that is the clue to scoring. Luckily my driver had a good day and that makes it the reason of a great round, my only lost ball was an errant shot on par 3 5th with the hybrid!
The sensation is always the same: on the tee shot you feel your legs shaking due to the danger usually on both sides and a mandatory carry but then when you walk to fairways they have a lot more space than what you see from above. So my first call is that if you get a second round here you will feel a lot less stressed off the tee boxes. We played the back and it says 6700yds, tee shots will go longer but also approaches are many times up the slope so in the balance the actual length is real.
The maintenance is 6 stars, every fairway is a carpet, greens with almost no traces of balls landing and bunkers look just perfect (I didn’t visit one single one, but silicious sand looked just pristine). Rough is not close to penal but it will need a good contact as you many times play to elevated greens.
The layout is very good, with variety en difficulty and distance with short 3s, medium length and 2 long ones (5th and 17th). Par 4s are of every type, long, strait, sharp doglegs to both sides (1st to the left, 12th 90º to the right being one of the best holes) and the 5s have everything: very long 4th which demands 3 perfect shots (tee shot should not be a driver), reachable 6th and 8th but very well protected greens, downhill reachable 11th although tee shot has to be laser precise and finale 18th where you need 2 perfect hits and a very good approach shot.
The Design of the greens is again varied and my favorite was 15th where the green plays uphill and it is a gentle slope from front to back. Many designers at course at La Costa del Sol make the huge mistake of big platforms in holes that already play steep uphill and sometimes a 1m short shot can end 25m from pin and it is not fair at all, I can call a huge amount of greens like that in other courses. They were not as firm and fast as they say to be in winter but due to heat it is how they need to be kept, all the same speed was quite good and roll was as true as you can ask.
As for most liked holes there are quite a bite. First 5 are the toughest stretch on the course and if you get over them in shape even with some missed shots then the round could flow quite well! I need to point the following ones:
- Long par 5 4th: narrow tee shot, narrow layup and a demanding 3 to a 2 platform green. You are close to disaster until the ball lies inside the hole!
- Short par 4 6th: reachable but a couple of trees on the left side of the tee box make it mandatory to be a high draw and I was not confident so 4 iron and PW to a safe par!
- Par 4 12th plays shorter than actual yardage with a 90º dogleg right tee shot to a green downhill where along approach will make you sweat strong.
- Short par 3 13th where I was just inches from an ace looks easy but calculating distance is not easy at all, play it a little bit longer than what your eyes tell you.
- Par 4 14th is another sharp dogleg right where you just need 225 yds off the tee and then a wedge but miss right and you will need to reload and then uphill second shot to a 3 tier green demands extreme sharpness.
- Par 5 18th is a great end to this round. It is not a narrow tee shot as what your eyes tell you, if you pay attention during breakfast you will see there is space to miss and if you push it a little bit then she might roll back to the fairway.
After a great morning of golf lunch followed and it was great to listen from first-hand what the club is about by their CEO who is a 51yrs old golfer that can seriously play the game. And when you see him face every shot you understand that confidence is what golf is about.
I have to say I am grateful for an opportunity like this and very happy my game helped me to enjoy the course. A well worth visit and strongly recommendable to everybody who has the chance to step in.
I got the chance to play here a couple of weeks ago, having just flown into Malaga earlier in the day for a short golf trip to the Costa del Sol. Before playing the Old course, one of the New course architects, Steve Marnock, gave me and my colleague Brian Ward a tour of the other layout, which helped in no small measure to put any perceived extremities on the Old course into some sort of perspective.
If you want to play exhilarating, yet very demanding, mountain golf then the New course fits the bill in so many ways, with ultra-elevated tee positions, narrow fairways running along canyon edges, infinity greens perched on precarious ridges and all the thrills and spills expected of a layout that rises and falls around 300 metres between the 1st tee and the 18th green – in comparison, the Old course is quite a bit more subdued!
The par four 1st on the Old sets the tone for what’s to follow, with the tree-lined fairway doglegging right and down to a large, flattish green that slopes from back to front. In common with many of the putting surfaces, there’s no point being too long as your ball will be gone forever if you fly the green. The par five 4th was my favourite hole on the front nine, its fairway falling off steeply to the right as it makes its way towards a large, multi-tiered putting surface.
On the back nine, three of the last six holes are par threes, starting with the spectacular 132-metre 13th, played downhill to a green nestled at the foot of a large hill (that looks as though it might slip down at any moment onto the course) with a water course and pond placed in front of the putting surface for good measure – don’t expect any of the short holes to offer much respite here as they’re all really tough!
We didn’t get to tackle the par five 18th which was out of commission at the moment due to the renovation of a large, deep lake that seems to offer most of the playing strategy en route to the home green. Rated stroke index 2, the hole looks to offer a rather daunting finish to a regular round on the Old course, one that you’ll not forget in a hurry either.
The armed gatehouse guards say it all - this is a very, very private place! Rumour has it that Putin has had a hill top levelled around here for another little holiday home.
Having been lucky enough to receive an invitation, the day dawned sunny and warm and the reception was friendly enough, and after a leisurely breakfast, we decided it was time to tee off - there was no one else there, so we could choose to start whenever we wished. The practice facilities are limited but adequate.
As you might expect, the conditioning of the course was fabulous - you would expect that with more staff than members! Not particularly long, even off the back from where we played, all holes were interesting as they carved their way through the hilly landscape. It looked tight off each tee but there is much more space than meets the eye and it reminded me of a much more playable Monte Mayor (much lamented). The views over Gibraltar and the Riff Mountains in Morocco are spectacular. This is a fabulous place to play if you get the chance and is as good as anywhere in the south of Spain.
Is it a 5 or 6 star course? I’ll give it 5 because it is not a great test for the good player and the number of lateral hazards because of ravines, etc. As a mid handicapper, I scored well and really enjoyed it. Sadly, few will ever get the chance to even see it, let alone play it.