Everybody has heard about Valderrama “the Augusta of Europe” but its success is really down to Jaime Ortiz-Patino and a few of his golfing mates. In 1985, the industrialist billionaire bought what was then a fairly average course. He then spent an absolute fortune on it and now it’s one of the best courses in the world.
In 1975 Robert Trent Jones first laid out the course, which was originally known as Los Aves. It is located prominently on a hill above the old Andalucian village of Sotogrande. The layout remained relatively anonymous until 1985 when Jamie and his mates recalled Trent Jones to subtly reshape Valderrama and the club has not looked back since.
Many golfers will be familiar with Valderrama from TV coverage. The club has hosted a plethora of championships, including the Volvo Masters and the legendary 1997 Ryder Cup, which saw a narrow one point European victory under the captaincy of none other than Seve Ballesteros.
The closing holes are always described as tough with a capital “T” but if you choose your tee sensibly from the off, it’s an eminently playable course for golfers of most abilities (the maximum handicap allowed at Valderrama is 24 for men 32 for ladies). The 17th hole is naturally the most memorable. It’s called Los Gabiones and was once just a long par five until the water was installed just in front of the green. Now it’s a question of shall we lay up or should we go for it?
Despite the fact that Valderrama is an elite private members club, visitors can still obtain the key to the first tee. It’s certainly not the cheapest green fee in Europe but, because Valderrama is never overplayed, it’s always in tip-top condition. Valderrama is also completely in tune with nature. Apart from Loch Lomond, it’s is the only other European golf club to be awarded full Audubon status (Audubon's mission is to conserve and restore natural ecosystems). Play Valderrama and prepare to be impressed… very impressed.
Jaime Ortiz-Patino, the owner and honorary president at Valderrama, died in a hospital in Marbella in January 2013. The legendary figure played a key role in bringing the 1997 Ryder Cup to Spain. “Valderrama is his masterpiece, his legacy,” commented Jose-Maria Olazabal. “He wanted to make it a very special place, and he did it. He put Valderrama and that part of Andalucia on the map.”
In June 2014, Ortiz-Patino would have been extremely proud. A few days before his abdication, His Majesty King Juan Carlos of Spain, granted Valderrama the Royal title. Club de golf Valderrama was duly renamed to Real Club Valderrama.
A Robert Trent Jones course, it was originally a real estate play in the mid-1970s. Fortunately, the new owner, Jaime Ortiz-Patino, had grander visions, so more land was acquired and Jones was brought back in the mid-1980s. The most distinguishable attribute of Valderrama are the 2000 plus cork trees. Valderrama is a barkie paradise with one drawback; have you ever heard a golf ball hit cork? The unmistakable barkie sound that we are so used to is muffled poing. I had lots of poing opportunities.
Jones takes the hard par easy bogey to another level here by utilizing his bunker in the sky approach, i.e. overhanging trees. As an example, the first hole, it is an S shaped hole and to have a clear shot at the green the tee shot must be on the left hand side of the fairway. Even then the green is well guarded by trees with the best approach a high right to left trajectory. I took my double on the first hole and humbly moved onto the second hole, called El Arbol. The second hole is about 390 yards but there are multiple trees crossing the fairway, about 125 yards in front of the green. My caddy, Jaime, told me to aim at the cork tree in the middle of the fairway. Unfortunately, I hit it straight. To have a chance your drive must be left. If not, then you face the dilemma of going over or trying to hit a punch below. I ended up trying both, as I did not get my seven iron up enough and where the ball came to rest I had no choice but to hit a low punch.
A common theme at Valderrama is to favor the left hand side of the fairway on your drives. If you are a slicer, I would suggest getting a bottle of sangria because you will have a really tough time.
The par 5 fourth hole is my favorite hole. It is called La Cascada. It has been recognized by many publications as one of the top 500 golf holes in the world. Jones himself once described it as, “It’s probably the best of all of my par 5’s and in my opinion one of the truly great par 5’s in the world.” A straight tee shot is a must and the safest spot for your second shot is the right side. This brings in all the trouble. If you can hit it far enough with a draw, this will afford you the best position from which to attack the pin. I was lucky when I played because the pin was up. If it is the back you have to contend with water right, a bunker left and an overhanging tree on the left side as well.
One of the strengths of Valderrama is the short par fours. This is not a grip and rip it course. While not a real long course by today’s standards, it is the subtleties and nuances that make the big differences. The shortest par 4 the 8th is called El Bunker. No surprise, but you must shape your tee shot to the left side to have an unobstructed view to the green, but the front third of the green is hugged by a ginormous bunker. Oh, and don’t forget the overhanging trees.
My caddy, Jamie, warned me about the difficulty of El Muro, the ninth hole. It is long but a good drive and a good five wood set up my par. I asked why it was called the wall and nobody knew; perhaps that was the difficult part. Jamie also told that me that I would love the tenth hole. What a &%U&^*&$#^&(* crock. It is a dogleg right with a lake on the elbow. As with many of the tee boxes here, you find yourself hitting out of a chute, knowing you have to get the ball up quickly and the best landing area is on the left hand side. I failed this test miserably, hit the trees on the right and it was an epic battle to secure a triple bogey. My caddy convinced me to hit a mulligan off the tee, I hit it well and it did end up in the middle of the fairway. Even if this had been my first drive, I had not reached the corner and while only 150 yards out it was still blocked out by a cork tree with no choice but to try to hit a big sweeping fade.
The 11th, is called Un Sueno, which means dream. It is a very manageable par 5 but it has the best view on the course which includes the Mediterranean Sea, the Rock of Gibraltar and the Serriana de Ronda Mountains. The 13th hole is called Sin Bunker. One of my foursome was an English retiree. He made the stereotypical ugly American look good as he wore a striped shirt, plaid shorts and white knee socks. What really topped off this ensemble was the little bit of leg flesh that you could see was whiter than his white socks! When we got to the green he said, “Where is the Sin Bunker?” I replied, “There isn’t one.” He was confused and said, “I expected it to be like the Hell Bunker. I was going to compare them but I don’t see one at all. Is it a joke?” I then tried to explain that ‘sin” in Spanish means without and is pronounced almost like “seen.” Shades of Abbott and Costello.
The par 5 17th is a great risk/ reward hole that many of you may remember from the 1997 Ryder Cup. Of course, for me, I did not have to worry about the risk on my second shot, but I did on my third. The pin was on the front and Jamie suggested that I do not make the same mistake that the rest of the foursome had made. Fortunately, I was able to steer my wedge onto the green, where a dry ball is a happy ball, and made par. Another interesting aspect of this hole was that the look and feel was completely different from the rest of the course. Seventeen seemed much more wide open. You really had to hit a bad shot to bring the trees into play.
The 18th is a tough finishing hole, once again out of a chute and you need to hit it at least 225 to get to the corner to have a shot at par. Needless to say, I did not and I limped in with another triple.
As you can probably tell, I am a fan of Valderrama. It’s not long, but definitely tricky. This is a shot maker’s course. It reminded me of Suhalee and Harbour Town with narrow tree lined fairways that force you to try to shape your shots. Key word “try.” It can be somewhat demoralizing to hit a good drive, find yourself in the fairway and be blocked out and being forced to hit a screaming hook, power fade, knockdown or hit and hope.
I had highest expactations playing Valderrama. The Club and the course met these expectations. May be that the conditions were not 10 out of 10 (were 9 / 10; driving range not in best conditions and greens not running 12 on a stimpmeter (i was glad about this fact)) the holes (every single hole) are absolutely memorable. A side effect of the high greenfee price is that the course is not crowded...we enjoyed it a lot...definitely one of the best courses in Europe
This was my third 18 holes round at Valderrama (I also played 9 holes twice more) and again was defeated by the course, although in a different way. On this time on a windy day and with some silly mistakes I was 5 over on 17th with the ball on the green in 2. 15 minutes later after a 3 putt and a double on 18th a disappointing 78 was posted on the scorecard, which tied my “course record”! But those 2 holes left me with a bad taste as I played a lot better than that, but that is what Valderrama is: tough to the limit and EVERY mistake will be punished, no matter if it is a small one, she will always win.
I will not describe every hole as all readers could get a more detailed description of the course on the internet, but will try to help golfers who will play it in the future to try to avoid the mistakes I made. On 1st Hole tee shot needs to be on the left, as the right hand side trees will block your approach shot. On 2nd hole don’t be long on the left of the fairway tree, again blocked. On 3rd I over clubbed and a nice double bogey appeared, always better short. 4th was described by RTJ as the best par 5 he produced and I could agree, but a short shot could come 50yds back and I would say it is the toughest 100yds shot I have faced. Tee shot on 5th needs to be on the right, if left buy an axe to eliminate trees if you wish the go away from the forest. On 8th tee shot has to be no longer than 220yds or blocked again, if you go for the green (only very long hitters) the chances of disaster are huge. On par 5 11th don´t miss the green on the left, death penalty! 12th in my opinion is the toughest hole on the course and there is nowhere to miss … from 220yds! Going for the green on 17th is not a guaranteed birdie chance as the putting from the back side is tough. And 18th is the narrowest fairway and toughest drive I have faced, including Pine Valley, Merion, Shinnecock and more really tough courses! I can´t give you some help, I consider a miracle to hit this fairway!
The previous is just a short advice on the mistakes you need to avoid some of the mistakes I made. The course is great: tough, challenging, maintained close to perfection, fast greens, attention to details as good as it can be and then lunch at the Club House ends your golf day in perfection. Many consider it expensive and the price yes is high but compared with some other famed courses and their prices, it is fair and it is owrth the visit. And as there is a lot of golf in the area, you will want to come back!
Robert Trent Jones' design philosophy of "hard par, easy bogey" works well at Valderrama, although in the end it is quite a difficult course. The defining characteristic of the course, as you soon find out, is the over 2,000 old cork oak trees that are everywhere.
Valderrama excels on its short par four holes such as the eighth (296 meters), tenth (333 meters) and thirteenth (341 meters). Each requires you to hit to the appropriate side of the fairway in order to have a clean approach to the small, elevated, well-bunkered greens.
The tenth hole is a 333 meter sweeping dog-leg par four that requires your tee shot to land on the left side of the fairway to avoid the big cork tree that guards the hole on the right. There is a pond right of the fairway and shots on the right side of the fairway tend to run down the severe slope and feed into the water. In this regard, I found Valderrama to be similar to Merion, in that you have to be in the correct position on each fairway or your approach shot is much more difficult. I am not suggesting the two have a similar visual feel, simply that the way you have to approach playing each course is similar, with precision in putting a shot where you want to being of paramount importance.
Valderrama doesn't offer a let-up throughout the round and certainly not on the eighteenth hole. The cork trees are a constant presence on the course right up until the end. The eighteenth is a 397-meter dog-leg left. If you can cut the corner and hit over the cork trees on the left you will have a shorter shot to the green. The hole offers a safe option playing to the right, but your remaining shot to the green will be much longer. A pull off the tee is deadly since the rough and waste area left of the trees penalize such a shot.
I liked Valderrama a lot. It is one of the best conditioned courses I have played and I was blessed with a charming and experienced caddy (Vincente) who helped me by suggesting shot shapes and types throughout the round.
I would describe the course as a cross between Augusta (its conditioning, bunker style and the terrain) and Harbour Town (the overhanging trees and narrow fairways). Rather than finding the trees to be a gimmick, I thought it was a good design characteristic. I had to punch five irons and hybrid clubs, had to hit wedges over tress and attempt to use all clubs to start the ball low, land on the green and then stop. Or I had to try to hit a big hook or slice, mostly without success. It can certainly be frustrating to hit a fairway and not have a clear second shot; but the decision to hit over, under or around a tree is part of Valderrama's charm.
John Sabino is the author of How to Play the World’s Most Exclusive Golf Clubs
Lovely course but nowhere near as tough as they make out. The rough has been cut back and you rarely get an impossible lie. Greens are quick and the toughest thing about what is a second shot course. Les Bordes in a different league of difficulty.
Without a doubt the single most famous course in Spain. Unfortunately during my recent visit the course was closed for maintenance, however, to my benefit they were kind enough to take me on an extensive tour of the course so I could take photos and do a bit of studying, to prepare to play it another day.
For a keen student of golf course architecture having the chance to walk and carefully observe a course is every bit as interesting as playing it, though of course not quite as fun. Since this was my first visit to Valderrama I had heard many stories about the course. These ranging from stories of how it’s not the best course in Spain to it being the best course people have ever seen. One thing is for certain, in terms of maintenance and preparation it’s easily arguably on par with the best courses in the US which is something that can rarely be said about courses in Europe. That aspect of the course is top notch. Now obviously they have the budget to maintain it at this very high level as well which most certainly helps.
One of the comments I had heard in recent years was how narrow the course is due to the cork trees. I’d like to make a couple comments on my impressions here. Firstly there is no doubt that some holes feel rather tight. The reality is Valderrama does a significant amount of tree trimming and even removal each year. The cork trees are such an integral part of the course it would be tough to imagine what it would be like with out them. They certainly add an eerie, majestic charm. For my eye there are several places where I could envision more width being preferred that being said I couldn’t imagine the course without these trees and you won’t often here me say that as in general I’m not a fan of trees impinging on the playability or playing alleys of golf courses. A big question is would you think twice before removing Cypress trees from Cypress Point….I guess I would.
That being said it’s no surprise that one of my favorite holes visually was the par 5, 11th which was totally open with a sort of skyline green or so it appeared from the approach area with the exception of some background trees which I would argue to remove.
In terms of the routing, I’m sure it’s one of RTJ best efforts. What is questionable would be the usage of raised greens. For my liking there are a few too many, this of course always makes for a great and challenging test for the big events like the Spanish Open to push and challenge the very best players. It might be torture for high single and double-digit hcper’s.
Make no mistake, Valderrama is there to challenge the best players and that it does as good as any other course. If you ever get the chance to play, I’d say jump on it, bare down and bring on your A game, you will need every bit of it.
As to the question of whether or not it’s the best course in Spain, I would suggest (without having seen Sotogrande) that it’s either 1 or 2 and competes only with El Saler for this honor. It’s also most certainly Top 10 in Europe.
One thing is for sure, a thorough walk around this course certainly helps build the anticipation of one day hopefully being able to experience trying to pull off all those challenging shots. I imagine it to be the kind of course where you just add about 10 shots to your handicap (for single hcp’ers) and attempt to play as smart and conservatively as you can. I’d rate it 6-balls based on my extensive tour.