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.
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.