Valderrama played host to the 1997 Ryder Cup matches between the USA and Europe. Team Captains were Tom Kite (US) and Seve Ballesteros (Europe). The first Ryder Cup to be hosted on mainland Europe was a tale of Europe’s five rookies who produced an impressive performance in the pairs during the first two days, giving Europe a five-point lead going into the singles. The US rallied during the final day, winning the singles 8-4, but it came down to the last match between Colin Montgomerie and Scott Hoch which ended in a halve after Monty sportingly conceded Hoch’s 15-footer on the final green. Europe 14 ½ - USA 13 ½. The Ryder Cup was played at Oak Hill in 1995 and at the Country Club, Brookline in 1999.
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. Four years later, the club completed an extensive renovation programme which has completely transformed the course.
My first impression upon entering the gates is that Valderrama is a place of tradition and pristine condition. The enormous mosaic of the club’s emblem echo’s the importance that this club has to Spanish golfing history. Manicured gardens and old-style Spanish architecture greet you as you make your way around the property. The cork trees ensure that each hole is its own private creation and massively influence your club-selection of the tee. Some of the trees are positioned in the middle of a fairway (eg: 2nd hole), some are positioned in bunkers (eg: 5th green) and each of them will just individually haunt you. This course is not extremely long, but length is completely irrelevant when playing a golf course which demands finesse, accuracy and a good deal of bravery.
The 1st green sits below towering cork trees which will rebound any shot which is not going straight at the green. They protect the flag from all wandering golf balls and remind you from the get-go that this course will separate the men from the boys. While sitting in the “Spike Bar” before/after your round, you’ll see photographs of the players who have won at Valderrama – and then realize the correlation with being able to hit the ball straight (thank you Monty!). The 4th hole is an iconic par 5 which currently is undergoing a project to expand the green behind the rocks. The club wants to create more available pin-positions, but also to entice more players to go for the green in 2 shots. I support the project as the hole is just over 520 yards but the risk with currently going for the green is far too great – maybe compliments to RTJ for that original decision.
The par 3 6th could quite possibly be the most beautiful par 3 I’ve seen outside of Swinley Forest. It’s framed by trees with 6 bunkers running around the green. Pine Valley eat your heart out. The 8th hole is just 290 yards but it’s called “El Bunker” for a reason. Again, the smart play is an iron off the tee which will leave you with an approach shot to a tiny elevated green with enormous cork trees over-hanging the green with El Bunker wrapping it’s way around the putting surface. One of the golf’s greatest holes.
The back-nine starts with a roll-coaster 10th hole. A hugely sloped fairway secretly takes your ball diagonally towards a massive water hazard which you don’t really see from the tee, and then climbs back up to a well protected green. Valderrama continually demonstrates that you don’t need to have length to separate the shot-makers from the one-dimensional golfer. The Spanish professionals of the last few decades all have common characteristics, namely “imagination” and “touch”. Their imagination graces the halls at this club and it’s courses like this that helped them hone their skills before taking on the professionals of the world.
There are significant changes in elevation on the 11th (uphill par 5), the 12th (downhill par 3), the 14th (uphill par 4), the 15th (long downhill par 3), each of which are lined with cork trees that offer an individual experience at Valderrama and makes the holes extremely memorable. Each hole is so uniquely crafted that you can immediately recall the layout. The routing of the course is magnificent. You might only appreciate the changes in direction and the design variety when looking at an aerial view. When RTJ brought his skills to the South of Spain in 1975, he left us with a golf course which architects will visit for decades to come and will witness how to create excitement.
Like all great match-play/Ryder Cup venues, holes 15 through 17 are a tough stretch and could be where the matches end up. The 17th hole at Valderrama has a legacy which just a handful of par 5s around the world can boast. We all remember the torment that each gladiator faced as they pondered their second shot with the pond silently waiting for its prey. Hopes of a successful journey can be bashed by a murderous green which escorts Titleist products to a slow watery grave. The holes at this venue are famous and it’s an honour to have seen them with my own eyes. I consider myself lucky to have experienced this Spanish jewel and watch it sparkle in all its European glory.
Similar to Crump at Pine Valley or Fownes at Oakmont Patino has devoted a huge portion of his life towards Valderrama and what exists today is a true monument of his endeavours. He has strived to make Valderrama as sought after a golf course as the hallowed grounds of the above mentioned venues and immediately as you arrive at the Clubhouse and gaze down the hill onto the pristine practice grounds,one of the best I have encountered, it becomes apparent that he has achieved all his dreams and more.
I had been told for years about the attention to detail at Valderrama and its exemplary conditioning, but having been fortunate enough to have played some of the world's best tracks I did not expect it to be anything more impressive than I had seen before, however as soon as I reached the opening fairway I realised this was a place like no other. A couple of days before I played there had been extremely heavy rain, but if you had been unaware you would even had known it had rained, no wonder it received such high praise for its drainage after the Ryder Cup.
Comparisons with Augusta National are continuously drawn and although having not played the latter yet, given what I have seen these are easy to make given the conditioning,lack of any very penal rough and extremely slick greens. But after walking off the 18th and reflecting on the round I felt a more layout related comparison could be drawn with Pine Valley. For I believe they both possess the greatest blend/mix of holes I have encountered. Both have incredible long par 4's, tremendous par fives and 4 enchanting par 3's. But that is where that comparison ends, for however penal PV is, Valderrama is emmanently playable.
Trent Jones's moniker of "Hard par,easy bogey" is best illustrated here. I played Valderrama recently with my 14 h/cap father and he commented how much he enjoyed it in comparison to other Championship venues as he felt he could score around it, whereas I played from the tips and felt that it would be an extremely tough track to make birdies around under tournament conditions. One need only look at the scoring at the Volvo Masters down through the years as evidence of this.
The routing of the course is sheer genius with exceptional use made of the Cork trees, which Trent Jones refers to as his "bunker in the sky". Bomb and gouge is certainly not the order of the day around here and plenty of the 7500 yard obsessed "so called golf architects" would do very well to take into practice what has been created here. Positional play is very much the order of the day and the golfer who mindlessly steps out and reaches for the driver, looking merely at the length of the hole will find himself on the back foot sooner rather than later.
Many people are aware of the strength and features of holes like 4,,17 and 18 from tv coverage and enough has been written about these in glossy magazines, and there is a reason for this there are all tremendous design pieces of architecture. But it was the lesser known holes which really grabbed my attention. The 12th with its devilishly sloping green and dramatic fall off is right up there with the best one of one short holes. The 8th is an outstanding short par 4, that gets tougher the closer you drive to the green and its front to back slope propels only the sweetest strike. The second shot on ten is inviting but at the same time strikes fear into the player, even with a short iron in hand, the views from the 11th green is breathtaking. 13 and 14 are two tremendous par 4's one bunkerless the other littered with Muirfield styled traps, while 16 played into the "poniente" wind might just be one of the toughest par 4's in Europe.
Valderrama is a special place, as I said above it may not possess the defining traits which give other more fabled venues their noteriety but the place has just a little bit of them all which helps to make it what it is. If this golf course was located in the North East of America, I genuinely believe it would receive even more attention (but the all too heavily weighted American world rankings is a topic for discussion on another day). The charm of Valderrama is that it makes you want to play it over and over.....Hogan once said this is the sign of a good course, and who could disagree with Mr Hogan!
The course is in perfect condition, the greens are unbelievable and the aprons muct be faster than my home course's greens in the height of summer. I was blown away. It is so lush as well which is am amazing feat because of how warm and breezy the course can get. Without doubt (after the briliant 17th) my favourite hole is a tie between the 4th and the 13th which is named sin bunker. The drive is so tight it's unreal, and the second shot has to be negotiated around some tight and intimidating overhanging trees to a small green. Ball striking test at its finest.
So, to sum my day up, I want to go back and play again. Right now. I would fly out for the day to play it again. It's that good. Is it worth 300€? Im my opinion, absolutely. Is it one of the best courses in the world? Yes, without doubt. Do i envy all of the people that get to play it week in, week out? Yes, they are possibly some of the luckiest people in the world, I normally get bored of golf courses, however this course is different, you get a different challenge every time you play it, and no two shots are the same (unless you are a tour pro who can stop the ball on a 1p piece). For pure golf, perfect golf, please do yourself a favour and go and play this course. You will NOT regret it. Guaranteed.